Thursday, 19 February 2015

A British inquiry descends into farce

The Daily Star
Friday, February 13 2015
By Michael Glackin

The long-running, some would say never-ending, government inquiry into why the United Kingdom went to war in Iraq in 2003 officially descended into farce last week.

The man in charge of the inquiry, Sir John Chilcot, faced a parliamentary committee to explain why he has still not published his report into a war that took place more than a decade ago. Chilcot, a former civil servant who heads the five-member committee of inquiry that began its work in 2009, originally expected his $1,200 a day job to last two years at most. However, six years and $14 million later, there is no sign of him publishing even an interim report, or any hint that he might soon have to give up his well remunerated post.

In truth the Chilcot inquiry was always a pointless exercise. The entire country blames former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s bizarre desperation to ingratiate himself with U.S. President George W. Bush for the U.K.’s joining a war that has cast a dark shadow across the entire Middle East.

But few public inquiries in the U.K. achieve anything, and two previous inquiries into the Iraq war were widely seen as exercises in concealing the truth. Based on last week’s 70-minute performance by Chilcot in front of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, his inquiry will be no different.

In a moment that could have come from a Marx Brothers film, the man who had to explain to Parliament why it was taking so long to publish his report, took so long to explain it that he had to be told to stop in order for parliamentarians to ask questions.

Rumor has it Chilcot’s report so far runs to a million words, and, judging by his responses to the committee, it may well be impenetrable. For instance, when he told the committee that he still didn’t know when he would be ready to publish, he said: “The risk of either arousing false hopes or false expectations either way outweighs for me the powerful appetite, for all sorts of often good reasons, to know when the report is likely to become available.”

A joke that’s been doing the rounds for years is that Chilcot is delaying the report until the main players are all dead. Ironically, his first words to the committee informed them that one of the members of his inquiry panel, the historian Sir Martin Gilbert, had indeed died the previous night.

You couldn’t make it up.

Chilcot said the long delay was initially due to “very long and difficult and challenging discussions” with the U.K’s top civil servant over the release of secret government documents. These include the all-important 25 letters Blair sent to Bush, along with the transcripts of 130 telephone calls between the two men, in the run-up to the invasion. The cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, who was also Blair’s principal private secretary at the time of the invasion, refused to declassify the correspondence on national-security grounds.

It’s ironic that a government that insists on the need to pry into millions of its citizens’ private emails and Skype conversations is so reluctant to allow its citizens a reciprocal right. Although a deal struck between Heywood and Chilcot now allows for the release of “selected extracts,” the reality is that the full details of these important public documents will remain secret.

So, even if Chilcot does publish his report before we all die, we are unlikely to learn whether Blair really did write to Bush in July 2002: “You know, George, whatever you decide to do, I’m with you.” The letter, written a year before Parliament voted on whether Britain would join the invasion, was quoted in well-connected political journalist Andrew Rawnsley’s book “The End of the Party,” based on his interviews with David Manning, Blair’s foreign policy adviser at the time, and Sir Christopher Meyer, then the British ambassador to the U.S.

The tussle between Chilcot and the cabinet office over these documents meant the process by which those criticized in the report are given the right to respond before publication, known as “Maxwellization,” did not begin until the end of last year.

This now appears to be the main obstacle to the report’s publication as speculation is rife that Blair, along with the former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, the former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, and senior defense chiefs are attempting to water down criticism of their roles by challenging details and demanding changes.

This covert bartering is an affront to the very principles of democracy and open government that the invasion of Iraq was supposed to uphold. The Maxwellization process defeats the purpose of any inquiry, which must surely be about finding out what happened without fear or favor. Granting key figures in the decision to go to war a right of reply means the Chilcot inquiry is now rightly tainted by the same suspicion of cover-up as the war itself.

The Chilcot Inquiry was always going to be a waste of time and money. The inquiry panel was made up of establishment figures that supported Blair. Chilcot was a key member of an earlier Iraq war investigation, the Butler Inquiry, which exonerated the Blair government of the charge that it had “sexed up” the case for war after the failure to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction – the original raison d’ĂȘtre for attacking Iraq.

The late Sir Martin Gilbert supported the invasion and even claimed Bush and Blair would one day “join the ranks of Roosevelt and Churchill. Another member of the inquiry team, the academic Sir Lawrence Freedman, was a foreign policy adviser to Blair. He is also author of the five tests for military intervention used by Blair in a famous 1999 Chicago speech.

The Iraq war and its chaotic, bloody aftermath cost hundreds of thousands of lives and destabilized the Middle East. It provided fertile ground for the growth of ISIS, poisoned the well of humanitarian intervention, and has destroyed the willingness of the U.K., and indeed the West, to deal with the conflict in Syria. And yet, a decade after the event that unleashed this maelstrom, there has been no proper scrutiny of the decision-making process that led to it. I suspect there never will be.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper The Daily Star. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 13, 2015, on page 7.

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