Gordon Brown at the Iraq Inquiry: the unanswered killer question at last
The prime minister’s brave decision to give evidence at the Iraq Inquiry on 5 March provided the opportunity for the central question about the Iraq war to be put bluntly and persistently to the second most senior member of the Blair government that took us to war, enabling us all to judge the adequacy or lack of it of Mr Brown’s response. The question, put (predictably) by Sir Roderic Lyne, went like a bullet to the heart of the matter:
You [Gordon Brown] stressed right throughout this morning the importance to you of maintaining international order and international institutions in the world that we now live in. But we were in a situation, you as a Cabinet, were in a situation, of having to go to the House of Commons and ask them to support something for which we had not got the support of the United Nations Security Council? Wouldn’t it have been much better if we had been able to prolong the diplomacy until such time as we had got the support of the Security Council, thereby strengthening international institutions?
This followed a succession of replies by the prime minister in which he had repeatedly stressed that he, like the rest of the Cabinet in 2003 in the run-up to the war, had persisted right to the end in hoping that the problem of Iraqi defiance of the UN and of international law could be resolved by peaceful diplomacy (“the UN route”), thus averting the need for the use of force. Gordon Brown had insisted that it was only at the last minute that it had become clear that diplomacy and the UN route had definitively failed, making it inevitable that the UK and US would have to go to war.
At this point Lyne put his lethal question. The resulting exchange (in the format of the Inquiry’s website’s transcript, starting at page 57) is worth reading in full; indeed it’s worth saving to your hard disk, printing out, framing, and hanging above your desk:
17 SIR RODERIC LYNE: You stressed right throughout this
18 morning the importance to you of maintaining
19 international order and international institutions in
20 the world that we now live in. But we were in
21 a situation, you as a Cabinet, were in a situation, of
22 having to go to the House of Commons and ask them to
23 support something for which we had not got the support
24 of the United Nations Security Council?
25 Wouldn’t it have been much better if we had been
1 able to prolong the diplomacy until such time as we had
2 got the support of the Security Council, thereby
3 strengthening international institutions?
4 RT HON GORDON BROWN MP: If there had been any chance that
5 the Security Council would have been prepared to come to
6 a decision based on its merits, within a few weeks’
7 time, I would have supported that, but countries had
8 made it clear that, irrespective of the merits, they
9 were determined not to enforce the will of the
10 international community.
11 SIR RODERIC LYNE: Which countries?
12 RT HON GORDON BROWN MP: A number of countries were making
13 it clear that, irrespective of what actually the results
14 of the investigation were, that although the 1441 had
15 said that they were prepared to consider all necessary
16 measures —
17 SIR RODERIC LYNE: But which countries said that?
18 RT HON GORDON BROWN MP: — they wouldn’t be prepared to do
20 SIR RODERIC LYNE: Which countries said that?
21 RT HON GORDON BROWN MP: I think it was being made clear by
22 a number of countries in the region, and I think France
23 and Germany was making that clear also.
24 SIR RODERIC LYNE: Germany wasn’t on the Security Council.
25 Are you really referring to France here?
1 RT HON GORDON BROWN MP: Statements were made by
2 President Chirac which were very clear that he was not
3 prepared to support military action.
4 SIR RODERIC LYNE: At that time.
5 RT HON GORDON BROWN MP: He was not prepared to support
6 military action and could give no indication that there
7 was a time when he would support military action.
8 SIR RODERIC LYNE: After he made his statement, didn’t the
9 French Government immediately contact Number 10, the
10 Foreign Office, the British Embassy in Paris to say that
11 the British Government was not interpreting his
12 statement in an accurate way?
13 RT HON GORDON BROWN MP: That may have happened, but, you
14 know, I wasn’t the Foreign Secretary or the
15 Prime Minister. The contacts that would be had with the
16 French would be through them.
17 What I knew is that there was very little chance on
18 our assessment that the diplomatic route could lead to
19 success if a number of countries were not in themselves
20 willing to consider the action that would flow from
22 Look, I think you have got to understand — and
23 I know the Committee will want to look at this — we are
24 at the beginning of a new phase of the world community.
25 We were in a post-Cold War phase, where the tensions
1 between Russia and America are not the paradigm within
2 which people see what they should do as individual
3 states around the world.
Note the way Sir Rod Lyne ruthlessly forces the prime minister to admit that the crucial decision to abandon diplomacy, the UN route, and the UN weapons inspection, when the inspectors and the majority of members of the Security Council were asking for a few more weeks to enable the inspection to finish its work and reach a conclusion, the decision to give up on all that depended on the famous television interview given by Jacques Chirac, the then French President. British ministers chose perversely to misinterpret that interview as meaning that even if the inspectors reported that they had found WMD whose existence the Iraqis had denied, or that the Iraqis had definitively failed to cooperate with them, France would still use its veto to prevent any decision by the Security Council authorising the use of force. In fact, as even the most superificial scrutiny of the transcript of the Chirac interview confirms, Chirac said the opposite: that France was not a pacifist nation, and if Iraq was found at some point in the future to be in definite and irreversible further material breach of its obligations, France would accept the need for the use of force. Sir Roderic Lyne here injects the new and even more lethal information that when British ministers decided to blame their decision to abandon the UN process and go to war on their misreading of the Chirac interview, the French government had urgently sought to tell them, in Paris and in London, that they were misinterpreting the interview. Our ministers, however, ignored that crucial warning and have continued to this day — for example even in Gordon Brown’s testimony to Chilcot last week — to misinterpret the Chirac interview as in effect the sole justification for their disastrous, premature, reckless and criminal decision to go to war.
For a detailed analysis of what President Chirac actually said in his television interview, including key quotations from it, please see my exchange with Professor Geoffrey Warner in comments on an earlier post, at https://barder.com/2300#comment-91331. It’s reassuring to be able to see from Sir R Lyne’s questioning that the Chilcot Inquiry is fully familiar with the rights and wrongs of this issue: but it’s dismaying that our prime minister continues, at this late stage, to trot out this by now hopelessly discredited argument as the principal basis for the fatal decision of the government of which he was a senior member to abandon diplomacy and resort to force, a decision which Gordon Brown is obliged to say he supported and that even now he continues to think was right. But of course the reality is that he can’t say anything else.
One postscript: none of the copious media coverage that I have seen picked up the exchanges quoted above as central to the whole debate on the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war. No commentator that I’m aware of mentioned it as important or even interesting. One account even sneered at the Chilcot team for its lack of forensic clout as demonstrated by its failure to follow up the prime minister’s dodgier replies. The Guardian editorial on the following day said:
Mr Brown began with an unambiguous declaration that the Iraq war was the right policy, embarked on for the right reasons. He then produced an answer for every question that the panel asked, not least the potentially tricky ones about defence spending during Mr Brown’s Treasury years.
Did the Guardian really think that what Mr Brown said in reply to Sir Rod Lyne’s questions quoted earlier amounted to answers?
The Sun-style headline that should have preceded a full account of Sir Roderic’s butchery of our head of government in any self-respecting newspaper would have consisted of one word: “Gotcha!”