So, it appears that it wasn’t Tony Blair, one-time UK prime minister and now full-time object of Labourite disillusion, who was behind the interminable delay to the publication of Sir John Chilcot’s report on the rationale behind the Iraq War. No, the supposed reason for the Chilcot Inquiry taking five years and counting to reveal its findings lies in a spot of Whitehall wrangling over the extent to which private correspondence and conversations between Blair and the then US president, George W Bush, can be published in full.
The problem, it appears, is that the Bush-Blair confabs cannot see the light of public day because it would violate diplomatic protocol. So, to expedite an inquiry that has lasted far longer than it took to invade and devastate Iraq, Chilcot and the cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood, have reached an agreement to publish the ‘gist’ of Blair’s tête-à-têtes with Bush - that’s right, not every whispered sweet nothing between the two, but just the ‘gist’.
The response from many critics of the Iraq War, and from opponents of the Blair’n'Bush era in general, has been predictable. The gist of what Bush and Blair said to each other is not enough, they say; we need the unexpurgated truth, the word-for-word record. And when we have this evidence, we can issue the final word, the absolute, indubitable judgement on who was responsible for what one critic calls the ‘worst error in British foreign policy since the unsuccessful invasion of the Suez Canal in 1956’.
This response is hardly a surprise; it is of a piece with the contemporary obsession with transparency in politics. That is, anything a public figure does in private, be it meeting someone or sending an email, is now automatically considered suspicious, a site of potential wrongdoing, an opportunity to pursue pocket-lining self-interest. Secrecy and discretion, once deemed indispensable to the workings of government because they allowed ideas to be mooted and uncertain thoughts aired, are now seen as a blight on government. If you’ve got nothing to hide, goes transparency’s mantra, then you’ve got nothing to worry about. The implication is clear: insisting on secrecy is seen as the act of someone with something to hide. And right now, Blair is certainly seen as a very secretive man. As John Major, Blair’s Conservative predecessor as prime minister, put it, holding things back from the Chilcot report ‘will leave suspicions unresolved and those suspicions will fester and maybe worsen’.
But even given the contemporary obsession with transparency, there is still something infernal about the persistent demand for the complete, unadulterated truth about what went on in the lead-up to the Iraq War. It’s not as if there is much that is unknown. Blow-by-blow accounts and analyses, with titles like Iraq and the Illusion of Morality, Blair’s Wars and Lies, Damned Lies and Iraq, lie thick on the ground. And then there are the previous inquiries and reports: Lord Hutton’s into the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly, a British weapons inspector; Lord Butler’s into pre-war ‘intelligence failures’; and the US Senate intelligence committee’s phase II report which featured the damning quote, ‘the [Bush] administration made significant claims that were not supported by the intelligence’. All in all, we know beyond doubt that the WMD pretext for the Iraq War was ‘sexed up’, that dossiers of evidence were crammed full of third-hand reports and student analyses nicked off the internet, and that, in the words of then foreign secretary Jack Straw, ‘intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy’. We know, in short, that the Iraq War was not justified in its own terms of disarming Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s unpleasant but militarily weak president. And we know, tragically, that it has been an unqualified disaster for the country.