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The Chilcot Iraq Enquiry – A Very British Whitewash

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The Iraq Enquiry, launched in the UK under Sir John Chilcot at the end of July last year, signalled the first public opportunity to question the actions of those who led Britain into the war in Iraq. The committee of five Privy Counsellors were charged with the task of 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."

In 2003, there was a massive wave of protests against the war in Iraq, with more than two million people rallying in Hyde Park in London, the largest demonstration ever in the UK. The previous September, Tony Blair had produced a document outlining his government's case for war which included the notorious claim that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction that could be readied in 45 minutes.

By February, Blair's Director of Communications and Strategy, Alastair Campbell, had released the so-called "dodgy dossier" to the press, which contained major sections lifted from an article (including typos) published by a student in the Middle East Review of International Affairs.

We now know that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam Hussein did not have links to Al Qaeda, that Blair's claims were, at best, exaggerated and not based on reliable intelligence. The weapons inspectors had failed to find any trace of WMDs.

On 19th July 2003, David Kelly, a government expert in biological warfare, killed himself following his exposure as a source in the Andrew Gilligan story about the dossier having been "sexed up". Kelly had been mauled by a parliamentary select committee, and his reputation had been damaged by the MOD exposure of his name as a likely source.  Despite official denials, there can now be no doubt that the report had been engineered to provide the required message.

The Hutton Enquiry convened to investigate Kelly's death concluded that it was suicide, but a number of medical experts questioned the claim on evidentiary grounds. The report from the enquiry was seen as a whitewash but it prevented any formal autopsy taking place. Despite a challenge from doctors in December of last year, Hutton has ensured that the results of his own autopsy on Kelly will stay secret for 70 years. One wonders why that could possibly be necessary and whose interests such secrecy serves?

All of these shady actions have come to the fore again in the current Chilcot enquiry and this time, the key players are being questioned in public. Recently Blair himself gave a performance worthy of a Hollywood actor, using all the verbal tricks and mannerisms of old, the emotional inflection, the dramatic pauses, the dropping of volume, the impassioned plea, the three-point crescendo, the arm waving and wringing of hands, the insistence and certainty, all to reinforce his evidence as a statement of belief.  Exactly what you would have to do in the absence of a genuine case.

But there were others in the picture as well. One was Claire Short, at the time Secretary of State for International Development. Owing to grave doubts about the case for war, the lack of tangible evidence against Saddam Hussein, and her distrust of the cosy club politics of the cabinet room in which discussion was stifled, she had threatened to resign if the UN did not provide a mandate to go to war. During the Chilcot enquiry, Short has claimed that Blair "conned" her into thinking that there were plans for post-war funding to address the problems in the Middle East, and on that basis she remained in the cabinet whilst her colleague Robin Cook resigned. In the event, when she realised there were no such plans, she too resigned in May 2003.

Robin Cook, a former Foreign Secretary, resigned from his position as Leader of the House of Commons in March 2003 as a protest against the invasion of Iraq. His reasons were that he did not accept the legality of the war without international agreement, and he recognised the mass opposition throughout the country. He explained in newspaper articles how Al Qaeda had originated from the thousands of mujahadeens trained by the CIA to fight against the Russians in Afghanistan. His efforts to expose the political hypocrisy were met with official derision.

But what can we expect from the Enquiry report, due to be published this summer? Most journalists seem to expect it to be a comprehensive whitewash, with, at best, some statements about what was procedurally done wrong. We can expect some official regret about David Kelly's death, some anodyne statement about the misleading dossier and the 45 minute claim, but the Enquiry is not a court of law. No-one will be accused, far less charged for any crimes.

Even if it is demonstrated that going to war was an illegal act in international law, which seems increasingly likely, no-one will face any consequences. The Enquiry is a form of government house-keeping in which the participants can, with official blessing, draw themselves gradually away from the responsibilities of the past. Jack Straw already has subtly distanced himself from Blair, as have a number of others former colleagues and supporters.

Blair in the meantime is making millions off the speaking circuit, comfortably secure and unlikely to face any adverse personal consequences for taking the UK into war. He can afford to smile and ignore demonstrations demanding his indictment for war crimes. And while the present government carries out its cleaning task, those responsible for the continuing war are doubtless grateful of the opportunity to put an official stamp of closure on the past decisions.

It's a peculiarly British way of bundling up embarrassing recent history so that politicians can officially turn away. Few expect any revelations or new details to come from an official enquiry in which all of the participants have a vested interest in the maintenance of respect for the process. Those who opposed the war and continue to do so, can take little comfort from these recent performances.

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About Bob Lloyd

  • Dr D, I’d be surprised if there were any resignations at all. Most likely, they’ll spin it into some pointers for the future, have some committee review the recommendations which almost certainly won’t be implemented – after all, no enquiry will be allowed to tie the politicians’ hands.

    But it does provide a convenient press distraction from the recent news that they are thinking about talks with the Taleban.

  • The most we can realistically expect when the results of the enquiry are published is a few resignations; and possibly not even that, since most of the people who ought to resign have already moved on, or will have by that time.

  • Isn’t the first casualty of any war, the truth?