Having scored a palpable hit by dragging Alastair Campbell before it this afternoon, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee should take care not to lose the plot. The issues it is supposed to be investigating are rather more important even than Mr Campbell - hard as it is for some people in the Westminster village to wrap their heads round the idea that such an issue can exist.
That doesn't mean at all that Downing Street's director of communications shouldn't be given a grilling today. You could hardly listen to Jack Straw leaving Mr Campbell and his operation hanging out to dry yesterday for what the Foreign Secretary himself called a "complete Horlicks" of a now infamous Iraq dossier in February without being sure that he should.
Or that the committee hasn't fulfilled a useful service by being perhaps the first group of parliamentarians to succeed where many others have tried and scratched below the surface of how a big spin operation can work. Mr Straw's frank admission that even the much more respectable September document went through an "iterative process" of redrafting as ministers and officials sought to make the "best case" out of the evidence at its disposal is instructive. You got, as the hearing continued, a glimpse of a government tirelessly straining every sinew, to make its chosen casus belli stick with its own public.
But the committee would do well to ensure that its understandable fascination with dossier-making doesn't eclipse the actual object of its enquiry: the Decision to Go to War in Iraq. It would do well to heed the advice of Robin Cook, its most interesting hostile witness to date, who told the committee that he found the "dodgy dossier" of February an "immense red herring", except in so far as it produced nothing to show that Saddam Hussein could deliver an unconventional weapons capability. Indeed, as Mr Cook also pointed out, even the September dossier when read with a "sceptical eye... does not actually produce evidence that there is a weaponised capability for a WMD capable of long-range delivery".
Certainly, the evidence was overcooked at times. But equally important was the fact that, even by its own lights, that evidence didn't itself and alone justify the view that war was, in Mr Cook's words, a "dire necessity". And that leads to an inescapable, if familiar, conclusion - that it was neither the best, nor the true, reason for taking part in a war that had already been broadly agreed with George Bush. (Except in the negative sense that Tony Blair had extracted some form of commitment from the President that if Saddam suddenly climbed down and offered 100 per cent, unequivocal co-operation to the UN's weapons inspectors, war would not happen.)
There has been a similarly growing debate in the US, of course, where the administration was franker than the UK about the objective of regime change and more cavalier still about the nature of the threat - for example in making the spurious link between al-Qa'ida and Saddam. In a recent New York Times column, Tom Friedman suggested there was a real reason for the war - showing who was boss after 11 September; a right reason - regime change; a moral reason - dealing with the heinous crimes inflicted by Saddam on his own people; and a wrong reason - dealing with the so-called threat from weapons of mass destruction. As in the US, so in Britain. Part of the trouble lay in the belief that only the last reason could justify the war in law and public opinion.
Unless the committee can tease some of this out, it will be ignoring what matters for the future as well as for the past. There's an irony here. For the consequence is that by taking the Government on its own terms, the success of the war will be judged on whether weapons of mass destruction are found, when that isn't so at all. Whether evidence of weapons of mass destruction is found, it won't, by a very, very long chalk, be the end of the story.
It's an irony that the only palpably lethal mass destruction material to have emerged since the war has been uranium derivatives that, until the fall of the regime, had been closely guarded by Iraqi guards co-operating with the International Atomic Energy Agency. These were subsequently looted from the Tuwaitha nuclear complex, and reports yesterday suggested they had caused acute and possibly widespread health problems. The Americans say they secured the site on 7 April. Yet the looting was still going on in the former nuclear storage site outside the main complex a month later, to the certain knowledge of the sparse detachment of US troops in the area.
This is only worth mentioning because it's just one paradigm of the problems of post-war Iraq. Another, perhaps is the killing of British soldiers yesterday in Amara, a reminder that the war is not yet fully over even in the south-eastern sector of the country under UK control, widely regarded as the most secure in the country. But above all, the success of the war needs to be judged on the extent to which security, democracy and prosperity can be brought, as promised, to the country in the wake of Saddam's fall.
The real question, to which the British body politic needs shortly to turn its attention, is why the Allies didn't have a better plan for what happened after what was, after all, a signal military victory. Why they didn't even think they would have to pay hundreds of thousands of public servants in the first few weeks to keep the country running; why President Bush didn't think security would be a problem; and why Tony Blair was either unwilling or unable to persuade him that a more effective UN presence was needed, not to run the country but to lend some credibility to the developing political and humanitarian process.
The US administration appears to have thought that once the regime was "decapitated", the country would run smoothly despite its dire impoverishment, imposed by Saddam and compounded by the war, and despite being awash with weapons of a rather more conventional kind than those under discussion at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
Most Iraqis are heartily glad to see the back of Saddam, and even grateful that the US got rid of him. Most Iraqis have been baffled, frustrated and angry that the "most powerful force on earth" - as its generals kept proclaiming the US was during the war - didn't know how to run the peace and press home the huge regional advantage its military victory had given it. Or produce more tangible steps towards the real democracy that it promised. Those problems may yet be solved. But whether they are will matter in the end more, even, than whether weapons of mass destruction are discovered.
The select committee is right to hold its inquiry. It's right that Mr Campbell should appear today. But it needs to produce a report that touches on the real, as well as the ostensible, reasons for the war. And to ask when the best of them, as well as the worst, are going to be fulfilled.Reuse content