What to look for from Chilcot

Building on comments quoted in the FT

Sir John Chilcot’s long-awaited Report finally appears today. His Inquiry has lasted longer than Britain’s part in the Iraq War. Trying to make sense of 2.6 million words of findings will be difficult. It will take time for what it all means to become clear. Some initial things to look for still stand out.

First, which individuals and institutions come in for criticism, and with what intensity? If Chilcot does not hammer Tony Blair we can expect widespread calls of ‘whitewash’. But if, like Lord Butler before him, Chilcot expresses severe criticism too reservedly, the effect will be the same. We can also expect difficult moments in the Report for the intelligence services, the military and Blair’s former Cabinet colleagues including Development Secretary Clare Short and Attorney General Lord Goldsmith.

Second, does Chilcot confront strategic and tactical issues simultaneously? Invading Iraq made little strategic sense. Even the worst estimates of the threat it posed did not justify regime change with all its attendant costs. There was no plan for what happened when Saddam fell, and far too little resource committed to the aftermath. Britain learned slowly, if at all, from mistakes and failures on the ground. It over-committed by stepping up the fight in Helmand before finishing the job in Iraq.

Finally, will the Report satisfy the public’s appetite for transparency? It may be too much to expect it to restore the country’s trust in elites. But given its duration it needs to demonstrate maximum openness, and to deliver some measure of accountability. Tony Blair isn’t going to wind up on trial. There is no court competent to try him and, in any event, he was too wily a politician to get caught clearly breaking any law. Chilcot has the evidence, though, and the scope to dismantle Blair’s remaining reputation. If he casts light on the dismal story of how Britain wound up fighting in Iraq, he might assuage at least some of the public’s anger, and allow the country to begin to move on.

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