Bishop of London responds to the Chilcot Report on the invasion of Iraq

“There is no doubt that someone who dwells on history can be somewhat tedious, but at the same time someone with a sense of destiny and no sense of history can be very dangerous.”- Bishop of London, 12/7/16

On 12th July 2016 the House of Lords debated a Government motion “That this House takes note of the Report of the Iraq Inquiry”. The Bishop of London, Rt Rev and Rt Hon Richard Chartres, spoke in the debate:

Bp London 131015The Lord Bishop of London: My Lords, it is humbling to follow such a powerful and authoritative voice. I am also grateful to the Minister for the constructive way he introduced this debate and invited us to think about the lessons we can apply now. Sir John Chilcot recommends more thorough analysis before military action and a more collaborative approach to policy-making. I imagine that every one of your Lordships would probably agree that the case is well made, but politicians caught up in oppressive events, a rapidly changing situation and a 24/7 news environment, and with an ally who is losing patience, do not have much time for pondering decisions. Therefore—this echoes many of the remarks of the previous noble Lord—the culture and assumptions that leaders bring to the crisis are hugely significant.

9/11 was a great shock to the West’s confidence. It was very well expressed in Francis Fukuyama’s influential 1992 book, The End of History. The thesis, as your Lordships will remember, is that with the advent of liberal democracy and market economics, the human project had reached its consummation. There were still places in the world awaiting enlightenment but the contours of the future were already clear. This world view fuelled impatience with the kind of historical analysis we heard about from the previous speaker. It fuelled impatience with the history that many thought had come to an end, and it fuelled a confident sense of destiny.

There is no doubt that someone who dwells on history can be somewhat tedious, but at the same time someone with a sense of destiny and no sense of history can be very dangerous. With a faith in the future, religion, in particular in this crisis, was regarded as largely irrelevant and often reduced by western commentators simply to a surrogate for something else—usually economic distress—and it was not analysed with any precision or profundity. There was, and I dare say is, a lack of awareness of the religious dynamics of other regions of the world and this has led to repeated misreadings of events.

As a former co-chair of the Islam and the West symposium established by the World Economic Forum, I know from colleagues in the region of their astonishment at the one-dimensional approach to the Arab spring and the repeated use in news broadcasts in the early days of the Syrian tragedy of the phrase, “Pro-democracy demonstrators”, while ignoring and oversimplifying the complex cultural and religious dynamics. These misreadings obscured, for example, the fact that Saddam Hussein’s regime, utterly odious in so many ways, was actually hostile to Islamism. The JIC, according to Chilcot, correctly reported in November 2001 that practical co-operation between Iraq and al-Qaeda was “unlikely”. Later, in February 2003, the JIC assessment was that the serious al-Qaeda threat,

“would be heightened by military action against Iraq”.

There was confusion between the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and the Islamist threat, but also a huge confidence, as has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, that our intervention would be welcomed. It was reported to me at the time that a senior American official, challenged about the lack of planning for the aftermath of the war, said, “Once we zap the bad guys, there will be cheering all the way to the ballot box”. It was that kind of confidence that led the Pentagon to set aside the plans the State Department had made for post-conflict reconstruction. One of the report’s most sobering conclusions is that the post-war difficulties were predicted at the time—this was not hindsight—but our military involvement did not enable us to exercise influence on decisions such as the dismantling of the entire Baathist state apparatus.

What are some of the lessons? The tectonic plates of the world are shifting. Unchallengeable western hegemony is passing and a new multipolar world, in which we still have a crucial role, is emerging. It will still be necessary, as previous speakers have said, to be prepared to project our power in conjunction with NATO allies. At the same time, there needs to be less hubris and a greater awareness of different world views, with which we should be in dialogue.

Our work in Iraq is not finished. The Government have acknowledged this through substantial humanitarian support in recent years, but the bulk of humanitarian operations in Iraq have focused on meeting needs in camps in the relatively secure Iraqi Kurdistan area. There are also thousands of displaced persons, many of them from minorities such as the Christians and the Yazidis, who do not feel safe in the camps and who are sheltering in schools, building sites and rented accommodation. Government assistance for organisations working among these neglected and vulnerable people is urgent. The diocese of London, for example, has been working with a Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need. It has an extensive local ecumenical and interfaith network and is in touch with some of the most vulnerable people outside the camps. As we consider where we go from here, I hope it might be possible, as part of our recognition of partial responsibility for the post-war state of Iraq, to channel our aid through such grass-roots bodies, as well as through the UN agencies.


Baroness Northover (LD) [frontbench]: …Chilcot speaks of the development of widespread sectarian conflict, the victory of terrorist groups, the collapse of the democratic process, the division of Iraq and the damage to the UK’s political and military reputation. Looking at the situation now, like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London I point to the—at least—10 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Iraq itself is hosting 250,000 refugees from Syria.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Lord Bridges of Headley) (Con): …My brief experience of government has taught me that while the processes and ethos of government—the committees, minutes, impartial advice, collective responsibility, all these things—may not set the pulse racing, they are the rock on which good governance rests, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Butler. These processes are more important than ever in our 24/7 world, to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London referred. Politicians, whatever their party, must maintain this critical hidden wiring of our constitution. …As for our support in Iraq today, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London asked about support for charities on the ground. The UK is funding local Iraqi NGOs via the Iraq Humanitarian Pooled Fund to support those in need, including refugees from Fallujah. Through the CSSF we are contributing £6 million to help the Iraqi Government to stabilise areas liberated from Daesh…

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