Here we go again. John Chilcot’s official Iraq inquiry, which was established in 2009 and has yet to report, has already lasted longer than the first world war and slightly less long so far than the second world war, and continues to generate more heat than light.
The latest kerfuffle is a stand-off over many months about the release of documents relating to conversations between prime minister Tony Blair and president George Bush. The current government has stood by established practice that such private notes should not be released as that would undermine future trust and confidentiality. The unilateral release of communications with the American president would create a precedent.
All hell has broken loose, with opponents of the war charging that Blair is protecting his back by refusing to give permission for the release of these documents and, most ironically, a British racist party saying that it is a whitewash.
One angry young man told politicians on a television panel that the public pays them and has every right to see everything. My possibly old-fashioned view is that we do not, because there will be a loss of confidence by British allies in their ability to talk freely without hostile interests gaining an insight into their fears and weaknesses. Transparency has limits if diplomacy is to work.
I know that many who opposed the Iraq war will not rest until Blair is arraigned at the Hague as a war criminal. The search for a smoking gun that will prove that Blair and Bush conspired to go to war on a false prospectus will be permanent. Genuine mistakes and misjudgements can only be seen as lies.
The decision to publish ‘the gist’ of 25 notes and 130 conversations between Blair and Bush and to redact some of the documents will continue to attract the charge of a cover-up. I think we will find, as we have long known from the evidence of contemporary colleagues, that Blair made a general statement of support for the American position on Iraq but that was always subject to British actions being approved by the cabinet and by parliament.
How could it be otherwise given that it was Blair who had long argued that Saddam was a danger and persuaded an initially isolationist Bush administration of the danger of leaving Saddam to his own devices? In any case, such support could have taken various forms from the moral to the military.
Blair is big enough and ugly enough, as an old saying puts it, to defend himself. He has made it very clear that he is not blocking the release of documents and is keen that the Chilcot report is published so he can defend himself.
I say this erupting volcano of criticism is confected because it was made absolutely clear when the inquiry was established by Gordon Brown that the government would give the inquiry unhindered access to its documents and withhold nothing except for confidential matter from third parties from whom they would urgently seek permission to pass them to Chilcot. The inquiry also promised that it would ‘adhere to any commitments or understandings [Her Majesty’s Government] has in place with foreign governments or international bodies in respect of the security and non-disclosure of information originating from that foreign government or international body.’
But why let facts get in the way of a great opportunity to kick Blair and Bush? By all means, let us have a proper discussion about how the policy was made and how it was implemented on the ground in Iraq. What irritates me is how badly it was carried out. I understand that it was never going to be easy, and that Saddam planned a long guerrilla war against any occupier. But it could have been done better and the number of innocent lives lost reduced.
While we are entitled to a probing inquiry and we need to learn the lessons, what sticks most in the craw is that Iraq is only seen as a domestic issue. It’s all about us and not really about them. I would like to think that the publication of the inquiry will lance the boil, and maybe it will for fair-minded people. This is probably hope triumphing over reality: a minority will continue to bang on about Blair whatever the report says.
But publish the damn report, get it out of the way and then focus on helping Iraqis to make the most of the new opportunities they would not have had if Saddam had been left in power.
Gary Kent is director of Labour Friends of Iraq, which seeks to unite those with different views on the Iraq war and in favour of solidarity with Iraqi democrats. He writes in a personal capacity www.labourfriendsofiraq.org.uk
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