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Behind Closed Doors

Gordon Brown’s War Inquiry

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Any inquiry into politically calamitous causes is bound to be better received if done transparently.  The circumstances behind the Iraq War, from lead-up, commencement and execution, has been anything but transparent.  Behind a very thin veil, crimes in international law have been committed with flagrant disregard.  Evidence has been discounted.  The campaigns have been costly and, at stages, incompetently waged. 

It is then little surprise that the recent announcement by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to hold an inquiry into the origins and execution of the conflict should take place in the same circumstances it began: behind closed doors.  The microscope of inquiry will be well and truly hidden, insulated in heavy, establishment wool.  The Tory leader, David Cameron, has termed it “an establishment stitch-up.”  Given the cautious chairman who will preside over the inquiry, Sir John Chilcot, a powerless mandarin in the eyes of many, he might be right.

The entire field is already muddied by previous inquiries that did little to restore the faith of a skeptical British public in their war-hungry leadership.  The 2003 Hutton Inquiry confined its investigations to the narrow circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly, a government advisor who had been critical of the British government’s deeply flawed dossier on Iraq’s spectral weapons of mass destruction.  On its heels came the Butler Inquiry, which examined the intelligence that supposedly catalyzed the British decision to throw in its lot with the United States.

The inquiry is supposedly to be modeled on the Franks Inquiry undertaken into the Falklands conflict in 1982, eschewing the temptation to apportion blame and seek, instead, the strengthening of “the health of our democracy, our diplomacy and our military.”   It is intended to be independent, comprising two historians, a member of the House of Lords unaligned to any party and a diplomat.  It will consider the period from the buildup to the conflict in the summer of 2001 to July this year.

We can speculate what the inquiry will be most concerned with.  There are the strategic blunders – why did Britain reduce the numbers of personnel at Basra even as the Shi’ite insurgency was raging?  What role did the behemoth of American unilateralism play in driving the decision?

The difficulty with this inquiry is that it already has an appearance of being toothless even before it begins in earnest.  The procedure of this paper tiger will take place in camera.  It has no powers of any consequence, lacking such important means as that of subpoena, relying on the goodwill of those it asks to attend.  (Tony Blair will, in all probability attend to spite his long time rival, though he need not.)  Evidence need not be given on oath.  When ultimately published, sensitive material will be abridged for the public readership. 

The final matter that further weakens the credibility of this gesture is one of timing.  In politics, timing is all, and Brown has decided to sink his project before it event gets off the ground by releasing the report after the General Election.  It will take twelve months to complete.  “No inquiry,” argues Brown, “has ever been conducted over such a long period or in such breadth.”  Nor, it can be said, has an inquiry promised to be so ineffectual before it even starts, so devoid of worth before a single deliberation is undertaken.  With British politicians heavily derided and maligned, Brown will have done wonders to affirm the views of cynics and critics.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com