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Tony Blair

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The Travails of the Young War Criminal

15 December 2009

The Travails of the Young War Criminal

By Gwynne Dyer

Alan Watkins is my favourite British journalist. Well into his 70s now, each week he still produces an elegant and knowing column, usually about British politics. And with a casual understatement that you might easily mistake for irony, he has for the past six years regularly referred to former prime minister Tony Blair as “the young war criminal.”

That may seem a bit harsh, for never has an alleged war criminal seemed more sincere, more open, even more innocent. As he said about his 2003 decision to involve Britain in the American invasion of Iraq in his resignation speech four years later: “Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right.” But EVERYBODY does what they think is right.

They may mean pragmatically right, or morally right, or even ideologically right, but one way or another people will find ways to justify their actions to themselves: even Pol Pot believed that his actions were justified. When people’s choices lead to the deaths of others, they must eventually be judged by more objective criteria than mere sincerity. That is now happening to Tony Blair.

Yet another public inquiry in Britain is now looking into the origins and consequences of Blair’s decision to attack Iraq, but it will not find him guilty of anything. It is what Conservative Party leader David Cameron called “an establishment stitch-up.”

It is headed by a retired senior civil servant, Sir John Chilcot, who sat on another inquiry in 2004 that found the intelligence used to justify the invasion “badly flawed” but somehow could not find anyone to blame for it. The other members of the Chilcot inquiry are a former ambassador, a baroness who was appointed to the House of Lords by the Blair government, and two historians, Sir Lawrence Freedman (who wrote speeches for Tony Blair) and Sir Martin Gilbert (who once compared him to Winston Churchill).

Yet the mere existence of the Chilcot inquiry has so shaken Blair that he has made an extraordinary admission. He admitted on 13 December that he would have invaded Iraq even if he had known at the time that the “intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq was wrong.

“I would still have thought it was right to remove (Saddam Hussein),” he told BBC interviewer Fern Britton. “Obviously, you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat.” He seemed completely unaware that he was throwing away the only justification for his actions that might stand up before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Now, I realise that you must be wondering why I am devoting all this space to a discredited ex-leader whose country once played a minor role in the invasion of a middle-sized Arab country. The war is mostly over now, the dead cannot be brought back to life, and we have lots of new things to worry about.

Former president George W. Bush, the main author of the Iraq war, will never face a commission of inquiry about his actions, and Blair will have an easy ride when he faces the British inquiry early next year. Each man is doomed to go on justifying his decisions forever, for any alternate course of action would be too painful. So what’s the point in our raking over their choices and motives now?

The point is that there is a law, and they deliberately broke it. Since 1945, it has been a crime to invade another country: that was the main charge brought against the Nazi leaders at Nuremberg. The new rule was written into the United Nations Charter, principally at the behest of the United States, and there are virtually no exceptions to it.

You have the right to defend yourself if another country attacks you, but you are not allowed to attack another country on the grounds that it has a wicked ruler, or follows policies you disapprove of, or even because you think it might attack you one of these days. No unilateral military action is permitted, and even joint action against a genuinely threatening country is only permissible with the authorisation of the UN Security Council.

The United States is a very different country now than it was in 1945, and under the junior Bush administration it announced a “national security” doctrine that directly contradicts this international law, arrogating to the US government the right to attack any country it suspects of harbouring evil intentions towards the United States.

It’s just the sort of thing that Britain would have declared when it was top dog in the 19th century, had there been any international law against aggression back then. But this is the 21st century, and Britain is no longer top dog, and there is a law now. There is even an International Criminal Court to enforce the law, although it never takes action against the leaders of rich and powerful countries.

Tony Blair will never face the ICC, and even the Chilcot inquiry will be gentle with him. But he started a war on false pretenses – there were no WMD – and at least 100,000 people died. He has now admitted that he would have started it even if he knew that the WMD didn’t exist (as he probably did). He is a war criminal.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“It is..Churchill”; and “Former…now”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Europe: Two Things that Won’t Happen

17 July 2009

Europe: Two Things that Won’t Happen

By Gwynne Dyer

Tony Blair (or “the Winston Churchill of our Times,” as he was known in the Bush White House) is not going to be the first president of the European Union. And Iceland isn’t going to join the EU either.

This sort of story only gets traction in the summer holidays, when all the movers and shakers are away at the cottage/villa/yacht and there is very little real news to hold the ads apart. Yet somehow or other, something resembling news must be inserted between the ads.

Iceland, we are told, is going to join the European Union, and it’s also going to start using the “single currency,” the euro. Indeed, the Icelandic parliament, the Althing, has just voted to start the negotiations, and the EU says it would be happy to have the big island as its 28th member – or 29th or 30th or 31st, depending on whether Croatia and/or Macedonia and/or Albania make it into the EU first.

Don’t believe it. The Icelanders want to join the EU now because the country is dead broke, the Icelandic krona is worth less than the Lower Slobbovian gugulev, and they are very scared for the future. When there’s only 320,000 of you and the bottom falls out of your economy, the shelter of big, seemingly solid institutions like the EU and the euro has an irresistible appeal.

It has been a fast, steep fall for the Icelanders, who were among the most prosperous people in the world only one year ago. Hardly any of them wanted to join the EU, suspecting that its member countries only wanted access to Icelandic waters so they could vacuum up all their fish. Besides, Icelandic banks, which had practically taken over the economy, were among the most profitable in the world.

It was the banks that caused Iceland’s downfall. The country radically deregulated its banking system some years ago, and the small, previously humble Icelandic banks suddenly became major international players. With government backing, they grew rapidly until they were ten times the size of the real economy, yet all of the Icelandic bank directors together had a total of about 25 minutes of international banking experience.

The island had become a giant hedge fund sitting in the middle of the North Atlantic, and when the bubble burst last October it promptly morphed into a soup-kitchen. The currency collapsed, unemployment soared, and the government fell. The new government, headed by Social Democratic prime minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, saw no other option than to seek shelter within the EU.

But Arni Thor Sigurdsson, chair of Iceland’s parliamentary committee handling EU issues, reckons that the entry negotiations will take at least four years. Then, probably in 2013, there will have to be a referendum. By that time the world economy will have recovered and Icelanders will have regained their usual confidence – or at least, enough of it to reject membership in the EU, whose only plausible motive for wanting them to join is to steal their fish. So it won’t happen.

Then there’s Tony Blair, who was prime minister of Britain for ten years before his Labour colleagues finally got him out in mid-2007. He was only 54 when he finally left office, and the make-work job they found him afterwards as “Middle East envoy” of the Quartet (the United States, Russia, the EU, and the United Nations) doesn’t really fill his time. So why not President of the EU?

Well, for one thing, the job doesn’t exist yet. It will come into existence if and when the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, which can only happen if Ireland votes “yes” in a second referendum in October. (The Irish voted “no” in their first referendum in mid-2008, but opinion polls suggest that they have changed their minds.) Even if the Irish vote “yes”, however, the Poles and the Czechs also have to ratify it.

Both the Czech and Polish parliaments have approved the Lisbon Treaty, but both presidents dislike it and have not yet signed it. If one of them stalls until there is an election in the United Kingdom and the Conservatives take power, the latter would then hold a British referendum on the treaty, and the British might reject it.

It would therefore be a bit premature for any of the candidates for EU president to give up their day jobs. Blair has not even admitted that he is a candidate. As an ally explained: “He wants it, but he does not want to be humiliated by failing to get it.” He should stick with that position, because he’s not going to get it.

It is only six years since Tony Blair illegally invaded Iraq, siding with George W. Bush and against most of the other large EU states. The British public ultimately turned against his war, but most of his Western European neighbours were against it from the start. A significant number even think of him as an unindicted war criminal.

The EU frequently shoots itself in the foot, but it won’t discredit its new presidency from the start by putting Blair in the job. He will be left to roam the speakers’ circuit in the United States, advise Wall Street bank JP Morgan, and potter about in the Middle East.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“It has…world”; and “Both…reject it”)

Blair: Why Did He Do It?

13 May 2007

Blair: Why Did He Do It?

By Gwynne Dyer

It has been the longest good-bye in modern politics, and there are still another six weeks to go before Tony Blair finally hands the prime ministership over to Gordon Brown on 27 June. After he finally quits, most people in Britain assume, Blair will go off and make a living on the lecture circuit in the United States (where he is far more popular than he is at home). They won’t miss him much.

It is strange that a prime minister who has presided over an unprecedented surge of prosperity in Britain should be so deeply unpopular, but the answer lies in a single word: Iraq. Support for that war in Britain is even lower than it is in the United States, and the popular conviction that the public was misled into invading Iraq by a leader who ruthlessly manipulated the “evidence” to get his way is even stronger. The argument is only about why he did it — and the consensus answer is that it was religion.

In “post-Christian Britain” — the phrase dates from the 1970s, but is even truer today — Blair is what was once known as a “muscular Christian”: a person who believes that his faith requires him to act, and justifies his actions. Only a minority of British prime ministers in the past century have been Christian believers (Winston Churchill, for example, was a completely irreligious agnostic), and even the ones who were personally devout felt that religion should remain a private matter.

In terms of spin-control, this phenomenon extended even into Blair’s government, as the prime minister was under strict instructions not to speak in public about his faith. “We don’t do God,” as spin-master Alastair Campbell once put it. But in fact, Blair did “do God.” That was what led him into Iraq.

Columnist Geoffrey Wheatcroft got it exactly right in “The Independent” last Sunday: “In some ways (Blair) is more innately American than British. Blair may not have prayed with the born-again George Bush, but their shared faith was certainly a bond, and (Blair’s) wearing his faith on his sleeve would not have seemed too odd or embarrassing in the US, where more than half the population goes to church and where supposedly grown-up politicians can say they approach difficult problems by asking: ‘What would Jesus do’?”

The problem was that it would seem odd and embarrassing in Britain, where only seven percent of the population regularly attend church or its equivalent. The notion that British foreign policy was being driven by one man’s faith would have inspired mass revolt if Blair’s motives had been plain. But they weren’t: the spin machine did its job well.

From the time he took office in 1997, Blair talked about having a “moral” foreign policy, but it wasn’t clear at the time that that meant he believed in doing good by force. Then came a series of more or less legal military interventions abroad in which British troops did do some good: in stopping the genocide against Muslims in Kosovo in 1999, in ending the civil war in Sierra Leone in 2000, and in overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan after the terrorist atrocities of 11 September, 2001.

All those uses of military force succeeded at a relatively low cost — the flare-up of guerilla warfare in Afghanistan today is due to neglect of the country AFTER 2001 — and it was flowers and champagne for Tony Blair each time. He was doing good by force, and he was doing very well by it politically, too. But the lesson Blair learned was that this sort of thing is cheap and easy, and it was getting to be a habit. Then along came the Bush administration’s plan to invade Iraq.

It is clear in retrospect that Blair had agreed to commit British troops to the invasion by the spring of 2002. It is hard to believe that he was so ignorant and ill-advised as to believe the nonsense about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and his alleged links to the al-Qaeda terrorists, but it is very easy to believe that he leapt at another chance to do good — i.e., rid the world of a wicked dictator — by force.

Did Blair understand that the Bush administration’s real motives for putting Iraq at the top of its hit-list were quite traditional great-power concerns, and that the American public was just being fed those stories about Saddam’s terrorist ties and his imaginary WMD because they went down more smoothly? Probably he did, but he was willing to go along with all that so long as the wicked dictator was actually overthrown. For the true believer, the end often justifies the means.

Blair’s perennial claim that “I have always done what I believe to be right” is no defence — do the rest of us usually do what we believe to be wrong? — but he firmly believes that good intentions absolve him of responsibility for the outcome. The United Nations is a wreck, the reputations of the United States and the United Kingdom have never been lower, and Iraq is an almost measureless disaster, but no higher authority will ever officially hold Blair responsible for any of that, so in practical terms he is quite right.

Enjoy the lecture circuit, Tony.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“In terms…Iraq”; and”Did Blair..means”)

London: Not Exactly the Blitz

7 July 2005

London: Not Exactly the Blitz

By Gwynne Dyer

Tony Blair flew down from the G8 summit in Scotland especially to
be with Londoners in their time of trial, and you can hardly blame him for
that. It’s not that we needed him to take charge — it was only four
smallish bombs, and the emergency services were doing their job just fine
— but the tabloid newspapers would have crucified him if he hadn’t shown
up and looked sympathetic in public.

No doubt he was feeling sympathetic, too, but the words he used
rang false. The accent was British, but the words were the sort of thing
that comes out of the mouth of George W. Bush — all about defending
British values and the British way of life. He didn’t mention God, so he’s
still British under it all, but I’m pretty sure I even heard him use Mr
Bush’s favourite words, “freedom” and “resolve”. I’m also pretty certain
that this cut very little ice with most Londoners.

This is a town that has been dealing with bombs for a long time.
German bombs during the “Blitz” in September-December 1940 killed 13,339
Londoners and seriously injured 17,939 more. In 1944 this city was the
first in the world to be hit by pilotless cruise missiles (the V-1s or
“buzz-bombs”), and later that year it was the first to be struck by
long-range ballistic missiles (the V-2s, which carried a tonne of high
explosive).

During the whole of the Second World War, about 30,000 Londoners
were killed by German bombs and three-quarters of a million lost their
homes. Then, between 1971 and 2001, London was the target of 116 bombs set
by various factions of the Irish Republican Army, although they only killed
50 people and injured around 1000. And not once during all those bombs did
people in London think that they were being attacked because of their
values and their way of life.

It was quite clear to them that they were being attacked because of
British POLICIES abroad, or the policies of Britain’s friends and allies.
The people who organised the bombs wanted Britain out of the Second World
War, or British troops out of Northern Ireland, or the British army out of
the Middle East (or maybe, in this instance, the whole G8 to leave the rest
of the world alone). Nasty things, bombs, but those who send them your way
are usually rational people with rational goals, and they almost never care
about your values or your way of life.

Londoners actually understand that, and it has a remarkably calming
effect, because once you have grasped that basic fact then you are no
longer dealing with some faceless, formless, terrifying unknown, but just a
bunch of people who are willing to kill at random in order to get your
government to change its policies. We don’t even know which bunch yet. It
could have been Islamist terrorist, or some breakaway faction of the IRA
(that’s been waiting to happen for while), or even some anarchist group
trying to make a point about the G8. But that doesn’t matter, really.
The point is that they are only terrorists, and they can’t hurt all
that many people. In a large city the odds are very much in your favour:
it will almost always be somebody else who gets unlucky.

This knowledge breeds a fairly blase attitude to bombs, which was
much in evidence this morning when I had to go in to Harley Street at noon
to pick up my daughter from school. (They didn’t let school out early; it
was just the last day.) The buses and the underground weren’t running and
a lot of streets were blocked off by the police, but everybody was finding
ways round them, on foot and in cars. You pull over to let the emergency
vehicles pass, and then you carry on.

I do recall thinking, however, that it was a good thing that the
bombs had gone off here, not in some American city. Even terrorist bombs
in London will be used by the Bush administration as an argument for
locking people up indefinitely, taking away Americans’ civil liberties, and
perhaps even for invading some other unsuspecting country. One bomb in an
American city, and it would have a free run down to 2008.

Whereas in London, it doesn’t work like that. In fact, maybe it was
my imagination, but I thought that I could even hear a number of Londoners
muttering under their breaths: “Bloody terrorists. Always get it wrong. If
only they’d done this two days ago then we wouldn’t be lumbered with the
bleeding Olympics.”
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Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.