Wednesday, December 09, 2009

A very British inquiry: a chat in a Whitehall club.

I found myself screaming at the TV last night as I listened to the utter bollocks John Scarlett had to say to the Chilcot inquiry.

I am pleased this morning that Simon Jenkins appears to have shared my frustration.

This may be merely a prologue to the star turn, Blair, who is not due until next year. But Scarlett was the star's apprentice, and the place was for once packed and expectant.

When pressed on being told to "firm up" the intelligence of weapons of mass destruction in 2002, Scarlett was left to declare blandly that that is what he did. When asked if there was any coercion from America, he said no.

When asked if perhaps the September dossier, and its 45-minutes warning, was confusing, he said probably. When asked if he might have disapproved of Blair's "without doubt" interpretation of it, he said maybe.

I never thought I would cry "send for a lawyer" but the inquiry desperately lacks a skilled cross-examiner, someone who at least knows the word supplementary. The inquiry's two historians, Sir Martin Gilbert and Sir Laurence Freedman, appear to be researching their next book. Lady Prashar is interested only in "clearing things up". The diplomat Sir Roderic Lyne occasionally leaps to inquisitorial life, but not when faced by the head of MI6. This was like a private conversation in a Whitehall club.

Scarlett should have been nailed. More than anyone else, he was the person who put together the case for the invasion, and he did so at the bequest of Blair and Campbell.

To watch him sit before the inquiry spouting this nonsense unchallenged gives me grave doubts as to what the outcome of this process will be.

Before Scarlett took to the stage, we were reminded that the Foreign Office wanted nothing to do with any invasion.
The inquiry so far has been dominated by two themes, the chaos of the American occupation of Baghdad, and the zeal of the Foreign Office to drive a stake through Blair's heart at the nearest crossroads, for destroying Britain's reputation in the diplomats' beloved Middle East. Rarely can Whitehall's finest have turned so savagely on a recent boss. The FCO's chief, Sir Peter Ricketts, was blunt: "We quite clearly distanced ourselves from talk about regime change," which Blair had mooted as early as 1998. His colleague, Sir William Patey, said that when Bush came to power, "we heard the drumbeats from Washington … and our policy was to stay away from that part of the spectrum. It had no basis in law." The illegality of the invasion is a leitmotif, yielding Chilcot's one inadvertent scoop, a leak of a letter submitted by the then attorney-general, Lord Goldsmith, to Blair in 2002. This declared that the invasion had "no legal basis for military action … as things stand you obviously cannot do it." When Blair ignored the letter and banned Goldsmith from cabinet, the attorney general reportedly threatened to resign and famously lost three stone in weight. Just two weeks before the invasion, Goldsmith was still warning the cabinet, as well as the chief of the defence staff, Admiral Lord Boyce, that British soldiers could be "arraigned before the international criminal court" if they went to war. This led Boyce to demand "unequivocal advice" that the war was legal. Goldsmith duly changed his mind. The then lord chancellor, Lord Falconer, has publicly dismissed the spin put on the letter as "totally false". Since he and Goldsmith cannot both be right, their cross-examination in the new year should be the next test of Chilcot's muscle. They should be forced to appear together.
We are beginning also to get a very clear picture of the Bush administrations lack of concern for world opinion, and how they literally didn't give two hoots what the world thought of what they were proposing.
Blair's lack of influence in Washington is becoming ever more stark. Only the possibility that he might lose a Commons vote on going to war seems to have moved Bush to attempt another UN resolution. As the aid department's Sir Suma Chakrabarti said yesterday, he and his colleague could not believe America's lack of concern for the UN, indeed for world opinion, believing that "rationality would break out at some stage". It did not. The Americans did not care what their allies did or did not do.
I am still of the opinion that a case was made for war and that Blair and his team cared less about whether the case they were making was true than whether they were able to join Bush in this disastrous enterprise.

And Blair's very keenness appears to have weakened British influence on the Americans, although I admit that nothing would have held back the Bush administration from invading.
Blair's eagerness seems to have cost Britain all leverage. Meyer was forced by Lyne to confront the central question, whether Blair could have avoided going to Iraq without damage to British interests. Meyer's answer was yes. Bush even phoned Blair to suggest he could "sit out the war", while the Pentagon's Donald Rumsfeld was happy to go in alone. But Blair wanted too much to be there. So far, said Meyer, "we had underestimated the leverage at our disposal". Now it evaporated.
Blair is not coming out of this well, but how could he? He was so keen to remain close to Bush that he would have done anything to be considered a world player.

But there are some of us who want this inquiry to go deeper, to question whether or not this war was even legal. I won't be holding my breath for that to happen.

The purpose of this inquiry remains obscure. Its tales are familiar to those who have followed the war, and such interest as exists comes largely from hearing the old tales from the horses' mouths. Sir John Chilcot treats witnesses like a therapist with a nervous patient. The absence, at least so far, of any Iraqis, Americans, foreigners of any sort or even British politicians has become glaring. If this is to be a first rough draft of history, it is so far a highly partial one.

Chilcot emphatically rejects being cast as a court, let alone a foretaste of a Nuremburg trial. It is a far cry from the scrutiny of America's Capitol Hill or the milder forensic thrust of a Hutton or a Butler. This appears as a very British inquest, an intrusion into the private grief, or perhaps the self-styled triumph, of one man, Tony Blair.

But who knows? Perhaps still waters yet run deep.

Perhaps... But Scarlett should never have been allowed to portray the "45 minutes from attack" warning as "confusing".
"The matter would not have been lost in translation, if it had been spelt out in the dossier that the word was ‘munitions' not ‘weapons'," Sir John said. "There was absolutely no conscious intention to manipulate the language or obfuscate or create a misunderstanding as to what they might refer to."
Campbell predicted that the "45 minutes from attack" warning would dominate the press coverage. So this wasn't confusion, this was the very message that Blair's government wanted the press to focus on. Chilcot should have extracted that confession from Scarlett.

And Scarlett was allowed utterly off the hook as to why he did not correct Blair's statement that there was proof "beyond doubt" that Saddam had WMD.
However, he distanced himself from Mr Blair's foreword to the document, published in September 2002, which claimed that intelligence information meant that it was "beyond doubt" that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Though Sir John admitted he had seen the foreword, and even made several alterations to it, he concluded that it was "quite separate" from the contents of the dossier. "The foreword was an overtly political statement by the Prime Minister so it was his wording and his comments throughout," he said.
He signed off on this document, even though he is now admitting that Blair's claim - which he signed off on - was false. He appears to be saying that he allowed that lie to stand because it was part of "an overtly political statement". He really should have been nailed on that.

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