Looking back in anger

the new Iraq war inquiry

Publisshed on The Economist, December 3, 2009.

WHERE Lord Hutton, Lord Butler, the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Foreign Affairs Select Committee have gone, Sir John Chilcot now follows. The fifth inquiry into the Iraq war began under the stewardship of the former civil servant on November 24th. Gordon Brown agreed to it in the summer, finally giving in to those who accused the earlier efforts of excessive secrecy, narrow terms of reference and generosity to the war’s main protagonists—especially Tony Blair, Mr Brown’s predecessor as prime minister … 

… Neither is it clear that the inquiry will discover much that is genuinely new. Its early sessions have seen the retelling of old stories, with added colour. Sir Christopher Meyer, the ambassador to Washington from 1997 to 2003, could only speculate about whether a meeting with President Bush in 2002 saw Mr Blair’s longstanding hawkishness on Iraq become a commitment to invade “signed in blood”. American planning for the aftermath of toppling Saddam was “dire”, according to Edward Chaplin, once ambassador to Amman. And Sir Jeremy Greenstock, a former ambassador to the UN, said he believed the invasion was legal but of “questionable legitimacy”. Testimony next year from Mr Blair and others who were senior ministers at the time of the war may not be much more revelatory, though it could clarify Mr Brown’s role in the run-up to the war.

The inquiry is expected to take a break during the general-election campaign in the spring, and is unlikely to report until late 2010. This upsets the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. They would like an interim report before the election. But they overrate the political gains to be made. The Tories originally backed the war and have looked opportunistic in distancing themselves from it since then; the less focus there is on Iraq, the better for them. The Lib Dems collected an electoral dividend for their anti-war position at the previous election, but Iraq bothers voters less than it did in 2005. The deadly mission in Afghanistan—where more British troops were committed by Mr Brown this week—has ensured that much. (full text).

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