The Chilcot inquiry on the U.K.'s involvement in the invasion and occupation of Iraq is as important and politically sensitive as the 9/11 Commission Report was to the United States a decade earlier.
The investigation, originally launched by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2007, was established and billed by the U.K. government as the definitive, exhaustive accounting of how London made decisions prior to the invasion; whether the Tony Blair government provided the British people with the straightforward facts before the bombing began; and the extent to which U.K. ministers prepared for the immediate aftermath of Saddam Hussein's regime.
The inquiry, led by former civil servant John Chilcot, would be the mea culpa for U.K. politicians who supported regime change in Iraq in 2002 and 2003. In an ideal world, those who committed errors would apologize and explain their reasoning, and those who opposed the war would be vindicated in their restraint.
The inquiry's full release runs at an astounding 2.6 million words and is composed of 12 volumes on everything from Britain's assessment of Baghdad's weapons of mass destruction programs to the Blair administration's interacts with President George W. Bush's White House. The executive summary was a whopping 145 pages, which helps explains why the Chilcot inquiry was six years behind schedule and millions of dollars above budget. There were many witnesses to be interviewed, including Tony Blair himself, and there were so many blunders committed by the Blair administration throughout its involvement in Iraq that it was almost difficult to keep track.
But the overarching lesson to be drawn from the inquiry was rightly included in John Chilcot's opening statement: "We have concluded that the U.K. chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort."
It is that simple but poignant statement that encapsulates the core of what went wrong during the entire U.S. and British venture in Iraq.
However horrific a human being Saddam Hussein was and how authoritarian his Baa'thist regime came to be over a span of decades, George W. Bush and Tony Blair's disdain for the dictator was a seemingly more important factor than a vigorous and adversarial policymaking process. Assumptions underlining the intelligence weren't questioned sufficiently, the ambitious objective of nation-building was labeled as a relatively easy thing for Washington and London to pull off, and the Bush and Blair governments avoided challenging the conventional wisdom at the time that the Iraqi people would be capable of magically transplanting democracy into their country after decades of authoritarian rule.
Looking back in time, it's almost embarrassing to recall the optimistic statements that were uttered and op-eds that were written by proponents of the war. The examples are endless: that the invasion could be accomplished with far fewer troops than the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army recommended; that the Iraqi people would greet American and British tanks with flowers and chocolate; that Iraq was so rich that it could pay for the entirety of the post-war reconstruction; and that the violence against coalition troops were just "a few dead-enders" taking out their frustrations rather than a sectarian insurgency. All of this turned out to be wildly off the mark. And all these assumptions, corrected far too late in the conflict, no doubt had a dire impact on the men and women who would be called to overthrow Saddam, provide security to a nation of 26 million Iraqis, and build an Iraqi democracy from the ground up.
The Chilcot inquiry is vital not only for what it says, but for what it does. By prying open a painful episode in British history and scrutinizing the decisions that British politicians made before and during the Iraq war, John Chilcot and his team of investigators do the British people a public service. The report explains in detail why jumping to conclusions without strong pushback can often lead to horrific consequences.
The Chilcot report focuses exclusively on British conduct during the war, but America's next president (whoever that may be) should heed its lessons as well.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a Middle East and foreign policy analyst at Wikistrat, Inc. He is a columnist for the National Interest, Rare Politics, the American Conservative, and the Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter @DanDePetris.Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.