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Chilcot: what a waste of time

Written by: on February 2, 2010

The Chilcot inquiry was swamped by the media circus last week as Tony Blair took centre stage to give evidence. Regardless of Blair’s thespian and rhetoric-laden defence of the war, his snappy sound-bites should not be the main story. Rather, the major faults of the inquiry process and the man under its spotlight should be the main issue.

How can it be right that the government chooses the inquiry’s remit, as well as the committee’s members? It’s analogous for an alleged criminal to choose the charge they are facing, as well as their judge, jury and when the trial takes place. Of course this is not a criminal court, but the point stands; the government has carefully chosen who delivers the verdict and what they are allowed to pass judgement on. There must be others involved, such as Parliament, in the process of establishing an inquiry.

The Chilcot enquiry claimed to be a tour d’horizon, covering the decision to go to war, whether troops were properly prepared, the conflict itself and post-war planning. This comes after the narrow remit of the Hutton inquiry, which focused on the death of Dr David Kelly, and the Butler inquiry, which focused on the use of intelligence for WMD. Although the Chilcot inquiry is broader, it does not scrutinise how the political system and the politicians within it allowed the country to go to war. It will not seek to “apportion blame”, Gordon Brown said, but will aim to identify “lessons learned”. The stream of investigations vitiates the whole inquiry process.

Just as worryingly, the government chose the panel, which boasts four knights and a baroness. The chair of the inquiry, Sir John Chilcot, is a survivor from the Butler Report whitewash, which was so partial that a joke spread that ‘when you call the Butler, you get what you ordered’. Another member of the team, Sir Lawrence Freedman, publicly supported the invasion, saying “the USA and Britain will emerge from this conflict hardened in their power and ready to exercise far greater influence over not only the development of Iraq but also the wider Middle East”.

Furthermore, he wrote Blair’s seminal foreign policy speech, the ‘Doctrine of the International Community’ in 1999. This speech identified Saddam Hussein as one of two major threats, along with Slobodan Miloševic and placed Freedman at the heart of Blair’s cadre.

Another knight, Martin Gilbert, is also a historian and – you guessed it -a public supporter of the war. He has written almost thirty books about Winston Churchill, but for some reason argued in 2004 that George W. Bush and Tony Blair “may well, with the passage of time and the opening of the archives, join the ranks of Roosevelt and Churchill.” David Cameron correctly described the inquiry as an “establishment stitch-up”, undermining the whole process of investigating the establishment. Obviously some balance of perspectives, as well as expertise, is needed on the panel, but to have such insiders is self-defeating.

In terms of the man at the centre of the media storm, Blair claimed he was going to Iraq both to remove the threat of WMD and for humanitarian reasons.WMD have been conclusively disproved, and as he told the hard-hitting Fern Britton, even had there been no WMD “I would still have thought it right to remove him”. But he, and future British leaders have to realise that you cannot just go in, remove a leader you dislike and hope that a thriving democracy will sprout from the rubble.

Blair wasn’t the poodle of the popular media. As his (and Freedman’s) Doctrine of the International Community showed, he believed in humanitarian intervention, and in particular removing Saddam, long before Bush and 9/11 intervened. But his account now selectively focuses on parts of this ideology. Yes, he removed a tyrannical dictator. But despite declaring prior to invasion that “the people of Iraq will be the main beneficiaries”, the post-war reality seemed to have left them as the main victims. According to the Iraq Body Count, there have been over 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths officially documented. The reconstruction process was a shambles; the police force and army was disbanded, leaving over half a million highly skilled fighters unemployed. Unsurprisingly, many of them joined the counterinsurgency.

Following his Faustian bargain with Bush, Blair garnered some influence. But he played his hand terribly, misreading German and French politics to waste the majority of his chips chasing a gaggle of wild geese through the UN. Not only did this damage Britain’s international standing, but it has more worryingly damaged international harmony in general whilst simultaneously undermining the UN.

Gordon Brown’s plans to use the Chilcot inquiry to improve Labour’s moribund electoral chances seem to have come awry. Initially, he had to backtrack embarrassingly to make the inquiry public rather than private. It also looks like he will have to give evidence before the election. Then last week his best laid plans came unstuck as the saturated media coverage of Blair’s entrance into proceedings overshadowed news of improvements in the economy. The Chilcot inquiry is not only a waste of everybody’s time and taxpayers’ money, but also of Labour’s precious political capital. In the broader perspective, an inquiry specifically about the legality of the war would be far more useful. This wouldn’t be to get Blair and Bush locked up by The Hague, but to undermine the dangerous precedent of Britain going to war without the backing of the UN, NATO or the EU.

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