In just a few minutes, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair will appear before the so-called Chilcot Inquiry, a special committee of inquiry into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War. Led by senior diplomat Sir John Chilcot, the committee has interviewed an impressive array of senior public officials from the Blair government and staff, the civil service and the military. Ranging from Sir Michael Wood, then the top legal advisor to the foreign office to former Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon and former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, the investigation has spared few senior people with a role in the war.
For the most part, the players have stuck to their scripts, with a few sound bites but little new specific evidence coming from the top people. That said, many influential, less public players have come onto the official record by way of the inquiry, triangulating and sometimes contradicting the well-spun storylines from the top.
Regardless of the content of the testimony given at the Inquiry, a key element is its broad mandate, public hearings* and strong ability to compell testimony from former senior officials on the subject of the Iraq war. Tony Blair, on the hot seat today, is the key witness for the investigation, and though it is unclear if new ground will be broken on the subject today, the fact that he is being held to account in public is certainly meaningful.
In the United States, no such public accounting has been undertaken nor is planned. Much like the contrast between the House of Commons’ weekly interrogations of the Prime Minister and the annual polite speech given by the U.S. President to Congress, the American system conceives of accountability in a quite different context.
In the case of the 9/11 Commission, created by then President Bush and the U.S. Congress, the inquiry was completed through private interviews, with many of the most senior officials like Bush, Cheney, Clinton and Gore refusing to testify under oath. The two chairmen of the Commission, former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean (R) and former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton (D), wrote in 2006 that contradictory statements and “deliberate” obstacles from officials led them to believe that Bush administration officials in the Pentagon, the FAA and NORAD were engaging in purposeful “deception.”
In the Iraq case, it was a 2006 U.S. Senate Intelligence Report that undertook the definitive review of the evidence that lead to the Iraq war decision, namely the suspected WMDs. Also called the Silberman-Robb Commission, the inquiry reflected only on the so-called “intelligence failures” made by various three-letter agencies, as opposed to the public decision-making that led to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Rather than public commissions of inquiry, it is instead the media in the U.S. who usually charged with pursuing accountability on issues of this sort. As such, books have been published by various public and private authors, including members of the 9/11 commission, members of the Iraq Study Group and officials from the Bush Administration.
President Obama made clear early in his administration that in the interests of political harmony, official inquiry into the subject, particularly regarding President Bush and Vice-President Cheney would not be undertaken. Indeed, is within the sphere of published media discourse that this argument regarding “who knew what” is taking place.
Perhaps it is simply a difference of political culture that lead the U.S. to take an informal, media-driven approach and the U.K. a more formalized public inquiry process. Certainly the tradition of the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions shows that boisterous public debate — often verging on simply an obnoxious weekly deployment of each party’s talking points and ‘zingers’ — in a formalized context is well within the political conscience.
Regardless, it is well understood in both the US and UK that the evidence given in justification of the war, regarding both weapons of mass destruction and the alledged link between Iraq and Al Qaida, were mistaken. The judgement of the leaders of both countries at the time has been called into serious question as a result, bolstered by evidence that the ensuing war was mishandled by leaders on both sides of the pond.
However, whether it would be in best interests of either public to drag its former leaders through the mud in punishment if certain criteria for deception were me remains an open question. Particularly during times of political polarization, perhaps the Obama approach of looking forward rather than back is an appropriate strategy. That said, a post-Iraq political strategy of “forget the past and move ahead on other issues” is likely to be a hard sell in either country.
Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international affairs columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
* The commission as envisioned by Gordon Brown would have done private hearings, but heavy pressure from the opposition parties and public opinion in support of a public hearing process quickly changed this.
UPDATE: Speaking of Prime Minister’s Questions, President Obama spoke at the House GOP retreat today and took questions from some members.