Sunday, November 15, 2009

Carne Ross on John Chilcot

The country needs the Iraq inquiry. What a shame it will be a whitewash

Britain's expert on the UN Security Council at the time of the Iraq invasion argues that John Chilcot's investigation into the build-up to war in Iraq in 2003 will be a futile exercise unless it asks the right questions

Carne Ross

The Observer, Sunday 15 November 2009

What is the purpose of the Chilcot inquiry? Its stated objective is to "learn lessons" from the planning and execution of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. If only this were true, because this is what the British people demand, but reading between the lines, there appears a more insidious intent.

From 1998 to 2002, I was the UK's Iraq "expert" on the UN Security Council. I resigned from the Foreign Office after giving evidence to the Butler inquiry in 2004. That inquiry produced an ultimately comforting outcome: that while the intelligence used to justify the war might have been exaggerated, it was not deliberately manipulated. The establishment might have made mistakes, but in the final analysis it could be trusted.

That Sir John Chilcot served on the Butler inquiry is like trying the same crime twice with the same judge and jury – not a credible standard for truth-seeking. Nor would a truth-seeker allow the inquiry's staff to be headed by the civil servant who was in a senior position in the foreign and defence policy secretariat of the Cabinet Office during Britain's military occupation of Iraq.

Meanwhile, many of those giving evidence will have a deep interest in confirming the government's narrative, for they are deeply implicated in having implemented it. One little-discussed disgrace of prewar policy-making is that there was never a proper review of the available options. Witnesses will no doubt claim to Chilcot that there were none and that sanctions "were not working". This is not true: the government's internal assessments up to 2002 confirmed that sanctions had prevented Iraq from rearming with any significant stocks of conventional weapons or WMD.

To know that there were non-military ways to undermine Saddam requires detailed insight into government policy and the prevailing circumstances. Most of those in a position to know will have little interest in revealing this complexity at the inquiry, for to do so will demonstrate their own complicity in ignoring those choices.

But ministers and officials should be asked why, for instance, we were unwilling to pressure Turkey to close off illegal oil exports across its south eastern border, which were a crucial source of revenue for Saddam's regime. Why did Tony Blair not raise the issue of Syria's illegal export of Iraqi oil when he visited Damascus in October 2001? Weeks before the war began, and when ostensibly the UK was still pursuing peace, why did ministers tell Parliament that British aircraft were doing nothing unusual in the "no-fly zones" covering northern and southern Iraq, when US officials were briefing the American press that their – and presumably our – aircraft were engaged in "softening up" Iraqi defences for the imminent invasion?

Other questions require a profound knowledge of the complex UN Security Council resolutions that framed the weapons inspections and sanctions regime, almost all of which were originally drafted by British officials. One resolution in particular established the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), the weapons inspection body, in 1999. During those negotiations, the UK and US insisted that UNMOVIC required at least six months of inspections before it could reach a view on the degree of Iraqi disarmament and report to the UN Security Council. If this was the allied view in 1999, why did that change in 2003, when inspectors were given just weeks to visit hundreds of sites across a large country, sift thousands of documents and then deliver their judgments? Will the inquiry have the resources or inclination to address these issues? They are central to understanding the policy issues that led to war.

The inquiry will probably focus on the senior officials. But much of the policy-making detail is known best by more junior officials who were immersed in Iraq day in, day out. Will the inquiry have the time to interview these officials thoroughly? Will these officials, many of whom are still in government, be guaranteed protection if they reveal accounts at odds with the official version?

Few are the officials genuinely knowledgeable about the twists, turns and options of long-term Iraq policy. At the MoD, there was one so authoritative on the complex questions of weapons inspections and WMD programmes that at the UK mission in New York we insisted on his presence in our briefings of UN Security Council diplomats. He is sadly no longer around to offer the inquiry his testimony. His name was David Kelly.

Given these weaknesses, why has the Chilcot inquiry been generally accepted as legitimate? The government's motives are clear: it wishes to distance itself from decisions which many of today's cabinet supported, it seems, on the nod and without asking for the full picture. In reviewing the advice of the attorney general on the legality of the war, was the cabinet not made aware of the view of the Foreign Office legal advisers, who had told the attorney general and foreign secretary that the planned war was in fact an illegal war of invasion?

The opposition's motives are less clear, but still discernible. They, too, supported the war, supposedly because they believed the government's claims about WMD. But they failed to question the government in detail before the invasion and only began to do so when it became clear how disastrously the invasion and occupation had been planned. What the opposition parties want from the inquiry is evidence that they were misled, thus absolving them of blame. What they do not want is confirmation of what clearly was the case: that they – and by implication Parliament – were incapable of scrutinising government and holding officials to account in the gravest of circumstances.

There is another truth that no one wants to see revealed: that government, whether honestly led or not, cannot understand the reality of places like Iraq, let alone master it as an occupier. Government can function only by reducing a complex and ever-changing reality into simplified policy choices, prepared by officials like me, and presented and defended by ministers.

It is inconceivable that such reductionism can accurately capture the intricacy of a place like Iraq. But without it, government cannot operate. At home, the inevitable policy errors can be corrected by feedback from governed to government – through Parliament, the press and civil society. In foreign policy, no such feedback loops exist. Government may occasionally get policy right, but this is more by chance than by judgment.

My guess is that the Chilcot inquiry will not offer this uncomfortable conclusion. Instead, grave officials, soldiers and ministers will offer evidence; sober mandarins will sit in judgment upon them. Revelations will be made; errors and failures will be uncovered. The ensuing and weighty "Chilcot report" will make recommendations for greater scrutiny, more accountability, fact-checking and planning mechanisms.

But look at the players, read the pre-ordained if unadmitted script, and the show that we are about to witness becomes clear – it is, after all, for our benefit. The purpose? To confirm that our democracy, Parliament and government function as they should. Government may get it wrong sometimes, and may even sometimes be dishonest, but it is ultimately perfectible and capable. The country is secure in its hands; safe can be our sleep.

Carne Ross was a British diplomat from 1989-2004. His book, Independent Diplomat: Dispatches From an Unaccountable Elite, is published by Hurst & Co

See also:

Sir John Chilcot 'wrong man to head Iraq invasion inquiry'

Former government adviser fears full facts will not come out


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