Simon Carr: Clarity can be fatal, just ask Jack

Lawrence Freedman talked over the witness more than once, and Roderick Lyne actually got something close to a concession
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The Independent Online

At the first recall of a witness, we got a glimpse of Chilcot's committee exerting itself. It was like watching nice girls fighting, in that slappy way they have. There was some hair-pulling. Lawrence Freedman talked over the witness more than once, and Roderick Lyne actually got something close to a concession.

Yes, Jack Straw was determined to say that HMG had been close to getting their necessary nine votes in the Security Council for that famous second resolution. Count them up: he had the US and UK, two right there in the bag. They also had two European countries, four. He was almost certain, he was sure, he was pretty sure they would have got the three African countries, seven. The difficulty was Mexico and Chile and if they could stop them "looking over each other's shoulders" they'd have nine. Nine! A consensus!

Rod Lyne kept saying, with something that started to look like asperity, "But you didn't have nine votes in the bag, did you?" No, but look at the arithmetic, four plus three plus two was nine and that was the majority they were going for, and they were incredibly close to –

"But you didn't have nine votes. You had four."

How Jack could describe four votes as "nearly a consensus" didn't surprise anyone in the press room. The live transcript was on the blink, flashing purple every second or so. "Do you think that's a lie detector?" one of us said. But the truth is they don't have to lie when they can make language do their bidding. Consider Resolution 1441 that meant one thing for our lot and another thing for the other lot. It had been negotiated like that in order to allow both sides of the Security Council to claim victory. Clarity would have been fatal.

You hardly know where to put naïve words like "integrity" or "honesty" – they seem mere irritants in the process. And 1441 was a document written in English. In translation, meanings multiply. "I know there is disagreement on the meaning of ' se prononcer'," one of them said. The typist rendered it as "se proknobser", offering us another level of ambiguity. Only when President Chirac said the proposed resolution wouldn't pass "whatever the circumstances" – was there blinding clarity: it was all the fault of the French.

And Tony Blair was moved to invent a new doctrine. If countries were going to wield "an unreasonable veto", no one need take any notice of it. To his credit, Jack Straw repudiated that yesterday. It's not the first time he's contradicted Blair. He said the bombing of Iran was "inconceivable" and lost his job as a result. Clarity, as I say. Fatal.