On September 24, 2002, the UK government published a fifty page dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction which was discussed in Parliament on the same day. The British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood before a cramped House of Commons and claimed that the ‘…intelligence picture that [the dossier paints] is one accumulated over the last four years. It is extensive, detailed and authoritative. It concludes that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, that Saddam has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes…’ Tony Blair had penned a foreword to that dossier in which he claimed that he believed the intelligence had ‘established beyond doubt’ that Saddam had continued to produce weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Facing a disbelieving public, the PM went on a public charm offensive by doing a series of TV interviews and shows speaking directly to members of the audience.
Tony Blair eventually secured the votes to take the UK to war alongside the US and other coalition partners. Hundreds of thousands of lives and many more displaced families later, no WMD were found. The obvious failure of the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons capability and that of the UK government’s decision-making process was subjected to numerous public inquiries. Chilcot was the most recent, lasting seven years and running into a 12 volume report. Even the executive summary, from which I have pulled a number of quotes, spans 150 pages. Public inquiries are supposed to provide valuable lessons for future UK governments; nowhere do they say they can’t illuminate the thinking of foreign governments as well. Different country and context no doubt, but I believe Chilcot has something important to say about Turkey’s recent obsession with Fethullah Gulen, the Islamic cleric recently blamed as being behind Turkey’s failed coup. I also believe that we are beyond the considerations of framing caused by inadvertently analogising between one set of actors and another.
Among its many conclusions, Chilcot’s most important finding is that at no point was the ‘basic assumption’ challenged, that is that Iraq had WMD, either by the intelligence or policy community of the UK. It was taken for granted and all else was interpreted on that basis (329, p 45). The large number of intelligence reports about Iraq’s activities were interpreted from the perspective that Iraq’s objectives were to conceal its programmes. Even Iraq’s constant denial was taken as ‘proof’ of duplicity and deceit by the UK (564, p76). In presenting the report to the press, Sir John Chilcot, the head of the inquiry, said ‘[i]t is now clear that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments. They were not challenged, and should have been.’
None of the circumstances between the then-UK and the now-Turkey are comparable. But I believe what Chilcot draws our attention to is something bigger and broader than that, and that is about the process of decision-making. The Turkish government’s decision to demonise and dismantle Fethullah Gulen and the Hizmet movement, respectively, since December 2013 is a political not legal decision, and at that level there are lessons to be learnt. Chilcot argues that the state must put in place measures to systematically challenge the basic assumptions of the executive, however plausible they may appear to be. The question therefore is, can any organ of the Turkish state or government (or even civil society) challenge President Erdogan’s claims that the Gulen movement was behind Turkey’s failed coup without being crushed as coup-supporting ‘crypto Gulenists.’
Furthermore, Chilcot suggests being aware of the need to separate the responsibility for analysis of intelligence from responsibility for making the argument for policy; the need to be scrupulous in discriminating between facts on the one hand and opinion, judgment and belief on the other; and the need for vigilance to avoid unwittingly crossing the line from supposition to certainty, including by constant repetition of received wisdom (840, p131-2).
Let’s pause here a moment and revisit Turkey. Within two hours of the coup unfolding, President Erdogan called into CNN Turk admitting that there was a great deal of confusion and that he was unable to confirm the whereabouts of his chief of staff. (In a later interview he confirmed that he had first heard of the coup from his brother-in-law, not his chief of intelligence service.) Yet despite this confusion, Erdogan was certain from the outset as to who had orchestrated this coup. One could argue that in the heat of the moment, Erdogan served his ready-made-bogeyman to mobilizse mass support rather than bog down the public in nuances and uncertainties. But Erdogan and the government have continued this line of argument since.
Is that not a bit rushed? On what evidence was Erdogan’s first call based? Moreover, does not declaring Gulen as the culprit before the judicial investigation into the coup was launched undermine the main point and purpose of the investigation, that is to determine culpability. Does it not distort the evidence and witness statements yet to be collected. But do you honestly believe that any of these considerations matter to Erdogan? Can you imagine Chilcot being faced with investigating this, or any other political issue in Turkey? Throughout his reign, Erdogan has made many factually-sounding accusations before (group of half naked, half-leather clad men urinating on ‘headscarfed-sister’; Gezi protestors doing all kinds of ungodly stuff in mosque; Gulen hiring US hitman to assassinate his daughter etc.) none of which have been proven despite being promised definitive release dates for video and documentary evidence. That Friday, on which most of the above were promised, never seems to arrive.
The Chilcot report also notes the UK reaction when it failed to locate WMD. It states that ‘…after the invasion, the UK Government, including the intelligence community, was reluctant to admit, and to recognise publicly, the mounting evidence that there had been failings in the UK’s pre‑conflict collection, validation, analysis and presentation of intelligence on Iraq’s WMD’ (574, p77).
If the UK intelligence community were reluctant to admit they got it wrong, how willing do you think their Turkey counterparts would be to do so, especially if they are knowingly using Gulen and Hizmet as a smokescreen. When was the last time you recall a public official resigning in Turkey for making a mistake or out of protest for government wrongdoing. It’s unlikely to happen to say the least. It would simply be covered up as per Roboski and others. The overall point of Chilcot and that of this piece is to advocate for political decision-making processes that allow for the basic assumptions and narratives of the political establishment to be challenged, rigorously and robustly, from within and without of state machinery. Can you do that in Turkey where the judiciary has been colonised, the media monopolised and the opposition nullified; where the atmosphere of fear prevails with torture and rape of detainees as reported by Amnesty.
This is not about defending Gulen, whether you honestly believe in his innocence or otherwise, but about defending against the political decision-making process that force-feeds a particular narrative, without allowing itself to be challenged or for any other alternative view to be effectively aired and tested. When the leader of the main opposition party can’t get airtime on the state TV channel for six years, what chance does anyone else have in raising their head above the parapet? Don’t defend Gulen, defend against the process by which he is being condemned.
This article was originally published in Open Democracy.
Lessons from the UK’s Chilcot Report for Turkey’s post-coup response