A look at what’s happened before
In January 2004 the Hutton report into Dr David Kelly’s death was awaited with anticipation. The hearings had put the actions of politicians, civil servants, journalists, senior BBC management under a forensic scrutiny they would not normally expect.
The Iraq war – the inquiry’s bloody context – had turned into a desperate civil war. No WMD had been found. The sad story of a respected scientist apparently bullied to his death as part of a greater political game between press and politicians seemed to epitomise what happens when powerful people act without a care for the individuals affected by their actions. We did not know the names of dead Iraqis but we could relate to a bearded, bespectacled, middle-aged civil servant and his grieving family, caught up in affairs over which they had little control.
When the Tories were given advance access before the Parliamentary debate, there were hopes that Michael Howard would be able forensically to wound – perhaps fatally – Blair, who had so tied his fortunes to this war and a snobbishly derided US President.
It did not turn out like that. Howard was given precious little to work with. It was the BBC which was severely criticised and lost its Director-General and Chairman of the Board of Governors. The politicians escaped, perhaps not scot-free, but freer than the public hearings had led everyone to expect (to the surprise of observers who had heard the evidence). And they went on the attack: immediately and brutally. It seemed as if Blair had got away with it.
It was not until July 2016 when the Chilcott report was finally published that a far more damning conclusion was given on the whole Iraq adventure, surprisingly so as Chilcott and his assessors had not particularly distinguished themselves as attack dogs during the hearings. By then, of course, the public and Blair’s party had largely made their minds up about the whole sorry affair.
It was seen – at best – as a misguided venture; at worst – as a war crime deliberately embarked upon on the basis of intentionally fabricated evidence. Even if Chilcott had absolved Blair of all sins, it is unlikely that his detractors would have changed their minds.
And now we have the Mueller report. Or only a summary for now. But the two reports – particularly in the reactions to them – have much in common, nonetheless.
- A lot of hopes pinned on them: The inquiry into Dr Kelly’s death was seen as the route by which Blair’s mendacity over WMD would be exposed. Similarly, Mueller has been seen as a way to attack Trump, legally, and on the basis of evidence, collected by an unimpeachable source. As senior staff close to him were caught in Mueller’s net, surely – the thinking went – Trump cannot be far behind. Alas, too many people believed what they wanted to be true. Blair must have lied. Trump must have colluded with the Russians. The disappointment when these were not the conclusions was palpable. Never let your hopes run ahead of the evidence. Or, perhaps, never express your hopes so publicly until you’re sure they’re backed by evidence, might be the moral to be learned.
- “Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.” (reputedly said by Mario Puzo, The Godfather’s author). Wise words. So infuriated by Trump’s victory have the Democrats been that they have assumed that he must therefore be evil or criminal or guilty or maybe all three, that his victory cannot have been legitimate. Much easier to assume that his victory was stolen than engage in analysis of why people might have voted for him, despite his obvious flaws. In much the same way, those who think of Blair as a war criminal absolve themselves of the need to ask whether the decision to go to war in Iraq might have been more finely judged at the time than it now appears, fail to ask themselves what one should do in circumstances where there is a rogue state potentially able and willing to use WMD, fail to consider that even not acting is a decision with consequences, some of them just as sanguinary, as intervention in a faraway state about which we know little. Intervention was bad then; so non-intervention is good now, or so the analysis (this is to be kind) goes. Hate is never a good basis for coolly assessing one’s opponent, let alone their arguments.
- What is reprehensible is not necessarily criminal. A difficult concept to grasp at a time when the distinction between that which may be morally or politically wrong or unwise and what is criminal or a breach of the law is not always understood. Or hand-waved away as a mere technicality. It isn’t. There is much which politicians and others do which should not have been done. That does not make them criminal. If being wrong made one a criminal there would scarcely be an innocent man or woman alive. Too often the law is used to attack a political opponent because there are no political arguments or they are too weak or unpopular. But politicians need to be defeated politically. The law has its place, especially if the law is broken. But it is not a substitute for politics.
- Attack is the best form of defence. Ask Alistair Campbell. Ask Trump who, in typical fashion, is now claiming that the report exonerates him completely when it pointedly does no such thing. Expect the next arguments to be about (i) publication of the whole report and Attorney-General William Barr’s good faith (or lack of) if he does not publish it; and (ii) what exactly Mueller meant – and why – when he said “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
- Playing into your opponent’s hands: If the inquiry’s target claims that the inquiry is a witch hunt, best not to respond by acting in a way which reinforces this. This is hard to do, especially when a report’s conclusions are being misrepresented. But it can all too easily look as if you are being a sore loser, as if you are unwilling to accept the findings of a report because it did not say what you hoped. That is the quickest way to ensuring that no-one listens to what you do have to say.
The most important lesson is perhaps this. It is not the immediate reaction which will determine the long-term judgment. Blair won the immediate battle and went on to win another election. But the Iraq war will always be essential to an understanding of his government and himself. That assessment – that it was an error – has played a key part in the change in the Labour Party today (Corbyn owes his leadership at least in part to it) and to British governments’ approach to foreign intervention.
Similarly, Trump may have avoided immediate jeopardy, though full publication may still be a worry and there are other investigations around. He will likely not be impeached. He may well be re-elected. But the long-term view of how Trump deals with foreign regimes, how he approaches his legal obligations, how he uses or abuses power is not likely to be favourable to him. This may continue to affect him long after he has left the White House, though he may not care. It will certainly affect how future Presidents and politicians act. He would be wise not to declare victory over the witch hunt quite so soon.