Analysis: A weak, but still worthy, Iraq inquiry

Gordon Brown’s political instincts were working well when he attempted to keep the Iraq inquiry private. It took less than half an hour before uncomfortable truths began to emerge.

By Alex Stevenson

The prime minister’s initial proposal was that the entirety of Sir John Chilcot’s work would be carried out behind closed doors. A huge backlash followed, as the public appetite to discover why Britain ended up in Iraq came to the fore. After the very familiar sight of Brown U-turning, it was agreed the inquiry would be held in public wherever possible.

The result, for those prepared to sit through it until the bitter end, is the prospect of a very long journey. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the “mountains” of material the Iraq inquiry will wade through over the coming months. Days and days of evidence sessions lie ahead. But it will be worth it.

Today’s session demonstrated that easily enough. Senior civil servants were answering questions about the British government’s attitude to Iraq in 2001, both before and after the game-changing September 11th terrorist attacks.

“It was Whitehall in classic consensus-building mode, where the departments come with different perspectives and different interests,” Peter Ricketts of the Foreign Office explained of Britain’s 2001 policy review on Iraq. Again, a little later, he referred to “that classic Cabinet Office-led process in Whitehall.”

Britain is haunted by the Iraq war. Memories of the million-strong anti-war protest have left an enduring memory that this was an invasion supported by Tony Blair’s sofa government against the will of many. Britain and America, after all, defied the UN. Any suggestion of “consensus-building” – persuading the hesitant – immediately sparks tensions.

Those on the panel this morning were more prepared to reveal their own views on this issue when talking about the new administration of George Bush. Even eight years later, with all the benefits of hindsight, the assessments of Washington’s intentions towards Iraq were confusing and contradictory.

Early on Sir Peter made his view very clear: that as Condoleezza Rice had written about “regime change” in a pre-election Foreign Affairs article, “that line of thinking was already there”.

Simon Webb, Ministry of Defence policy director, disagreed. “At the start of any administration you will find a variety of different views,” he said. “To say there is a universal view in Washington on day one is probably not quite how it was.”

They later clashed on the extent to which secretary of state Colin Powell had been given a last chance to make the sanctions policy work and, also, how close Britain was to the US point of view.

“Our early exchanges with the [Bush] administration suggested our thinking was very much on the same lines,” Sir Peter said. William Patey, head of the Middle East department in the Foreign Office at the time, was more jumpy. “We wanted to keep away from the regime change end of the spectrum,” he remembered.

While London and Washington were much closer to each other than other western countries – it was an “explicit” aim of the policy review to work out how to persuade others that Saddam constituted a growing threat – disagreements clearly underpinned the ‘special relationship’. Britons want to know how much Britain was bullied into agreeing to military action by Bush and friends. As memories of 2001 go, it’s clear the tensions were already there.

It’s far from clear whether these tensions would have been obvious to the public had today’s session simply been included in the final report. Certainly they wouldn’t have received the same scrutiny we’re seeing today.

There are weaknesses, of course. At one stage inquiry member Roderic Lyne was forced to admit he was ambassador to Moscow at the time. He gave a nervous little laugh, betraying the establishment odour which has frustrated so many. As Sir John Chilcot made clear, the aim is not to be “forensic” in cross-examining those present. Eventually, we were promised, the panel would deliver their judgments. But they would never apportion blame. The inquiry is more of a fireside chit-chat than a roasting.

This only goes to underline the most important point: that the public deserved to be let in to make up their minds for themselves. The final report may not be worth reading but the discussions of those giving evidence will be revealing enough. In the run-up to a general election, Gordon Brown would far rather have seen these discussions take place out of the public glare.