7 February 2011

Blair and the Iraq Inquiry

Watching Tony Blair’s second appearance at the Iraq Inquiry on BBC News last month, it didn’t seem surprising that Cameron and Osborne are said to call him “The Master”, the soubriquet of another great performer, Noël Coward. It will be interesting to see how the Inquiry treats Blair in its report. Some of the more fanciful ideas put about by his detractors can be put in perspective by reading the Chairman’s statement of the Inquiry Terms of Reference:
"Our terms of reference are very broad, but the essential points, as set out by the Prime Minister and agreed by the House of Commons, are that this is an Inquiry by a committee of Privy Counsellors. It will consider the period from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, embracing the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, the military action and its aftermath. We will therefore be considering the UK's involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned. Those lessons will help ensure that, if we face similar situations in future, the government of the day is best equipped to respond to those situations in the most effective manner in the best interests of the country."
At a guess, Blair will be told off a second time for not running a tight enough ship (see below for the first). To judge by their style of questioning, it will come naturally to the Inquiry to put any criticisms in an appropriately oblique and circumlocutious way. Of course, various lessons and recommendations as to how to do better will be offered. It would be surprising if these improvements to the machinery of government didn’t require a couple of new posts at Senior Civil Service Pay Band 3 (Deputy Secretary in Sir Humphrey Appleby’s day), and the upgrading of some others.

There may be some consideration of the size of UK forces to be committed to such affairs in the future (they can only be smaller) and improving the planning including the consequences, but how will the Inquiry deal with one key ‘best interests of the country’ issue: what would the US reaction have been if the UK had declined to participate? The evidence in 2009 from Sir Christopher Meyer (UK ambassador in Washington 1997-2003) suggests that it wouldn’t have been the end of the world (p71-5):
SIR RODERIC LYNE: If we had sat out the war, would it have damaged British interests in the United States if that's what they were saying to us?
SIR CHRISTOPHER MEYER: It is impossible to say, it is impossible to say. We had a very high reputation at the time inside the United States. There was no great popular surge, as far as we could tell, in favour of going to war. Polls weren't particularly encouraging for the administration. I was travelling a lot around the United States at the time. I didn't come across anybody except an oil man in Houston who was keen on invading. I doubt it would have done a lot of damage.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: Apart from the applause factor that you mentioned earlier, what benefits to British interests did we gain, did we advance, by the role that we took?
SIR CHRISTOPHER MEYER: That's a great question, and it is one that much pre-occupied me. I said to London, "The key thing now, quite apart from Iraq, is to translate this popularity into real achievements which benefit the national interest", and we failed. We failed, and I'll tell you where we failed. We failed on persuading the United States administration to liberalise air services across the Atlantic, a very big British interest. The other thing which was profoundly irritating was that almost on the day that 45 Commando arrived in Afghanistan to help with the war, the Americans slapped tariffs on exports from the UK of what they called speciality steel.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: Just to make sure that I have properly understood this. To summarise what you have just said, it wasn't essential for the defence of British interests that we actually played the part that we did choose to play in Iraq. It wasn't essential, for reasons of British/American relations, that we did so. On the one hand, there wouldn't have been necessarily massive damage if we had not done so, and, on the other hand, we failed to secure specific benefits and in some cases areas you have identified, steel and air services, that we should have done.
While writing his book, The Accidental American, Jim Naughtie seems to have had privileged access to Blair, including an exclusive interview in 2004. He reveals just how heavily the relationship with the US seemed to weigh on Blair (p164-5):
Blair also understood the power of the secret network from the moment in the course of his first week in office when he was inculcated into the secrets of the UKUSA Treaty of 1948, which established the intelligence relationship with Washington, and then signed the papers giving him control of the nuclear missiles that were part of the defence arrangement with the United States. For any incoming prime minister, these arrangements become a matter of day-to-day importance that is often unrecognized by the general public. For example, the government's vast listening station in Cheltenham-GCHQ-is not only the hub of electronic intelligence for Whitehall but a vital part of the listening apparatus of the National Security Agency in Washington. That is why more than half the budget for GCHQ is paid for by American taxpayers, a fact about which British governments have been naturally reticent.
As with all their predecessors, the relationship between Bush and Blair was built on this practical foundation. The niceties of a shared language (more or less), the threads of family history that still span the Atlantic, and the memories of World War II are often portrayed as being the essence of the partnership: in practice, the hard facts of intelligence and defence are the links that pull the two governments together. They are bound together by their weapons, their satellites, and the tentacles of their intelligence networks.
The Inquiry didn’t ask Meyer (or Blair for that matter) about this intelligence/ defence relationship, for example whether he thought the Blair-Bush exchange of letters in 2006 on maintaining Trident would have been feasible if the UK had not stood ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the US in Iraq. The realities of timing (Blair and Bush were aware that their respective departures from office would be in 2007 and 2009) and a different conjunction of personalities might have made securing Brown-Bush or Brown-Obama exchanges at a later date much harder work. Beyond the Inquiry’s remit, of course, it is arguable that Blair’s current ship, The Office of Tony Blair, might not have been such a capable vessel, and in a position to be performing so many good works, if he had been less highly regarded in the US.

Could next time be different? Blair is not alone in thinking that some sort of confrontation with Iran is inevitable. Cameron or Miliband could find themselves in a very similar position to Blair (if Cameron were leading a Conservative government he would find it easier to take his party with him than Blair did, but not the LibDem part of the Coalition). The officials and the politicians, as might be expected, have opposing views as to whether the existence of a more elaborate bureaucratic apparatus would make any significant difference.  Lord Butler in his report in 2004 (Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction) has already gone over some of the Inquiry’s ground:
609. In the year before the war, the Cabinet discussed policy towards Iraq as a specific agenda item 24 times. It also arose in the course of discussions on other business. Cabinet members were offered and many received briefings on the intelligence picture on Iraq. There was therefore no lack of discussion on Iraq; and we have been informed that it was substantive. The Ministerial Committee on Defence and Overseas Policy did not meet. By contrast, over the period from April 2002 to the start of military action, some 25 meetings attended by the small number of key Ministers, officials and military officers most closely involved provided the framework of discussion and decision-making within Government.
610. One inescapable consequence of this was to limit wider collective discussion and consideration by the Cabinet to the frequent but unscripted occasions when the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary briefed the Cabinet orally. Excellent quality papers were written by officials, but these were not discussed in Cabinet or in Cabinet Committee. Without papers circulated in advance, it remains possible but is obviously much more difficult for members of the Cabinet outside the small circle directly involved to bring their political judgement and experience to bear on the major decisions for which the Cabinet as a whole must carry responsibility. The absence of papers on the Cabinet agenda so that Ministers could obtain briefings in advance from the Cabinet Office, their own departments or from the intelligence agencies plainly reduced their ability to prepare properly for such discussions, while the changes to key posts at the head of the Cabinet Secretariat lessened the support of the machinery of government for the collective responsibility of the Cabinet in the vital matter of war and peace.
611. We do not suggest that there is or should be an ideal or unchangeable system of collective Government, still less that procedures are in aggregate any less effective now than in earlier times. However, we are concerned that the informality and circumscribed character of the Government’s procedures which we saw in the context of policy-making towards Iraq risks reducing the scope for informed collective political judgement. Such risks are particularly significant in a field like the subject of our Review, where hard facts are inherently difficult to come by and the quality of judgement is accordingly all the more important.
The second volume of Alastair Campbell’s Diaries, Power and the People 1997-1999, reveals the gulf between Sir Robin Butler (as he was when Cabinet Secretary) and Blair’s team when they arrived in Number 10. Campbell (40 at the time) records on 28 July 1997: “Butler struck me as very amiable but very out of date” – Butler was 59, Blair 44. “Sofa government” had arrived, not that two of the witnesses to the Iraq Inquiry saw much of a problem with it in retrospect. Here the Iraq Inquiry Chairman (Sir John Chilcot) is questioning Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff (a political post) on 18 January 2010 (p8-9):
THE CHAIRMAN: So turning to another and broader machinery point, much has been written about so-called "sofa government", and I do put that in quotation marks, characterised, perhaps not unfairly, with informality and, indeed, a degree of intimacy with close and trusted advisers and colleagues, and, on the other side, people have asked, "Is there some risk of exclusion of other colleagues still holding and sharing heavy responsibility?", but in particular asking, "Did that mean that action following such discussions characterised to some degree by informality, action points might be lost or lost in translation, as it were, into the government machine?" Would you like to comment on that?
MR JONATHAN POWELL: Yes. We had this criticism of sofa government. I think it is actually misplaced. I don’t think it matters whether a meeting takes place in the Cabinet room, where John Major used to hold meetings, or in the sitting room, where Mrs Thatcher or Tony Blair used to hold their meetings. I think the key thing is that you have the right people there, the people who need to be involved in a decision, that they are properly informed, have the proper material before them, in written or in oral form, and that decisions are taken, then recorded, and then distributed to government to be followed up. As long as that happens, I think it doesn't really matter if someone is sitting on a sofa or sitting round a table.
THE CHAIRMAN: It would be primarily your responsibility to the Prime Minister and the system to ensure that the outcome of such discussions were recorded and were transmitted into the government machinery?
MR JONATHAN POWELL: Inasmuch as it is my responsibility to make sure that everything in Number 10 functioned, yes. Although the notes in such meetings would be taken usually by civil servants who were at the meetings.
THE CHAIRMAN: Right. ...
Over a year later, on 3 February, Jack Straw (Foreign Secretary in the period of interest) was the final witness (his third appearance), and made a closing statement (p151):
[Blair’s] style was less formal than others and certainly less formal than mine but the fact he used soft furnishings rather than hard chairs does not make him a bad person, nor, to make a more serious point, do I believe that a more formal process would have altered either the respect in which he was held by colleagues, the influence he had, nor the outcome of the decisions, but equally the fact the process was, frustratingly for some, less formal than it should have been I don't think necessarily meant the decisions were of a lower quality nor that they lacked the fullest range of opinions in the input.

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