The invasion of Iraq was a decade ago – and the public is still waiting to find out what really happened in the run-up
Tony Blair writes in A Journey: “The chronology of events leading up to March 2003 was marked by the steady build-up to conflict.” From now on, in the approach to the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq on 19 March, virtually every week will recall some important moment in that process – and in Blair’s personal transformation into a war leader.
Around this time, in 2003, the British were still agitating for a second UN resolution. Blair was briefed by the MOD on the proposed US operation, Shock and Awe. He told the cabinet to get behind him: “Sometimes we have to make difficult judgments.”
But on 14 February, Hans Blix was suggesting that Saddam was cooperating with weapons inspections. “TB showed no signs of changing tack though,” Alastair Campbell wrote in his diary. On the day of the anti-war march, 15 February, Campbell records an 18-mile run, “at just over 7mph”. “I bumped into no end of people coming back from the march,” he adds, “faces full of self-righteousness.”
Ten days before the invasion, political opposition was such that, according to Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, Bush called Blair with a proposal. “If it would help, Bush said, he would let Blair drop out of the coalition and they would find some other way for Britain to participate.
“‘I said I’m with you. I mean it,’ Blair replied.”
Did he dismiss the offer so easily? A week before telling the Commons, in his version of St Crispin’s Day, that to go back would “put at hazard all that we hold dearest”? It’s easy to believe. In A Journey, Blair phrases his solemn commitment to US interests in appropriately high style. “I reflected and felt the weight of an alliance and its history, not oppressively but insistently, a call to duty, a call to act, a call to be at their side, not distant from it, when they felt imperilled.”
To Bush’s more informal invitation to withdraw he reportedly signed off: “I appreciate that. It’s good of you to say that. But I’m there to the very end.”
Over, for the truth or otherwise of this and many other distressing stories, to the Iraq inquiry, which was announced in June 2009 to explore, Sir John Chilcot said: “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.” Any chance of clearing up a few things in time for the anniversary reviews, disputes and apologias?
“The Iraq inquiry,” says its home page, “has concluded its public hearings and is currently analysing the written and oral evidence it has received and drafting its report.” Alas, this task will not be completed in time to shed any light on the competing claims and counter-claims due to reappear during the anniversary re-evaluation of that war, supported by recollections from the leading players who have succeeded, with the minimum of effort, on getting their own versions on record before Sir John’s.
Blair even took the opportunity in his autobiography to rubbish contradictory evidence heard at the inquiry and to discredit the enterprise as a travesty, according his own, narrow definition of its purpose: “An inquiry that was supposed to be about lessons learned, but had inevitably turned into a trial of judgment, and even good faith…”
Blair’s pre-emptive retaliation may save him time during “Maxwellisation”, a process due to begin, Chilcot says, “by the middle of 2013”, whereby any individuals criticised in a draft are invited to respond. The finished inquiry will be submitted “as soon as possible”.
Given Chilcot’s usage of “as soon as possible”, it might be worth putting a note in the diary for, say, summer 2014. Or early 2015, the next election permitting. The report’s first postponement was caused by the 2010 general election. But Chilcot promised delivery “around the end of the year”.
A year passed. Bin Laden was killed. The Olympics happened. Jimmy Savile was exposed. The Savile report was commissioned, then published. What we do know from Chilcot, thus far, is that in the time it has already taken Britain’s answer to Fabius Cunctator, the Roman procrastinator, to investigate the rush to war and its aftermath, Dickens wrote Bleak House and Hard Times and made a start on Little Dorrit.
Even Lord Justice Leveson, who faced comparable problems with unreliable witnesses, vested interests and evasive officials, to say nothing of his own inability to stop talking, was able to complete his report in 17 months, between July 2011and November 2012. It’s unknown whether the rough state of the finished article was the result of haste or of a loathing for the press so intense, on the part of the author, that it precluded even the use of a subeditor.
Anyone who hopes, having struggled with Leveson’s staggeringly turgid and prolix account, that the Iraq inquiry is using the extra time to hone the material into something more accessible to the public is likely to be disappointed. Chilcot promises a report of “more than a million words”, twice as long as War and Peace.
The delay in publication is now attributed to government censors blocking public sight of evidence that has already been read by the inquiry and probably, in some cases, by the readers of Alastair Campbell and Bob Woodward.
As the years go by, Chilcot’s excuses begin to look less like rectitude than the kind of inquirer’s vanity one noticed in Leveson, when he stressed that his work would not, unlike some, be forgotten. There must be confidence in “the integrity of its process”, Chilcot insists, in his latest dog-ate-my-inquiry update, as if what is expected from this particular handful of the great and good, selected for harmlessness and discretion, is not merely an advance on the Hutton whitewash, but a recognisable improvement on Holy Writ. There would now be most merit in publication, with a list of the blocked material, the documents to be added online as and when decency prevails.
To take a wild guess, the only people who want any further delays to Chilcot’s account of this shameful episode are the politicians and sidekicks who supported it. But the inquiry was interested, pace Blair, in the feelings of civilians. Much longer and some relations of the Britons and Iraqis who died for regime change may never know if Chilcot plans to rehearse, for instance, Hutton’s novel line on the misleading dossier of 2002: that any uncalled-for bellicosity was due to the workings of John Scarlett’s unconscious mind.
Even if there were not a pressing public case to answer, there are reputations at stake. Should Chilcot exonerate them there is no reason why Alastair Campbell should not, as threatened, be exhumed to stand for election in 2015, or why Blair should not also revisit Labour politics, with the understanding that his new alliances with JP Morgan Chase, Zurich Financial, Kazakhstan and Louis Vuitton also call on him, not oppressively but insistently, to be at their side.