Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Impressions on Watching the Iraq War Inquiry

John Chilcot's Inquiry is being streamed. It takes a time to become attuned to the ethos of the proceedings, the mannered questions and formal mandarin responses, and to recover the sustained attention levels over long periods cultivated once during academic lectures. And here there are none of the built in resting points, the repeats, the part-summaries of material covered, that a good lecturer provides. Ground is covered remorselessly as the chairman drives on through witnesses to how it came about. He has had the advantage of preparing the advance, we hang in there grimly.

So on the first day much of what is learned is made up of impressions rather than hard information. First, these civil servants are telling the truth. Circumspect, dispassionate, without emphasis, but they recount what happened in response to the commissioners' questions fully.

There was a longstanding, internationally acceptable policy of 'caging' Saddam's regime through sanctions, denial of resources, denial of profit from Iraqi economic activity, particularly oil exports, denial of the worst excesses of internal repression through the imposition of the north and south no-fly zones (which were also very cheap surveillance under guise of human rights support). Two sources authorised these internationally sanctioned actions - a specific United Nations resolution, and a more general conferment of a right to act in defence of oppressed populations under customary international law provisions. But the cage began to loosen: economic and commercial ties reestablished themselves with local neighbours and more distant partners. The Foreign Office tried to toughen the extant policy by more narrowly defining what was to be denied to Iraq but ensuring the denial was made more effective, with the double goal of limiting the rising suffering of the general Iraqi population resulting from sanctions and preventing the erosion of the core sanctions. Standard monitoring of the effectiveness of the carrying out of this policy was performed in a classic Whitehall operation. There was no particular interest in it coming from any part of government until the new US administration came to power.

At once there was a request from the Cabinet Office for more detailed briefing on weapons of mass destruction. No ministerial discussions on the redesigning of the containment policy, no particular interest in the difficulties the policy was encountering in receiving UN and wider international acceptance, just the WMD interest. The impression was of a foreign policy agreed and pursued that was ignored and a wholly other agenda being developed entirely cut off from the Foreign Office.

The chap from Defence gave a different impression. Truthful, certainly, but not so bound-in to the Foreign Office clear, longstanding, internationally backed policy. Particularly when he described how areas outside the no-fly zones came to be attacked in 'self defence'. Attacks which led to France's withdrawal from involvement in the sanctions policing, and to condemnation, not least from Russia. The impression from this witness was of a sense of trying out, a push on the envelope of the agreed caging of Sadam policy.

While the civil servant lawyer made plain that the self-defence was wholly legal under all international conventions, the reality was that the no-fly zones were becoming even less defensible than the overall sanctions, and the Foreign Office's narrower sanctions policy was being thwarted by both Russia who wanted sanctions eased (and France), and the United States who argued that the sanctions were getting nowhere in ousting Saddam (which was not their political intent), indeed were strengthening his hold on the ground and in propaganda terms, and so had another agenda for getting rid of Saddam all together.

The view that the ordinary operation of government in the United Kingdom was profoundly changed by 2000 and that bearers of expertise and responsibility were cut off from policy-making was greatly reinforced today. At least the responsibility is being laid firmly where it belongs, in that inimitable, low key way.


Nick Drew said...

thanks HG

Sackerson said...

Do you think we'll get close to the truth this time?

Will the guilty be properly exposed?

Is Chilcott something other trhan a safe pair of hands?

Is his remit wide enough?

Weekend Yachtsman said...

Interesting stuff, keep it coming if you can.

A snippet from yesterday's Telegraph - article starts by saying "witnesses at the enquiry will be granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for their frank testimony..."

Further down the page we read "Future witnesses to the enquiry...include...Tony Blair."

Well I never. Immunity from prosecution, who'd a thunk it?

hatfield girl said...

Close to the truth of which version of the many versions of events is most accurate. Close to an understanding of how it was done - the invasion of Iraq was such a 'disconnected' undertaking from any UK stream of policy or Labour policy stance. This was a rogue policy in the sense of it being a willed, not necessary, ad hoc response to unexpected circumstances (we're well before 9/11); our governing system doesn't do rogue, it does continuity with well thought out changes to achieve alterations in policies from different political masters. Our civil service isn't just expected to act as operatives carrying out orders, we expect it to provide technical and specialist knowledge input to discontinuous political executives. Here the Executive - I wait to hear if it was only a small part of the Executive - displayed no interest in then current policy and its development or in taking advice on the effects of major policy change.

These witnesses are describing what happened, I thought truthfully, and the questions evinced this important disconnect and alteration in governing behaviour. The differences in attitude to what their job is was very plain between the Foreign Office and Defence, too. Not unnaturally, because they organise action on the ground (and in the air in this case) Defence very clearly has a side and backs it to the hilt, unlike the FO advice givers who want to get every aspect of a policy ornamented with all its options and outcomes.

Guilt won't be pinned on but information about actions pours off the witnesses and the chairman, some of it controlled, much inadvertent.The chairman is steering fiercely, keeps things moving along which is good, provides ample opportunity for the commissioners to intervene, which is good but I wished they would do so with more spontaneity and less by invitation from the chair, but John Chilcot does little summings up where there is drift from one sort of line (though this may be merely his understanding differing from mine) to the point where a commissioner intervenes and gives a different summary. Good inquiries from Roderick Lyne and Usha Prashar who evinced the 'disconnect' in policy formulation.

The remit is enormous to the point of threatening a result made up of generalities, which is why it seems best to respond to the inquiries and the witnesses with something like the response to listening to music not a forensic, fact-checking, proving sort of listening. Musicians can tell us analytically why we are responding in particular ways, but we all respond intuitively to the vast flow of information. Streaming seems a very god word to describe experiencing the inquiry, but I'm not getting much work done; it's actually quite tiring.

"It's not so much like a lecture," Mr HG remarked, "it's more like examining a good dissertation. Goes on for hours while you check specifics and form a view and all at a very high level".