16 January 2010

Iraq was the cabinet’s war

By Trevor Phillips

Sir John Chilcot's inquiry into the 2003 Iraq War has reconvened. Despite its tame cross examinations it may yet provide greater insight into how Tony Blair and his cabinet ended up promoting the US/UK invasion of Iraq.

The circumstances surrounding the decision to go to war still haunt UK politics, not least because of the thousands of victims but also because the decision making process remains opaque. It is surely time to end this saga but only transparency and justice are likely to do so. It may even require Tony Blair to be tried in The Hague for the crime of waging illegal aggressive war, killing thousands of innocents.

But is the guilt for Britain's contribution to this crime all Blair's? The then Tory Leader, Iain Duncan-Smith, had access to all of Blair's 'evidence'. In the Commons debate before the vote on invasion, Duncan-Smith endorsed Blair's false case, merely adding "the main reason why we [Tories] will be voting for the motion is that it is in the British national interest."

But one person's national interest is another person's dead son. I have met several parents of dead British soldiers who believe only military and oil corporations gained - and much that was precious was lost. There are injured victims of the murderous bombings of London transport who say the invasion of Iraq was a contributory factor in those atrocities. And Afghans are still killing British troops in the belief that a 'War on Islam' began in Iraq.

Some MPs were perhaps duped by the false claims of an imminent threat from Iraq and of non-existent 'Weapons of Mass Destruction', even though millions of British people and the Stop the War Coalition rightly saw through this falsehood. But the scale of guilt surely differs between gullible MPs attending the Commons debate on the eve of war and the Leader of the Opposition and cabinet members who had dozens of opportunities to challenge Tony Blair's claims.

According to Sir Michael Jay KCMG, then Permanent Under-Secretary of State, "The main ministerial discussion which takes place on foreign policy issues is in cabinet … I think I am right in saying Iraq was on the agenda of … each cabinet meeting or virtually every Cabinet meeting, in the nine months, or so, up until the conflict broke out."

The notorious 'dodgy dossier' and the '45-minute' claim, should have been put under acute examination by cabinet ministers in those meetings. Ministers had a duty to cross-examine Blair with forensic intensity on a matter where British lives were at stake. Did Ministers merely accept Blair's false claims at face value? Who asked questions? With what answers? We have a right to know, especially if those Ministers still hold office, like Gordon Brown, or seek re-election, like Norwich South MP Charles Clarke. Mr Clarke often espoused the 'regime change' argument in defense of the invasion. Were Ministers willing to support war on that basis even though regime change is not a legal basis for war - and was certainly not the reason given to parliament and the British public?

Publication of cabinet meeting 'minutes' (reports) could reveal the truth about the dutiful role played – or abrogated - by cabinet ministers. On 27 January 2009 the Information Tribunal agreed to release minutes of the last two cabinet meetings before the Iraq invasion. It considered there was a greater public interest in doing so than in maintaining confidentiality. Those minutes revealed that only Robin Cooke and Clare Short asked questions in those final meetings. The same public interest would be served by publishing minutes of all 28 cabinet meetings which considered the invasion of Iraq. Faith in the British democratic process is severely damaged, partly due to the Iraq tragedy. Sir John Chilcot should interrogate all of the then cabinet ministers and find out how cabinet government broke down. And then we must mend it.

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