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The lesson of the Iraq War? Never shut down debate when fighting terrorism

The Chilcot Inquiry report into the United Kingdom's participation in the Iraq War is damning, but it cannot be said to hold any startling revelations. Its findings have long been outstripped by current events, and by the decades-old revelation that Saddam Hussein, Iraq's former leader, did not in fact possess weapons of mass destruction, the main pretense for going to war.

At best, the report reinforces what we already know: that the case for the 2003 allied invasion of Iraq was deficient and rushed; that the legal basis for the war was shaky; that the military planning for the war and its aftermath was poor; and that the intervention came nowhere near meeting its goals of bringing democracy to the Middle East and curbing terrorism. The report's criticisms are aimed at the British government of the day, under Tony Blair, but they apply equally to former U.S. president George W. Bush.

What the report does, however, is to remind us of a critical truth: "that all aspects of any intervention need to be calculated, debated and challenged with the utmost rigour."

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Remember that, after the devastating 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, president Bush bluntly announced that governments around the world were either with the U.S. or "with the terrorists." He declared a global "war on terror" and dubbed Iran, Iraq and North Korea an "axis of evil" that was out to destroy America.

President Bush's unilateralism made it difficult for his allies to have rational discussions about the merits of invading Iraq, a country that did not have a direct connection with the 9/11 attacks. Debate about, and rigorous examination of, the merits of the war were taken by the American administration to be weakness at best and support for terrorism at worst. Anti-war protesters were derided as enemies of freedom and common sense.

Canada and France are among the countries that resisted those labels and came to their own conclusions not to take part. Mr. Blair, on the other hand, did what it took to limit debate in the U.K. in order to achieve the foregone but ill-fated outcome that British soldiers would stand beside American ones in Iraq.

He was wrong to do so. Democracies must not let the job of fighting terrorism undermine their values. The Iraq War has contributed to a world that is arguably even more dangerous than it was in 2001. The fact that there were no WMDs in Mr. Hussein's arsenal has weakened the public's faith in government.

Reason and debate, not fear and posturing, are the proper responses to terrorism. That has to be the lesson of the Iraq War if we are to have any hope of not making the same mistakes again.

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