Thursday, 7 July 2016

Another small stone on the mountain

I've hesitated before adding to the post-Chilcot comment mountain.
But there are a couple of things that strike me - especially since I was fretting about Chilcot four years ago when I was writing Stumbling Over Truth.
There was the chance then that Chilcot would crash into my more modest volume.
But that didn't happen. And I've wondered ever since whether Chilcot would answer the only question about Tony Blair and the Iraq war that we didn't have an answer to.
Why?
We've known the what ... and the how ... and, obviously, the when for a long time.
But not the 'why'.
Answers?
Has Chilcot answered that?
Sort-of. Though in truth, Tony Blair's lengthy and emotional news conference on Wednesday 7 July and his interview on BBC Today on Thursday 9 July did more to answer the question 'why' than the report itself.
In both of those, but especially in his penitential news conference, the former Prime Minister showed with more clarity and emotional commentary what was in his mind as he strode to war.
And reassuringly - for me, at least - confirmed something I'd concluded in my book.
Creating the 'truth'
I've always rejected the simple formula that Tony Blair 'lied' to take the country to war - I explain it at length in the book.
Put simply, you don't have to spend too long with all the evidence to realise that he didn't lie about Iraq in the strict sense of saying what he knew to be untrue with what lawyers call a mens rea - a guilty mind.
No, it was something worse. The striking thing is that he sincerely believed that whatever it was he was thinking or saying at the time he was thinking or saying it was true.
Worse still, he was - is still - adept at holding several contradictory truths at one and the same time.
Constrained
That's worrying enough.
But Sir John also confirms that No10 - not just the former Prime Minister but those within his inner circle, too - narrowed their range of policy options beyond what was wise and did so almost immediately after 9/11.
He confirms, too, that as time went on, that range became ever more constrained. Which was why neither Tony Blair nor those close to him thought to challenge the meagre, patchy and suspect intelligence they had in front of them.
And why they couldn't or wouldn't see the significance of Hans Blix's report in the winter of 2003, for example.
As it happens, that narrow focus was even further straitened by the energetic No10 operation to 'create the truth' to get over key bumps in the political road - including the mendacious September 2002 dossier and the risible - aka 'dodgy' - January/February 2003 confection.
Putting a misleading script in front of a man who sincerely believes what he is saying at any one time is not a recipe for serious and considered policymaking.
Especially if that man has already secretly sub-let British foreign and security policy to the White House.
Apologists 
And the 'truth creation goes on even now.
In the 24 hours or so after Sir John reported, we saw a few nips and tucks intended to re-frame what he actually said.
His report says the decision to go to war in Iraq was "based on flawed intelligence and assessments" (my italics).
Listen carefully to the apologists for No10's conduct in 2002/3. And note how they tend to drop the words "and assessments".
In other words ... "it was all MI6's fault - the intelligence was crap."
Now, that's true - but then, intelligence often is crap. Or at best a bit smelly. That's why - as Lord Butler pointed out in his 2004 report - no sane policymaker should ever take raw intelligence at face value.
It's the assessment that matters - and that was done, effectively, in house; in No10.
Flawed assessment of flawed intelligence isn't a great thing to put in front of a Prime Minister who believes whatever he is thinking and saying at any one time is the truth.
The head of MI6 at the time, Richard Dearlove, met regularly with the Prime Minister and apparently scared him witless with raw intelligence. Intelligence the spy chief knew had multiple limitations.
And the Chairman of the JIC, John Scarlett - the man who nominally 'owned' the intelligence - was more or less a lodger in Downing Street. Even the otherwise blandishing Hutton Inquiry found that No10 had "subconsciously influenced" him in his assessments.
Trusted voices
The problem for the No10 apologists is that there were, as we know, trusted voices inside the intelligence community screaming that the intelligence was flawed. That it needed surrounding with - some thought suffocating with - trucksfull of caveats and cautions.
Not just in publications such as the September dossier but in policymaking too.
Those voices offered the very challenge that Sir John found lacking in Downing Street. But they weren't saying what Downing Street wanted to believe. And so, weren't so much ignored as not heard.
So ...
Do we now know why?
Probably.
In his confessional news conference, Tony Blair more or less begged for our understanding and, perhaps, absolution.
'I truly believed at the time what I was thinking and saying ... and though I was wrong, isn't the world a better place now, anyway' ... was the top and bottom of it.
It's as mundane as that.

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