The Daily Star
Tuesday 9 March
By Michael Glackin
Some years ago, while idly browsing the shelves of the Way In bookshop on Hamra Street in west Beirut, I came across the autobiography of American actress Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine, it turns out, had an affair with the famously monosyllabic star Robert Mitchum, and joked in her book that she made a point of asking him the time whenever they were together, just so she could “get a straight answer.”
I was reminded of this last week while watching the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, giving evidence to the Chilcot inquiry on the Iraq war. At one point during his testimony the audience laughed out loud as panel member Sir Roderic Lyne repeatedly failed to illicit a straight answer as to whether Brown had been aware that his predecessor, Tony Blair, made an early commitment to offer US President George W. Bush military support to oust Saddam Hussein. In the end, Lyne gave up.
The exchange sums up the futility of the Iraq inquiry, established to examine the decision to go to war and failures in postwar planning. The inquiry panel’s overly deferential approach to witnesses and long-winded questions that are rarely properly answered have become a national joke.
Some inquiries shed light on the issue they are examining; others merely generate heated emotion. The Iraq inquiry has managed neither. It is the least forensic examination that could have been conceived. The panel members, distinguished academics and civil servants, have looked hapless in the face of politicians used to dealing with far more awkward questions from the media. Their shortcomings were brutally exposed during Blair’s appearance in January, and again highlighted during Brown’s testimony.
Brown is adept at shifting blame and avoiding answering questions. He insisted that he stood by the decision to topple Saddam Hussein, (“the right decision made for the right reasons,” he said) because “the international community had to act.” Curiously, the panel did not think to ask why the “international community,” in the shape of the United Nations, refused to act and left it almost entirely to the United States and the United Kingdom to do so.
Despite his support for the war, Brown insisted that he was “not aware of” the now infamous letters between Blair and Bush that appeared to commit the UK to war while the pair was publicly pursuing a diplomatic solution in 2002. Brown, who has long despised Blair for standing in the way of his own ambition to be prime minister, was barely on speaking terms with him during that time. But as the second most powerful British politician then, it is inconceivable that he was unaware of any commitments made by the prime minister to support an invasion.
Brown added he knew nothing of the initial doubts that the UK’s attorney general – the government’s chief legal adviser – had expressed about the legality of the invasion. The botched reconstruction of Iraq was “regrettable,” but that was Washington’s fault because it had failed to heed his warnings to prepare properly for after Saddam’s removal.
In fact Brown wasn’t responsible for anything. In response to claims that he failed to properly fund the military during his time as chancellor of the exchequer, Brown insisted that “every request the military commanders made to us for equipment was answered.” Yet when asked if he was aware that the military chiefs had threatened to resign over concerns about military funding in 2004, Brown responded: “I can’t remember all the conversations I had.”
One would have thought that a threat by the top brass to quit while the country was fighting two wars would be a fairly memorable occasion, but again the panel failed to press Brown on the point. And so it went on.
He expressed sadness for the deaths of British troops and Iraqis in the conflict, a calculated contrast to Blair’s refusal to do so, but sidestepped questions submitted to the inquiry by the families of soldiers killed in controversial lightly armored Snatch Land Rovers in Iraq. The military insist it had to use Snatches because the Treasury had failed to provide cash to purchase properly armored vehicles. Brown said that was the army’s fault. “It is not for me to make the military decisions on the ground about the use of particular vehicles,” he said.
Considering that earlier witnesses to the inquiry, including the former defense secretary, Geoff Hoon, had insisted that military action in Iraq and Afghanistan was hampered by a lack of funds, it was inevitable that this point would be challenged. But bizarrely it was not the inquiry panel that took issue with Brown’s statements. It fell instead to two former army chiefs, who within hours of Brown completing his evidence accused the prime minister of misleading the inquiry. One insisted the military had been “starved of funds” by the former chancellor.
The funding row centers on the fact that while Brown had provided increased cash for the military’s urgent operational demands through an emergency fund, he systematically imposed deep cuts on the military’s regular budget. This meant the army lacked equipment, particularly helicopters and heavily armored vehicles, when it went into battle.
The distinction between the two funding mechanisms was blithely ignored by Brown in his evidence. The inquiry panel also failed to make the distinction, allowing Brown to bury their questions in a raft of statistics.
Immediately after he gave his evidence, Brown flew to Afghanistan to meet current military commanders. A cynic might say that his trip had more to do with grabbing another photo opportunity ahead of the general election that is likely to take place in May. Noticeably, he was wearing a watch, so based on the Shirley MacLaine reminiscence, he may have been able to give at least one straight answer to inquisitive soldiers.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star