Rory Stewart: To move on from Iraq war we must look hard at ourselves

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IT seems to me that the challenge in relation to the Chilcot inquiry is our inability in Britain to come to terms with failure.

At present, Iraq is sitting like some rotting corpse in a cupboard, the nature of which we do not quite understand. We can see the consequences of that in the problems of British foreign and defence policy in the last 13 years.

Britain is currently in a very paralysed state. There is a deep insecurity, and an anxiety. We are not pulling enough weight in Nato, and we are not pulling enough weight in the United Nations. We are failing to commit ourselves to spending two per cent of our GDP on defence, which is symptomatic of our inability to come of terms with Putin or Ukraine.

Iraq has become, for us, a kind of Vietnam. One of our problems with the debate, and, perhaps, with the Chilcot inquiry, has been that the understanding of what went wrong in Iraq is still too limited. We are still understandably obsessed with the legality of the war, and also with the issue of post-war planning. In Afghanistan we went into a war that was legal, in those terms, and in which,at least in Helmand, a great deal of planning took place; yet the results there were also a mess.

In other words, the problem of Iraq cannot simply be reduced to legality and post-war planning.The deeper problem in Iraq, with which I think we all struggle to deal, is a problem with ourselves.

It is the problem of who Britain is, and what Britain does in the world.

One way of expressing it is that we are failing to come to terms with our limits – the limits 
of our knowledge, the limits of our capacity, and the limits of 
our legitimacy.

The lessons of Iraq must be, among other things, lessons of seriousness. We are not serious, as a country. What Chilcot needs to focus on, above all, is our lack of seriousness on the ground – one problem with the Chilcot inquiry is that it did not spend enough time taking evidence from people who had operated in civilian roles in provincial areas – and that will involve our criticising ourselves in ways that we do not like to criticise ourselves.

It will involve us, as a country, getting beyond our anxieties – and this is a very difficult thing 
to say – about soldiers dying 
in vain.

A soldier’s life cannot be held relative to the decisions of politicians. A soldier’s courage, 
a soldier’s sacrifice, is a commitment to his or 
her country.

The danger of reducing every mistake that this country has made – from the Boer War to the Afghan war of 1842 to our recent debacle in Iraq – to the question of a soldier’s life is that it stifles debate. No one can stand up and criticise what we did for fear that someone might say that soldiers died in vain.

Criticism begins with accepting that we were not serious enough in our commitment to Iraq. American soldiers did 13-month tours; why did we only do six-month tours? American civilians took leave once every six months; British diplomats took leave every six weeks, for two weeks.

We remained highly isolated in compounds, under security restrictions which made it very difficult for us to engage with the local population.

There was a serious failure to reach out to people who understood Iraq and the area. There was a lack of seriousness and commitment on the ground.

There was also an obsession with abstraction and jargon. We stood up and talked about “the rule of law”, “governance”, “civil society” and “human rights”. We had absolutely no idea how to relate that kind of jargon to the reality on the ground in Iraq.

In fact, what we were doing, again and again, was using words that looked like a plan, but were simply a description of what we did not have.

Every time we said that what we needed to bring to Iraq were “governance, the rule of law and security”, we were simply saying that Iraq was corrupt, unjust and violent.

Every time we said that we needed to create transparent, predictable, accountable financial processes, we were simply saying what we did 
not have.

On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the conclusion that Britain should draw from Iraq is not one of isolation.

It should not be that we should be doing nothing; it should instead be that we need to recover our confidence as a country – recover the confidence that we are the fifth-largest economy in the world, that we have unique skills and expertise, that we have an enormous amount to contribute to the world – and that what we should take from the Chilcot inquiry is not despair or paralysis, but a need to recover our compassion, our common sense and our confidence.

Rory Stewart is a Tory MP and chairman of Parliament’s defence select committee. He served in Iraq as a diplomat and this is an edited version of his Commons speech on the Chilcot report.

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