Q & A with Steve Simon: The British Approach




The British government recently announced that former cabinet secretary Lord Butler will chair a five-person committee to examine the intelligence leading to the Iraq War. Other members of the committee include former chief of the defense staff Field Marshal Lord Inge, former senior civil servant Sir John Chilcot, Labour MP and chair of the Commons intelligence and security committee Ann Taylor, and Conservative MP Michael Mates. The committee does not include Liberal Democrats, who have refused to take part in the inquiry because it does not plan to examine the political judgments involved in taking the country to war. The committee will meet in private, but its findings will be released to the public by the end of July. The British government has said Lord Butler plans to work closely with the American commission that President Bush established to investigate the quality of intelligence in the case of Iraq and more broadly in the war on terrorism.

Steven Simon, a senior analyst at the Rand Corporation and former assistant director for U.S. Security Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, answers questions about the British inquiry for the Center for American Progress:

Prime Minister Blair had previously rejected calls for an inquiry. What changed his mind?

Once President Bush reversed gears and issued the Executive Order establishing a bipartisan commission to investigate the sources of the intelligence failure in Iraq, among other things, the political pressure on Blair to back a corresponding inquiry became irresistible. At the same time, the political risk plunged in the wake of the Hutton Inquiry report – the product of an independent commission headed by a former justice, Lord Hutton – which concluded that Blair had not manipulated the available evidence in making the case for war.

Has the debate over intelligence permanently or only temporarily hurt Blair? Is this an issue just for the elites, or for voters as a whole?

This is a national issue in which the public has strong views. It is not simply a matter of politicians, civil servants and journalists jockeying for position in an esoteric game. By and large the British public was unconvinced of the need to invade Iraq. As one member of the UK commission put the issue to the Prime Minister a couple of weeks before the war started, the question for British voters was "Why Saddam and why now?" The prewar revolt in the Labour back benches reflected the intensity of anti-war feeling within constituencies "back home," as much as the anti-war sentiments of the members themselves. The war issue played into a strong current of anti-Americanism in Britain, and the popular view of Blair as Bush’s "poodle."

Blair was already a wounded prime minister before this latest drama. He has only just been exonerated by the Hutton commission investigating whether Downing Street had "sexed up" its prewar white paper on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs. Yet the commission’s findings, which excoriated the BBC for reporting that the government had knowingly exaggerated intelligence about Iraq’s efforts, have been dismissed as a whitewash by the media and, perhaps inevitably, by the public= Resentment against Blair within his own party took shape as an assault against one of Blair’s key education reform proposals, which passed the House of Commons by a mere five votes, after unprecedented intensive lobbying by Blair himself. This is a government that has forfeited its credibility largely, but not solely, because of its role in Iraq and close cooperation with Washington.

Why hasn’t the British government repudiated its Niger claim?

The British, unlike we Americans, don’t generally wash their dirty intelligence laundry in public. With the establishment of the Iraq WMD commission now settled, the government has little incentive to revisit such claims in public. Its line will be that the Butler Inquiry will examine the validity of all the prewar intelligence judgments about Iraq’s WMD and that speculation before the commission’s findings are in would be inappropriate – and pointless.

What impact will the Butler inquiry and the commission appointed by President Bush have on each other?

The UK commission has a far narrower mandate than ours and will also operate essentially behind closed doors. Leaks are unlikely, judging by the watertight process run by Lord Hutton in his inquiry into the government’s Iraq WMD claims. If there are transatlantic reverberations, they’ll be felt more in London than in Washington, since our process will be more public than theirs and take place against the backdrop of a presidential campaign.




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