Will the Chilcot Enquiry expose the truth about how and why we went to war in Iraq? There are reasons to be pessimistic. The members of the enquiry team are all establishment insiders. Some are bright and likeable people but they have all spent a lifetime, not making waves. It is unlikely that they will start now. We have to remember how the enquiry was set up. Gordon Brown wanted it to sit in secret, and it was the public row that forced a change to mostly public hearings. But no-one can be required to appear or to give evidence under oath. Barristers are not being used to cross examine witnesses. Given that most people think they were told lies about the reasons for the war, it is particularly unfortunate that nothing can be done if the lying continues.
The spirit in which the enquiry was established was that lessons should be learned rather than anyone held accountable. On top of this, it was last week revealed that Gordon Brown has agreed with Sir John Chilcot, that Whitehall can control the information that is to be released to the public.
Everyone agrees that real national security should be protected and a man like Sir John would hardly be inclined to endanger it. But it is worrying that the reasons for secrecy include, causing harm or damage to the public interest, including international relations. Given that the whole reason for Blair’s decisions was to please President Bush and to further, the so-called special relationship, there is a real danger that documents that might embarrass the United States of America will be kept from public view.
So, it would be unwise for anyone to expect any very radical results from the enquiry. Those who still feel angry and think that Blair and Bush are war criminals that should be sent to the International Court in The Hague are definitely going to be disappointed. But even as an effort to establish the truth, the way the enquiry has been established lacks teeth. It is illuminating to compare the way Chilcot will work with the public enquiries that have been established to look into allegations of mistreatment of Iraqis by British soldiers. The soldiers face a public enquiry, under oath with lawyers cross-examining. The politicians who caused the death of hundreds of thousands will not even face an enquiry which seeks to apportion blame, but merely an attempt to learn lessons.
But with all these reservations, the Chilcot enquiry does matter. I have had my letter asking me to provide dates in January or early February. I presume other politicians will appear around the same time. My old department has made arrangements for those who are called to give evidence to go back and look at papers and documents that were produced at the time. In a strange way, I look forward to both events. I am not standing at the next election and am pleased that before I go, I will be able to put forward my evidence on how the Iraq war decisions were taken.
There is nothing more serious a government can do than to decide to risk and take life, to cause the expenditure of vast sums of money and the widespread destruction in war. I am not a pacifist. Sometimes war is the least worst option. I believe that this was so in the case of Kosovo. But in the case of Iraq, there was no proper consideration of all possible options. Tony Blair gave a secret commitment to President Bush to accompany him to war and then bent and twisted the government system to ensure that this was done.
The way the decision was taken meant policy was not properly considered and preparations were not properly made. The result is that many people are dead and maimed, the Middle East is even more unstable and Britain’s reputation in the world is much diminished.
My conclusion is that Blair lied to his Cabinet, party and Parliament in order to get us to war, but he believed throughout that he was doing the right thing. Tony Blair is enormously persuasive and charming, but he has not read much history and he is not very wise. Quite apart from the tragedy that the war has brought to so many people, it has also surely demonstrated that our constitutional arrangements are unsafe. Power is now so concentrated in the office of the Prime Minister that he has the authority of a President without the accountability that Presidential systems contain.
It is unforgivable that the Cabinet committee that is supposed to meet to consider all foreign policy crises, was never convened. And thus, the senior officials, politicians, military and security services, never met together to consider the options and to agree on objectives. The Attorney General, who was a friend a Tony’s, appointed to the House of Lords by Tony, and made a Minister by Tony, gave a legal opinion that there was serious doubt about the legality of war. But it was not circulated and he was leaned on to come up with a last minute statement saying there was absolutely no doubt that there was legal authority for war. The military ‘lessons learned’ documents that have been leaked recently show that Blair’s manipulations meant that the preparations for war were inadequate and also that the US did not treat the British military as equals or keep them properly informed.
The preparations that were made for the humanitarian effort after the fighting were ripped up a few weeks before war began and responsibility transferred from the US State Department to the Pentagon. Detailed planning was thrown away because Rumsfeld did not trust the State Department. And because he was convinced that the US would be greeted by cheering crowds, no proper preparations were made and therefore there was chaos.
The Chilcot Enquiry may well disappoint, but it must surely conclude that there was grave dishonesty and this led to poor preparation. I hope they will also conclude that the British political system is now unsafe and needs change. I doubt that they will say that we should ask ourselves whether Britain’s role in the world is to follow the US wherever it leads, no matter how much we humiliate ourselves. But let us hope that the enquiry does at least establish the truth so that we might try to learn the lessons.