The Chilcot Inquiry into the lessons to be drawn from Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War (or invasion, to be more accurate), gripped the nation for a while there. It actually appeared as if there was a good faith effort to determine how Britain ended up going to war with a country that had not attacked it, based on, well, what, exactly? Daily testimony to a group of apparent wise men (and one woman) drew strong attention, even television ratings, especially when that old poseur Tony Blair gave his excruciating and self-justifying testimony. So for a while there it looked as if there might actually be some answers to some issues that had long remained obscure—especially the behavior of Blair and some of his ministers prior to the invasion, particularly whether the military had been advised in sufficient time to actually prepare for one (apparently not.) This was a hot topic.
But that was two years ago, and in the interim there hasn’t been much. The whole issue seems to have faded away, with the occasional press story about “Whatever happened to…” popping up here and there. The Inquiry released a progress report this past month, the first since July 2013. Not much has occurred in the meantime, actually. But the little press release the Inquiry released actually speaks volumes. Because here we see the extent to which the British political establishment is willing to go to avoid disclosure of embarrassing information:
Since June this year the Inquiry has submitted ten requests covering some 200 Cabinet-level discussions, 25 Notes from Mr Blair to President Bush and more than 130 records of conversations between either Mr Blair or Mr Brown and President Bush. The Inquiry Secretariat has responded to a number of Cabinet Office questions on those requests, but the Government and the Inquiry have not reached a final position on the disclosure of these more difficult categories of document.
All of this lends some credence to reports earlier this year that the commission was being stuffed, and that information was being suppressed. Lord David Owen, grand old man and former Foreign Secretary, asked specifically whether Blair and Cameron were subverting the Chilcot Inquiry. Comments from the lefty Guardian and the righty Telegraph, in the form of an excellent column by Peter Oborne, more or less posed the same question. (Oborne’s sensible comments, unusual for him, did not prevent others from making points that were complete nonsense, of course.)
All of this is leaving a number of observers with the distinct impression that the Inquiry will go nowhere because no one will let it get anywhere. And we learn recently that there may be something to this. In fact, not only is the British government attempting to stymie the commission in its work—the American government is as well. In fact, it may be American pressure that is preventing various British government departments from responding. As The Independent pointed out,
Without permission from the US government, David Cameron faces the politically embarrassing situation of having to block evidence, on Washington’s orders, from being included in the report of an expensive and lengthy British inquiry.
I know that you are as shocked and surprised at this development as I am. Especially since, as The Independent noted, “The protected documents relating to the Bush-Blair exchanges are said to provide crucial evidence for already-written passages that are highly critical of the covert way in which Mr Blair committed British troops to the US-led invasion.” Quelle surprise! So the block on publication of the exchanges between Bush and Blair is solely not to embarrass either one of them. It’s all about the “special relationship.” The specific issue at question is whether, as is alleged, Blair gave Bush assurances about British government support well before a formal action was declared.
The more general issue is whether, as certainly appears to be the case anecdotally, Parliament was lied to by a Prime Minister. Anthony Eden was forced to resign in disgrace over exactly this point when he lied to Parliament about the Suez invasion, and got caught. This is even worse, in some respects—we now know, or more precisely, think we know—that Blair not only lied to Parliament, he lied to a number of his own Cabinet Ministers—not only concerning Lord Goldsmith’s legal advice that the war was illegal (before Goldsmith changed his mind), but lots of other material as well. Look, I’m not naive—I work at in an investment bank. I know that there’s always, in any institution, a certain amount of duplicity, much of it to reduce friction so that the organization can function. But this is a whole order of magnitude apart—we’re talking about outright fabrications presented by leaders of their respective governments to drum up support for a (probably illegal) military action which has turned into the worst foreign policy disaster since Viet-Nam (which Harold Wilson had the good sense to keep British troops out of.)
I suppose expecting Obama to actually do something about this is too much to ask. But why would anyone outside of the leadership of the Labour or Conservative parties still things there is any value in preserving the “special relationship” is a bit baffling, frankly. About the only thing the Liberal Democrats is good for these days is reminding people of their unswerving opposition to the war. But that’s not enough to sway a government they’re a part of. Cameron, on the other hand, is savvy enough to know that if there’s going to be a breach of it, it’s not going to be him.
But, really, what is he concerned about? There are two extremely cynical views on Chilcot. First, it’s a stitch-up. Well, actually, it seems pretty clear that it’s not, but may end up that way simply because Cameron and Blair, and Obama implicitly) will make it so. Owen’s theory that Cameron is protecting Blair in exchange for Blair support in the next general election isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. The second is that it was Gordon Brown’s revenge on Blair—the Inqury was created in the first place to lay the responsibility for the whole clusterfuck on Blair’s ambition. This isn’t as unlikely as it might seem, either. Ultimately, if the commission fails, however, it will because of Cameron’s deference to the US.
You would think that the political leadership of the UK would have learned a lesson or two from all of this. That’s the point of the Chilcot Inquiry in the first place, actually—“ We will therefore be considering the UK’s involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned.” The fact that no one in the political leadership of Britain appears eager to learn anything is unfortuante. There’s still hope for a decent result here, partly because Chilcot was on the earlier (and ultimately ineffectual) Butler Committee, which was lied to by Blair outright. And Chilcot knows it.
For regular, if depressing updates, the excellent Iraq Inquiry Digest is particularly useful. And Press TV, the English language media entity controlled by the government of Iran, has, predictably, been having a field day will all of this, sometimes earlier than any UK or US media. Sigh.
The above stamp was issued by the United States in 2000 to “commemorate” the “first Iraq war.” Can’t wait to see what the next one looks like.