Learning From the Errors of Iraq

He made honest mistakes.

Photographer: Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images

The long-awaited Chilcot report on Britain's role in the Iraq War, despite its many thousands of pages, isn't going to be the last word on that painful subject. But it ought at least to stifle one main line of criticism of the government then in power -- that Prime Minister Tony Blair and his team lied to the country and acted in bad faith.

For more than a decade, that charge has dominated British discussion of the war. Sir John Chilcot's exhaustive report does not support it.

To be sure, the report is highly critical of Blair, his cabinet and Britain's intelligence agencies. Mistakes were made at every level of planning and preparation. Too much faith was placed in Britain's partnership with the U.S., with its own, sometimes differing aims. Much of the intelligence was wrong. Too little attention was paid to the threat that war would destabilize the region, even though the risk was "explicitly identified" beforehand.

Much of this was well-known already. Even so, a detailed and dispassionate catalog of policy mistakes is valuable and sobering. The report emphasizes that the decision to go to war is always rife with danger and the possibility of unintended consequences -- a point that can't be stated too often.

Nonetheless, the distinction between errors and lies is important. Citizens can't expect their leaders to make no mistakes under pressure of events; they can and should expect them to be honest. The unsupported claim that Blair lied has wrecked his reputation and, more importantly, obscured the real lessons of the conflict -- which are about the mistakes to which any leader might be prone in testing circumstances, and not about bad men doing evil things.

The report says that right up to the start of the allied attack, "Mr. Blair was being advised by the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons, the means to deliver them and the capacity to produce them. He was also told that the evidence pointed to Saddam Hussein's view that the capability was militarily significant and to his determination -- left to his own devices -- to build it up further."

That understanding was accepted by French, German, Russian and other intelligence services. Europe was by no means united on the war, but there was plenty of expert support for the U.S.-British position. It's worth remembering that a broad coalition of countries supported the effort to remove Hussein.

Denied support for the claim that Blair simply lied, critics have seized on the report's account of memos in which he pledges support for the U.S. president. Here's proof, they say, of a blank-check policy that betrayed British interests. This is absurd. The memos offered strong moral support -- rightly, since the U.S.-British alliance is enormously valuable -- but warned that delivering that support was not a forgone conclusion. There was no betrayal.

Blair and George W. Bush made mistakes over Iraq, and with terrible consequences. Those errors of planning, execution and foresight deserve the most careful scrutiny and a full measure of criticism. But the instinct to condemn their actions as undertaken in bad faith is grossly unfair, and adds nothing to the wisdom that must be brought to bear when such fateful choices next have to be made.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.