A Very British Deceit

sands_1-093010.jpg
Nick Danzinger/Contact Press Images
George W. Bush and Tony Blair after a joint press conference in the early days of the Iraq war, April 8, 2003

A year ago British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced a long-awaited inquiry into Britain’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq war, to coincide with the departure of British troops from the country. The Iraq inquiry would be chaired by a retired senior civil servant, Sir John Chilcot—a “safe pair of hands,” the Guardian called him—and would work behind closed doors under arrangements designed to minimize public disclosure of the underlying documents, many of which were classified as “Secret.” Sir John has summarized the inquiry’s mandate as 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.”

At its launch on July 30, 2009, expectations of the inquiry were—to put it generously—low. The carefully chosen composition of the five-member panel did not lead to a quickening of public interest. One member, the historian Sir Martin Gilbert, had previously suggested that Tony Blair and George W. Bush might eventually bear comparison with Winston Churchill and FDR. Another, the academic Sir Lawrence Freedman, contributed to the preparation of the 1999 Chicago speech in which Tony Blair first expressed the emotional and ahistorical interventionist instincts that later led directly to the Iraq debacle. None of the five has any legal background or qualification, as the examination of witnesses—think Gilbert and Sullivan rather than Old Bailey—has shown. The only member to demonstrate forensic ability is Sir Roderic Lyne, a retired diplomat. Most of the key witnesses, particularly the lawyers, politicians, and diplomats, have been adept at swatting away trouble- some questions. More significantly, the inquiry has been undermined by its inability to refer publicly to documents that it has seen and that contradict or undermine witness testimony. It did not seem that its final report, not expected before the end of the year, would be revelatory or forceful.

Nevertheless, public and media interest and political pressures have combined to force greater openness than Brown intended. Many—but not all—of the hearings have been public and broadcast on TV and the Internet, and for some appearances—Blair’s and Brown’s in particular—there has been widespread media attention. In recent weeks a growing number of classified documents have been made public by the inquiry, including a damning one-page minute dated January 30, 2003, from Attorney General Lord Peter Goldsmith to Tony Blair. Ending with the words “I have not copied this minute further,” the document is revelatory of the prime minister’s modus operandi, of the tragic weakness of his attorney general, and of the extent to which the British Parliament, Cabinet, and people were misled by these two men. The document, reproduced here on page 56, includes brief, handwritten reactions that are particularly telling. Nothing beats …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.