The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, announced today that an independent inquiry into the invasion of Iraq will be held in behind closed doors. Following the draw down of combat operations and the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, it has now been deemed acceptable for the inquiry to go ahead. Although many opposition MP’s and commentators had demanded that the inquiry be held sooner, it appears prudent that the inquiry be held following cessation of combat operations as any findings or outcomes will no longer have an effect on troop moral or their legal standing whilst in the field. This does make sense, however, what doesn’t make sense is the Prime Ministers insistence that the inquiry should not apportion blame. Why shouldn’t it apportion blame? The point of an inquiry is to determine the root cause, if it is not how can ‘lessons be learned’, to coin a cliché which appears to be over-used by this Government of late. The lesson in this sense was learned at Suez, some fifty years previously, this being that the justification for ordering large scale combat operations needs an equally justifiable legal and moral aim, not what is perceived as an alternative agenda. It was and still is a widely held public belief that the supposed threat of WMD was merely a cover to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, faulty dossiers aside.
Three words can sum up an effective inquiry, these are scrutiny, responsibility and accountability; any inquiry that doesn’t exercise these facets will suffer from a severe lack of credibility.
Bob Ainsworth, the recently appointed Secretary of State for Defence stated that it is in the best interests of the inquiry that it be held in private. This, he said, would allow those called to give testament the opportunity to speak frankly and openly without the pressure of public exposure. This sounds reasonable at face value, however, this is not a public accounts committee inquiry looking into why project x went x-million pounds over budget, this was a major combat operation that led to the deaths of 179 British servicemen and women and an untold number of Iraqi civilians, not to mention the wounded. What this inquiry is allowing those giving testament, if testament is the right word, is the opportunity to the right to silence, indeed any witness called can simply get up and walk out if they so desire; especially if the questioning gets ‘too hot’ and there’s nothing the inquiry team can do about it. The reason they can do this is down to the fact that this is not a judicial inquiry; because of this, any assurances the Prime Minister gives that, “No British documents and no British witness will be beyond the scope of the inquiry,” are somewhat hollow to say the least. Given the number of casualties there is a definite need to apportion both responsibility and accountability; with the chance of a politician being truly held to account, future Governments may think twice before committing our forces to questionable combat operations. Perhaps then they might look to the example of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s refusal to deploy troops to Vietnam at President Lyndon Johnson’s behest rather than Tony Blair’s agreement with George W Bush.
The inquiry itself will be led by Sir John Chilcot, a man with an impressive resume, however, unless he and his team are given a truly sharp set of teeth there will be no guarantee that all of the testaments given will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Under a judicial inquiry those giving evidence will still have the opportunity to speak frankly and openly, albeit under oath, but at least they won’t be able to withhold evidence. This would give the public and the Government’s critics a greater degree of confidence in the proceedings and reduce the chances of the results being branded a whitewash.