A mute military and a mute Blair over Iraq

A mute military and a mute Blair over Iraq


Obama-BushThe stumbling block over the Chilcot inquiry into the invasion of Iraq has been the refusal of the “permanent government” – personified by successive cabinet secretaries – to release notes of conversations between Tony Blair and George Bush, and records of cabinet meetings.

There is another aspect of the war in Iraq which is being blocked, not by the Cabinet Office but by the Ministry of Defence. The MoD is stopping the publication of six essays by senior serving officers, including General Sir Nick Houghton, now chief of the defence staff, on lessons learned from the conflict in Iraq.

The essays should have been included in British Generals in Blair’s Wars, a collection of essays published by Ashgate. Sir Hew Strachan, Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford university and one of the editors of the book, said they fell victim to “official paranoia”.

Fears of reputational damage and political controversy, warned Strachan, “put at risk lives in theatre”. He added: “Like many armies in the past, the British Army struggles to foster effective debate within a hierarchical command chain”.

Civil servants and ministers, rather than the military, may be the real culprits.

But a consequence of the censorship is that we have to wait for (young and old) soldiers to retire for the most illuminating, instructive, and honest, accounts.

The suppression of views has not only applied to serving officers. A lessons- learned-from-Iraq study by retired Brigadier Ben Barry, now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, is still blocked. The MoD turned down my freedom of information request for it, telling me to wait for the Chilcot report.

“You do the fighting and I’ll do the talking”, David Cameron told defence chiefs after they complained about the lack of resources before the 2011 bombing of Libya. Yet if Britain ever gets involved in fighting a war again, we need to know the views of the military commanders who gave the orders and did the fighting in the past, and would do the same again.

“I will increasingly turn to our military to take the lead and provide information to the public about our efforts”, Barack Obama said in his address to the US West Point military academy last week.

He added that the US had to be “more transparent about both the basis of our counter-terrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out. We have to be able to explain them publicly, whether it is drone strikes or training partners”.

We will have to wait and see, of course, but Obama’s words are in striking contrast to Whitehall secretiveness.

Back to Chilcot. As Sir John Major pointed out last week, Blair could always insist the records of his conversations be released in full (save perhaps for Bush’s remarks) and not hide behind the Whitehall claim that they should remain secret for ever, or for decades at least.

What promises Blair gave to Bush (and also what he did not give, for that matter) are critical to the way he led Britain into the invasion of Iraq, as Chilcot (who has seen the documents) have admitted.

Blair in this writer’s view is most sensible on Europe, in his attacks on UKIP and others, but also recognising, as he put it in a speech to the CBI on Monday, that “Europe does too much of what it need not do, and too little of what it must do, and you have the perfect confluence of dissatisfaction that seems to define Europe today”.

Cameron , and other EU leaders for that matter, should not be obsessed with whether or not Jean-Claude Juncker, should be the next president of the European Commission. It is surely absurd that a former prime minister of Luxembourg would be in a position to dictate the future development of the EU.

But one new appointment can be welcomed – that of the independent-minded (and thus not welcomed by the MoD) Conservative MP, Rory Stewart, to chair the Commons defence committee.

Perhaps he could encourage a debate about lessons learned from Britain’s recent military failures and also about Europe’s failure to face up to its responsibilities in defence and security.