We badly need to learn from the most important foreign policy decision of the last decade. This tissue won't help us
June 15, 2009
Gordon Brown's announcement of a secret inquiry into the runup to and conduct of Britain's invasion and occupation of Iraq (not the nouns he used, of course) is scandalous.
First, the manner of his decision. Just last week the prime minister committed himself to a new spirit of public accountability, cross-party consultation on electoral and parliamentary reform, as well as a greater and more independent role for backbenchers and select committees. Now he promptly goes against all that when it comes to looking into the most important foreign policy decision of the last decade.
Does he seriously imagine he can dictate its mandate and procedure on his own? At the very least, he should have discussed these issues with the leaders of the other parties first. Better still, he should allow a day's debate in parliament on it. It is not too late to do so, provided he makes clear he is ready to listen to MPs and adjust his decision.
Second, there is Brown's rejection of a public inquiry. This runs full square against the mood of the times. How can crucial issues of past public policy be investigated in private? The inquiry is not looking into future policy, or even current policy. It is examining history. Had Brown or his cabinet secretary consulted Lords Butler and Hutton, chairmen of the last two inquiries into aspects of the Iraq war, he would almost certainly find that they too believe any new inquiry should take public evidence on all points except a small number where intelligence could be compromised.
Brown cites the Franks inquiry into the runup to the Falkands war as the right precedent but the security and diplomatic framework in 1983 was different. The British victory in the South Atlantic did not end the dispute with Argentina over the sovereignty of the Falklands. The prewar advice of officials to ministers and the content of discussions in Whitehall were still sensitive after the war, and to have revealed details might have damaged Britain's position.
In Iraq, similar considerations do not apply. Saddam is gone, and there is no harm in revealing what arguments there were for or against overthrowing his regime, and whether a postwar occupation should be short or long.
There are complex choices to make. In broad terms, one kind of inquiry – and what many families of fallen British troops want – would seek to settle accounts by naming all those who took the key decisions, both officials as well as ministers. Another type of inquiry would be aimed at lesson-learning.
What were the mechanics of the Whitehall process which prevented ministers from being given well-founded advice on what an invasion would be likely to lead to? Was it the fault of Foreign Office Arabists and intelligence analysts who did not foresee resistance and failed to offer ministers a range of options for the post-invasion period – including the proposal that power should be handed to Iraqis as quickly as possible once Saddam was ousted? Was it the fault of ministers for not asking the right questions and not calling for expert analysis of the scenarios regime change would probably bring?
Ministers rightly assumed an invasion would topple the regime quickly, given the massive superiority of US and British weaponry. Did they not pause to think that winning the peace would be a much harder task, given that al-Qaida would seek to exploit the arrival of foreign troops and that no country likes being occupied, especially if its people are Arabs and the occupiers are non-Muslim westerners with a long, bitterly contested history of intervention? Was there no analysis of the effects on Britain's domestic security as well as its reputation in the Middle East and beyond?
My own view is that an account-settling inquiry is not the best route to follow. It would probably discourage witnesses from being candid or providing documentation. It would give an essentially punitive air to proceedings and lead at best to buck-passing between officials and ministers, and at worst to a media-stimulated search for heads to roll. The wider issue is to ensure that Britain enters no such "war of choice" again. For that to happen, it is better to concentrate on understanding how and why the government made a judgment that most British people consider to have been flawed.
There is a compromise. A proper inquiry would deal with the legal and as well as the policy advice given to cabinet. That would cover the legality of the invasion – a question previous inquiries have not examined. If the inquiry concluded that legal advice was weak or flawed, this could open the door for families to take civil court proceedings.
The key issue is that the inquiry must be held in public. No doubt Brown is afraid that hearings on the Iraq war could damage Labour's chances in the runup to a general election. Labour's chances are slim at best but exposure of the government's decision-making before and after the Iraq war is not going to swing many votes. What might swing more votes to Labour would be evidence that the government is thinking about learning lessons for the future and inviting the public into the discussion. That would show real respect for democracy.