We will be arguing about Iraq for decades to come and much of the debate will generate more heat than light. So an inquiry is a good idea, especially when those conducting it are so impressive. There has been some clichetic nonsense about establishment cover-ups, but those who talk like that merely demonstrate their political immaturity. I know three members of the Chilcot team. John Chilcot himself, Laurie Freedman and Rod Lyne are all intellectually rigorous. None of them is without intellectual vanity. All will wish to craft a report which is worthy of their reputation. We can expect fine writing and forensic prowess.
There is a further point, which ought to be self-evident. The Iraq war is a hard question. Even if delay would suit the government, a rush to judgement would be in no one's interest. There would be no way to produce a decent report by next May. After all, Mark Saville, the Law Lord, has been considering the events of Bloody Sunday – much less complicated – for more than a decade. That provides us with a comparison.
Those who have urged Sir John to report quickly are not interested in calm deliberations or authoritative conclusions. They merely want prosecution evidence to support a guilty verdict. This explains a lot of the pressure for the inquiry to sit in public. That said, and surprising as it may seem, much of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) is on the prosecutors' side because it is still unhappy about the misuse of its material.
The SIS is used to weighing its product on Troy scales. Its reports are full of qualifications and caveats, especially in the case of Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) documents. Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair ignored the caveats, sexed up the conclusions and transformed the JIC's scrupulous prose into a dodgy dossier. The SIS wants to ensure that the blame for all that is fixed where it belongs. Some of its members would enjoy watching Messrs Blair and Campbell squirm under cross-examination.
That would be good theatre. It might not produce a good report. To arrive at the truth, John Chilcot and his adjutants will need to study the papers, interview the personalities and re-interview them when discrepancies arise. The purpose of this is not to highlight inconsistencies, still less to secure convictions for perjury. In order to understand what happened, the inquiry members have to see the world in 2001-2003 through Tony Blair's eyes.
This does not mean that they have to accept his assessments. After giving an account of his thought processes, they could conclude that the PM was guilty of a succession of ludicrous misjudgements. Although the report is not meant to apportion blame, a statement of the facts could make blame inescapable, especially if it were preceded by a persuasive, even sympathetic, account of the Blair world-view.
For that to be possible, the report cannot confine itself to the UK. Crucial decisions were taken in the closest partnership with the Americans. Condi Rice, then the National Security Adviser, was in daily contact with David Manning, her nearest equivalent in No.10. It would be impossible to understand the UK role without the US dimension. That requires long interviews with President Bush, Secretaries Powell, Rice and Rumsfeld, plus a score of lesser names. The Chilcot report will not be complete unless it contains a chapter entitled: "Mr Blair becomes a neo-conservative".
Apropos of the neo-con question, a number of those who originally supported the Iraq war have subsequently made smoke and removed themselves to another part of the ocean. But those of us who are unrepentant warmongers ought to anticipate Chilcot and admit that mistakes were made. Two stand out. The first was dishonesty, arising partly from an excessive deference to so-called international law. Especially in Britain, policy towards Iraq was founded on a lie, because the Prime Minister could not admit his real – and praiseworthy – motive: regime change.
After 9/11, the Americans asked themselves an agonised question. Why do these people hate us? The neo-cons supplied the answer: because they come from failed states, which deny most of their citizens a decent way of life and thereby act as recruiting stations for fanaticism and violence. The neo-cons also insisted that the road to change ran through Baghdad. Iraq had great traditions, abundant oil and an educated population. The country ought to be free and prosperous. Instead, it was misruled by a brutal dictator, who took every opportunity to undermine Western interests. Saddam must be destroyed.
In previous eras, that would not have been a difficulty. A great power and its allies decide that a certain regime is a blot on the landscape, so it is blotted out. Now there is a problem. Because of politicians' wetness, lawyers are allowed to constrain raison d'etat. In Britain, Tony Blair would have had a problem even without the lawyers. The Labour party would not have worn regime change.
There appeared to be a way out. For years, Saddam had been trying to acquire nuclear weapons. He was in breach of UN resolutions, itself almost a casus belli, even among the lawyers. It seemed hard to believe that all his efforts had been unsuccessful (it also seemed foolish to take the risk). It was a nuisance that the intelligence people could not quite come up with the evidence – but Alastair Campbell came up with the headline. When we over-run Iraq, we will surely find something. Almost everyone on the pro-war side believed that Saddam had weaponry that he was not supposed to have. Whether or not that was a moral justification for war, it would do for the lawyers, and the Labour party.
It then unravelled, but that did not matter. We had won the war. We then came dreadfully close to losing the peace, which is where the idealistic intellectuals came in. The neo-cons had persuaded themselves, plus the President and the Premier, that democracy was an infallible political antibiotic. Give it to the Iraqis, and Operation Enduring Freedom would live up to its name. In view of that, there was no need to worry about the human infrastructure of the old regime. Abolish the army, de-baathise the civil service, turn thousands of Sunnis on to the street: there will not be a problem, because they will all be delighted to have the vote.
Iraq has narrowly survived that disastrous miscalculation. But we should never again take the risk of allowing intellectuals to execute policy unless they have a thorough grounding in realpolitik. Henry Kissinger should be the model. It is to be hoped that John Chilcot and his colleagues will produce a document that the master would approve of, in time for him to read it. As for procedure: let them decide their own.Reuse content