Iraq: we don’t need another inquiry

Supine, shameless politicians want a public inquiry to do what they signally failed to do six years ago: refute the case for invading Iraq.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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The facts surrounding Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War are hardly shrouded in mystery, are they?

For a start we’ve already had two separate inquiries into aspects of the war since 2003. The first, the Hutton Inquiry, concentrated on ‘the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly’, the British weapons inspector, and the government’s insertion into the infamous ‘dodgy dossier’ of the suitably dodgy claim that Iraq could use battlefield biological and chemical weapons within 45 minutes. This was followed in 2004 by the Butler Inquiry into intelligence failures more broadly, from the use of third-hand reporting about Iraqi weapons to the absence of any recent intelligence to say that Iraq posed any more of a threat than other countries.

While both inquiries were dismissed as whitewashes, there’s little doubting the amount of information now in the public realm. There’s the notoriously ‘sexed-up’ justification for the war; there’s the startling admission from Jack Straw, then the foreign secretary, that ‘intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy’; and there’s the revelation that, in lieu of genuine intelligence about Iraq’s military capability, the government opted to use a piece of academic research nicked off the internet. Alternately shocking and awful, these revelations alone are enough to impugn the deluded case then made for the war.

Or at least that’s what you would think. Yet this week, British prime minister Gordon Brown announced plans – long promised – for a further inquiry into the rationale behind the invasion of Iraq. Chaired this time by Sir John Chilcot, a career civil-servant who also worked on the Butler Inquiry, the new inquiry will cover the period from July 2001 to July 2009. All the main players will be questioned, including Tony Blair. Unfortunately the inquiry will not only be in private; it will also be out of its purview to ‘apportion blame or consider issues of civil or criminal liability’. And given that its report is not due to be released for over a year, any findings will be witheld until after the prospective General Election. If both the Hutton and Butler inquiries were labelled whitewashes after the fact, this one seems to be getting its excuses in early.

Parliamentary outcry has been predictable – and perfunctory. Tory leader David Cameron said it looked like an ‘establishment stitch-up… fixed to make sure the government avoids having to face up to any inconvenient conclusions’. The Liberal Democrat’s Nick Clegg preferred to prostrate himself before the altar of transparency: ‘To rebuild public trust, this inquiry must be held in public.’ Joining Clegg, Labour MP Gordon Prentice lamented: ‘I had hoped for a new politics of openness…’

Despite the appeals to openness and transparency – and their corollary: an assault on secrecy and discretion – what exactly the latest inquiry is meant to reveal is not entirely clear. In fact, it seems that for many critics in parliament and beyond, they already know the truth. Pre-emptive revelation abounds. In attacking the behind-closed-doors nature of the Chilcot Inquiry, one columnist declares: ‘Our government’s decision to go to war in Iraq was based upon an assertion that turned out to be completely untrue. Everybody knows this.’ The Daily Mail, while complaining that the public is being kept in the dark, is confident enough to assert: ‘The truth is that, with the connivance of a shamefully supine Opposition, Britain was deceived into entering an illegal and tragically costly war… on the basis of lies and distortions, cooked up by a cabal.’

The Guardian’s editorial is at least honest: ‘The real reason an inquiry is needed is to draw together what we already know, and in its light to try to grasp how such a monstrous blunder could have been made.’

Which does raise the question, if the critics of the inquiry already know what the Chilcot Inquiry ought to reveal, what is driving the demand for a public inquiry into the Iraq war? It’s as if opponents of the war, whether within parliament or outside, want an inquiry to do what they signally failed to do at the time – that is, refute the case for war. But instead of doing so in the realm of political argument, using the subjective faculty known as judgement, they wish to do so in terms of some unassailable factuality, approved by an objective, quasi-judicial body. Hence it’s not just the public argument for war that is to be challenged, but the private interactions, debates and negotiations that led up to its formulation.

Unfortunately no amount of factuality, no matter how forensic the insight into parliamentary office politics might be, can produce the value judgement opponents of the Iraq war crave. For that ability to evaluate and judge comes from participants in the political realm, not observers, retrospective or otherwise. The inquiry committee can stare all it likes at whether this or that email, this or that communiqué was misleading or coercive. It can ask Alastair Campbell whether Googling ‘WMD Iraq’ was the best way to garner intelligence. It might even reveal why Tony Blair’s closest political relationship adviser seemed to be God. But this sheer factuality will not yield extra-political, near absolute certainty. It will not condemn.

The argument that the war was wrong comes not from the quasi-objective realm of inquiry and report, but from the inter-subjective realm of politics. To decide that the Iraq War was wrong, to argue coherently and persuasively against it, always depended upon the rigorous exercise of one’s judgement. It involved tackling difficult questions of sovereignty, the nature of democracy. It demanded judgement of whether one thinks that, no matter how oppressive a regime is, in order for it to be overthrown there must be action and leadership from the oppressed themselves. And it demands taking responsibility for one’s judgement.

This judgement, this political nerve, this moral mettle, was not only completely lacking at the time of the war (there was widespread support for an invasion if the UN gave it legal approval), but, in the demand for an inquiry to do what political subjects ought to do, hold the government to account, it remains absent. An inquiry, public, private or otherwise, is little more than the outsourcing of judgement. In the words of columnist Simon Jenkins, ‘outsiders [are] expected to do a politicians’ job’.

If there is one fact that should condemn the callousness and moral cowardice of parliament, it is surely this: 412 MPs voted for the Iraq war, and only 149 voted against it. And now they loudly demand an inquiry into a ‘monstrous blunder’ of their own making.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume wondered why the shock and awe over Iraq came so late. Brendan O’Neill said the coalition’s war exposed a hole at the heart of the West, and left a hole in the heart of Iraq. Elsewhere, he examined David Kelly’s connections and said the cult of transparency is a threat to democracy. James Heartfield said the road to Baghdad was paved with good intentions. Or read more at spiked issue War on Iraq.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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