Trouble at the FCO

Jonathan Steele

‘Despite explicit warnings,’ Chilcot said, introducing his report, ‘the consequences of the invasion were underestimated.’ A good deal of the blame for this has to be laid at the door of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Chilcot listed four possible consequences that many people had identified before the war was launched: the risk of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability, and increased al-Qaida activity. Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, did warn the government that al-Qaida would win new recruits, in Britain as well as the Middle East, if the invasion went ahead. The other three predictions were discussed by academic experts, but seem barely to have registered on the Whitehall radar. The Foreign Office never produced a reliable forecast of the likely aftermath of the war, and it failed to predict the religious and sectarian tensions that came to bedevil post-Saddam politics.

The Whitehall papers and internal memos disclosed by Chilcot contain a rag-bag of vague and sometimes contradictory assessments. A long paper called ‘Scenarios for the Future of Iraq after Saddam’, prepared by the FCO’s Directorate for Strategy and Innovation in September 2002, predicted that the ‘situation will almost certainly be messy and unstable’. It correctly stated that if Saddam fell ‘tribal, regional and religious differences would probably come to the fore’ but then, despite the fact that Shias make up 60 per cent of the Iraqi population, it assessed that Sunnis would keep hold of the political leadership. Edward Chaplin, the FCO’s director for the Middle East, told the inquiry that the FCO’s information on Iraq was ‘patchy’ because the UK had had no embassy in Baghdad since the Gulf War; diplomats from the UK embassy in Amman made occasional short trips to Baghdad, but that was as far as it went. In January 2002, a junior official returned from Baghdad and reported that Iraqi Christians were worried about what would happen if the regime fell, but then concluded: ‘Concerns about an Arab or Islamic backlash against a large Western presence seem unfounded.’

The nearest the FCO ever got to foreseeing that there would be armed resistance to a US/UK occupation was a paper prepared by the Directorate of Strategy and Innovation in March 2002: ‘We should also,’ it warned, ‘expect considerable anti-Western sentiment among a populace that has experienced ten years of sanctions.’ In evidence given to Chilcot in December 2009 senior FCO officials did say, with the benefit of hindsight, and with condescending sarcasm, that they never shared the US neocons’ ‘touching faith’ that most Iraqis would treat the invasion as a liberation. But they certainly didn’t anticipate large numbers of Iraqis taking up arms against the occupiers.

Why were the Foreign Office’s prewar assessments so poor? One reason is that much of its officials’ energy was spent on winning international support for a series of UN resolutions. Another is that, since the US was doing most of the planning for the invasion, Britain’s input was increasingly marginal, especially when in the later stages the Pentagon took over from the State Department, the FCO’s main interlocutor. British officials recommended that there should be no dismantling of Iraq’s governmental and security structures and had not expected that the US would disband the Iraqi army and dismiss administrators who had been senior members of the Baath Party.

But none of this excuses the failure to issue warnings. Western forces were about to invade and destabilise a major Arab country: there would clearly be consequences. Before the Chilcot Report was published I interviewed Sir John Holmes, who in 2002 and 2003 was Britain’s ambassador in France. He told me there was ‘a lot of unease’ in the FCO about an invasion. ‘For example,’ he said, ‘I wrote privately from Paris to the permanent under-secretary saying I was very worried about the diplomatic fall-out in Europe and the Middle East. Others were no doubt doing similar things. However, although I’m sure there were serious discussions in London about the wisdom of it all, I’m not aware of any direct or organised challenge to the basis of policy.’ He argued that when it comes to military interventions, things sometimes move too fast to assess possible consequences. This was the case with the Libyan intervention. But with Iraq there had been plenty of time. ‘We didn’t do proper planning,’ he said. ‘We didn’t listen to the experts. That’s obvious.’

Christopher Prentice, who headed the FCO’s Near East Department in 2002 before becoming ambassador in Jordan, explained the institutional nature of the problem. ‘We were set the policy,’ he said, ‘and had to deliver it. In Amman I was not involved in anything other than engaging Jordanians in getting their support and explaining our policy. We were not putting up warning flags from the field. I operated on the assumption that planning was being taken care of by London and Washington.’ Although he was head of the Near East department, he ‘wasn’t privy to any debate or written papers which challenged the basis of policy. If there was a challenge, it was done on a very narrow basis and not copied widely.’

Another former British ambassador, who wished not to be named, told me what should have happened: ‘In circumstances like those of early March 2003, one would have expected the permanent under-secretary to send the secretary of state a formal note warning him of the risks of going to war, pointing up the doubtful legal base, the uncertainties about the intelligence, and the danger of dismantling Saddam’s Iraq by force without a credible plan for putting it back together again.’ His diagnosis of what went wrong was blunt: ‘Civil servants are by their nature cautious. There is collective self-discipline and people wanting an easy life and becoming morally and intellectually lazy, so they just do what the minister wants.’

Now, of course, that minister is Boris Johnson, a man who has written of the ‘watermelon smiles’ of Congolese ‘tribal chiefs’ and the ‘piccaninnies’ of the Commonwealth. That such a careless clown can be put in charge is almost a punishment for the Foreign Office, the latest stumble in a long descent. Now Britain’s most urgent international relations issue, the work of negotiating Brexit, will be done by a separate government department. The FCO – once an intellectual powerhouse and the brainiest ministry in Whitehall – will be definitively reduced under Johnson to flag-waving, showmanship and trade promotion. It’s where it has been heading since well before the war in Iraq.