The Iraq war inquiry began last week in a strange atmosphere of high civility, verbal trickery and obfuscation yet already its revelations are damning
What have we learnt so far, then, locked inside a small room in the blandly hideous Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in London, where the chairman of the Iraq inquiry, Sir John Chilcot, has, with exquisite politeness and even deference, been interviewing the highborn civil service mandarins who assisted the government in its decision to invade Iraq?
They wander inside each morning at about 10 o’clock and sit themselves down facing the panel. In his short opening address, Chilcot expresses a wish that they will be open and candid, and sign a transcript at the end to this effect.
They are not always open and candid, though; some of them, so far, have been closed and downright obfuscatory on certain matters, employing all those linguistic tricks and sleights of semantics that made Yes Minister such a pleasure to watch. But we have still learnt plenty, along the way, since the inquiry opened on Tuesday.
First, the government knew all along that there was no evidence whatsoever to suggest Saddam Hussein had any links with Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden or international Islamic terrorism in general, contrary to what was said in America — particularly by Dick Cheney, the vice-president — at the time.
Second, as a perceived threat to the West, Iraq came a long way behind Libya, Iran and North Korea, according to intelligence reports. The government knew in 2002 from these reports that Saddam’s nuclear programme had been destroyed a decade previously and that Iraq had been “effectively disarmed” by sanctions and the threat of military pressure.
Third, while the US and Britain insisted that Iraq posed a “clear and present” threat to its neighbours, none of those neighbours was audibly desirous of an invasion of the country, and most were audibly opposed.
Fourth, the government included details in its infamous “dodgy dossier” of September 2002 that implied Iraq might be pursuing a nuclear programme when it had not the slightest evidence for this, simply an absence of evidence to the contrary. Which is not quite the same thing, is it?
Fifth, the foreword to the dodgy dossier, written by the prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, was an exercise in hyperbole and scaremongering from which the mandarins arraigned in the QE2 centre could not distance themselves more quickly if they tried. In particular, Blair’s assertion that Saddam had “beyond doubt” continued to manufacture chemical and biological weapons was a statement that was “impossible to make”, according to not only Chilcot but two of his interviewees. In other words — to use an appropriate iconic phrase — the document had been sexed up.
Sixth, an intelligence report in March 2003, shortly before the invasion, suggested Saddam had no chemical weapons whatsoever; they were all long since disassembled and useless. This report was taken by the government to imply confirmation that Iraq actually had chemical weapons, even if they were unusable, and the invasion proceeded.
Seventh, Britain was set on course for an illegal war against Iraq when the prime minister signed up to the notion of “regime change” after an agreeable private meeting with George W Bush in the middle of 2002, despite insisting all along to the public and the House of Commons that war could be averted. It is clear from the evidence so far that Britain was signed up to war at an early stage and (unlike America) merely wished for the military action to be sanctioned by the United Nations.
Eighth, Saddam’s perceived threat to the West was predicated entirely upon his behaviour towards neighbouring countries a decade or so earlier, and ignored the extent to which he was constrained by both sanctions and a no-fly zone.
Now, I think that’s not a bad haul of newish information from less than a week of gentle and almost genteel crossexamination. It may merely confirm what we already knew or suspected, but it is nice to have it on the record.
There’s other stuff too, of course, to pique the interest; the inquiry panel also wished to know if Jack Straw was too thick to understand the intelligence reports he was receiving, and two former mandarins — Sir William Ehrman and Tim Dowse — believed he did understand them, and later signed their names at the bottom of a transcript of their testimonies to this effect.
In a way, it is remarkable that so much has quietly emerged, given the tenor and tone of the inquiry and the sorts of people being interviewed and, indeed, doing the interviewing. This whole procedure is a little like a very upper-class version of the Channel 4 series Come Dine with Me, with charming, learned and polite knighted people asking the gentlest of questions of charming, learned and polite knighted people, before breaking for lunch.
Ehrman, for example, is our current ambassador to China and back in 2002 was the director of international security at the Foreign Office. He makes Sir Humphrey from Yes Minister appear a model of candour and directness.
Here he is talking about the “threat” from Saddam: “There was also the fact that he was supporting terrorist groups, Palestinian terror groups, and although we never found any evidence linking him closely to Al-Qaeda and we did not believe he was behind, in any way, the 9/11 bombings, he had given support to Palestinian terrorist groups . . .”
Translation: “Yes, it’s a thin straw I’m clutching at here.”
And: “We never assessed it [Iraq] as an imminent threat and that was never stated. What we said was that there was a clear and present threat. But we never said there is an imminent threat.”
Translation: it is untranslatable. How can something be any more “imminent” than “present”?
Then there’s Dowse, who was formerly the head of counter-proliferation at the Foreign Office, talking about the dodgy dossier: “It is good that when one puts one’s assessment in the public domain, it is always preferable for them to be based on accurate information.”
Translation: “I suppose, looking back, it would have been better if that dossier we released to the world had contained even the slenderest element of truth.”
And: “We had not concluded that the aluminium tubes were definitely not for a nuclear purpose.”
Translation: “We knew Iraq’s nuclear programme had been utterly destroyed years ago, and we knew there was not the slightest evidence that the aluminium tubes we found lying around in the desert had any nuclear-related purpose. But hell, who cares, the public don’t know that, so we put it in the dossier anyway.”
Sir Jeremy Greenstock, our former man at the United Nations, suggested that he had threatened to resign if Britain succumbed to American pressure to attack Iraq without a UN resolution. But did anyone back home understand him?
He recalled: “I decided to say that if it happened to become UK policy to go along with abandoning the UN route and go to the use of force without a further resolution, that I would have personal difficulties about that. Maybe I thought that I should be clear about that. Maybe I thought that that was a stiffener for London on what I thought should happen. But I thought it was a clarifying thing to say that there were limits in what I as a permanent representative could do in New York in terms of what was going on.”
Maybe he should stop saying maybe.
The mandarins’ interrogators are themselves mandarins par excellence. Sitting alongside Chilcot are a former ambassador to Russia called Sir Roderic Lyne, the eminent historians Sir Martin Gilbert and Sir Lawrence Freedman, and a lady called Baroness Prashar, who does not say very much but just sits there looking sage and concerned and sometimes bored.
It will give you a flavour of the whole thing if I tell you that the sharpest questions from the panel last week, those with the vague and distant whiff of controversy, came from Freedman — who was a policy adviser to Blair, which makes you wonder if he is an entirely disinterested party.
Chilcot, who also served on the previous Butler inquiry into Iraq, has already decreed that this inquiry will not be a court of law and that its job is not to apportion blame, nor does blame seem to be implied in any of the questions. Chilcot even prefaced one question to Ehrman with the observation that it was a “parenthetical question” that he really didn’t need to answer if he was not of the mind to do so. This is an unusual tactic for someone whose job it is to elicit straight answers, I reckon.
On Thursday morning, Sir Christopher Meyer, the former ambassador to Washington, grew so bored of the delicacy of the questioning that he began, instead, to ask questions of himself, having first cleared with Chilcot that it was constitutionally right and proper of him to do such a thing. Meyer’s questions to himself were more penetrating than any of the questions asked by the panel, which sat there nodding appreciatively.
Meyer — a classy, colourful and candid act among the monochrome and weaselly mandarins — identified the early date at which Blair first started to talk about regime change for Iraq. This apparently followed a convivial supper discussion with Bush, to which Meyer was not privy.It is difficult to believe that from this moment henceforth, Britain was not committed to an invasion of Iraq, no matter how often Straw told the parliamentary Labour party — and, of course, the general public — that war could be averted. The only question that remained was whether or not the United Nations would sanction an invasion; and in the end, even that did not matter to Britain. You wonder how much any of this matters any more. By the second day of evidence at the QE2 centre, the members of the public wishing to observe the inquiry had dwindled to precisely six, and the media room was looking a bit thinner too.
Even back in 2005, when it became patently clear that the government had misled parliament and the public over Iraq, and soldiers and civilians were dying by the hour in Basra, only the chattering class and a few of the broadsheet newspapers cared terribly much, to judge from both the opinion polls and Labour’s general election triumph.
Now, it would seem, even the chattering classes have grown a little bored of it all, given that there are MPs’ expenses to rail about, and the banks, and of course Afghanistan. But you would hope the distance of time might loosen tongues a little and that the full extent of the government’s chicanery, long assumed but unproven, might be quietly revealed over the next couple of months, half by accident, through these polite interlocutors.
The Iraq inquiry seems to be an exercise in exquisite emollience and obfuscation, while the manifest contradictions in the various testimonies are never touched upon.
For example, both Sir William Ehrman and Tim Dowse addressed the question of Saddam Hussein’s missing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) such as stockpiles of chemical warheads.
WMD, if you exclude nuclear weapons, has long been a most misleading term. Chemical and biological weapons, terrifying and vile though they are, tend to kill far fewer people than the expensive conventional weapons deployed by the rich western states.
It is simply a term used to punish countries we do not like and in Iraq’s case it was broadened to encompass your humdrum, everyday ballistic missiles — a redefinition that renders the term effectively meaningless but was crucial in linking Saddam to WMD, as Ehrman and Dowse made clear.
They argued that a country such as Iraq, with a well developed petrochemical industry, was easily able to create chemical weapons in a very short space of time and had little need to stockpile them.
So Saddam had no chemical stockpiles. But he did have plenty of ballistic missiles which would be needed to deliver the chemical devices (that he didn’t have).
Iraq had ballistic missiles and the means to create chemical weapons. Ergo, Iraq had WMD: fabulous reasoning.
Ehrman and Dowse admitted that Iraq was not in the first league of states to be terribly worried about, because it was not developing a mature nuclear programme, nor did it have close links with international Islamic terrorism.
However, they later argued that Iraq was “unique” because Saddam was a nutter and had previously behaved aggressively towards neighbouring states.
The fact that his aggression had occurred more than 10 years beforehand, when he had invaded Kuwait, and had subsequently been easily contained through sanctions, no-fly zones and suchlike, was not dwelt upon for too long.
Full article and photo: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/iraq/article6936078.ece