Yes, the Chilcot inquiry’s findings are more critical of Tony Blair than I expected. It is damning of the former Prime Minister because it does not accuse him of lying or deceiving, but of bad judgement.
But one of the reasons why the verdict is surprising is that there was no new information in Sir John’s statement. No doubt there is more to come in the full detail of the report – in the three hours since they first set eyes on it this morning, journalists have had time to digest only the 145-page “executive summary” – although it does appear that any actual revelations will mostly be about the occupation of Iraq after the invasion.
What surprises me is that the report, on the basis of facts that are well known, appears not even to acknowledge that there might be a reasonable case on the other side. Perhaps that will come in the details that no one has yet read.
But the idea that, if more people had been included in meetings or if there had been more meetings, a different decision would have been reached doesn’t seem persuasive to me. The report comes as close as it can to saying that the war was unlawful, but this is after it has accepted that there is no court that can arrive at such a verdict.
The most surprising finding so far is that the intelligence services presented the evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction “with a certainty that was not justified”. Sir John said the Government’s strategy “reflected its confidence in the Joint Intelligence Committee’s assessments”. The report then goes on to criticise Blair and other ministers for failing to subject that intelligence to proper “challenge”.
It says, in effect, that Blair should have said: “This intelligence is pretty terrifying stuff, but I don’t believe it.”
I am not seeking to diminish the disaster of the Iraq War in any way. The whole episode has been very sad, and the consequences of the invasion have been appalling. But the way Sir John has presented his conclusions seems rather one-sided and, despite his claim to the contrary, made with the benefit of many years of hindsight.
The other surprise, to me, was that Sir John’s conclusions dwelt so much on the well-trodden ground of the process by which the UK Government decided to join the American invasion, when the important failures were those of planning and managing the aftermath. I was surprised by how definite the report is on military action not being a “last resort”: that seems like a judgement that can never definitively be made.
The strongest argument against the invasion was that neither the Americans nor the British had any idea about what they were getting themselves into after Saddam was deposed. But I do think the report should have acknowledged how hard it would have been for any British Prime Minister to say to the intelligence services that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, the Americans were going to invade, but he thought nevertheless that Britain should stand aside.
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