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Cuba Hurts

The recent wave of executions and arrests in Cuba is very good news for the universal superpower which remains obsessed with removing this persistent thorn from its paw. But it is very bad news, and very sad, for those of us who admired the valour of this tiny country, so capable of greatness, but who also believe that freedom and justice go together or not at all.

It is a time of very bad news: as if the perfidious impunity of the slaughter in Iraq were not enough, the Cuban Government is now committing acts that, as Uruguayan writer Carlos Quijano would say, ‘sin against hope’.

Rosa Luxembourg, who gave her life for the socialist revolution, disagreed with Lenin over the project of a new society. Her words of warning proved prophetic and, 85 years after she was assassinated in Germany, she is still right: ‘Freedom for only the supporters of the Government, however many there may be, is not freedom. Real freedom is freedom for those who think differently.’

And: ‘Without general elections, without freedom of the press and unlimited freedom of assembly, without a contest of free opinions, life stagnates and withers in all public institutions and the bureaucracy becomes the only active element.’

The 20th century, and what we’ve had of the 21st, has seen a double betrayal of socialism: the abandonment of the principles of social democracy which has peaked with sergeant Tony Blair, and the collapse of the communist states, turned police states. Many of these simply expired, without pain or glory, and their recycled bureaucrats now serve the new master with pathetic enthusiasm.

The Cuban revolution was born to be different. Assailed by the incessant hounding from the empire to the north, it survived as it could and not as it wished. The people, valiant and generous, sacrificed a great deal to stay on their feet in a world of rampant servility. But as year after year of trials buffeted the island, the revolution began to lose the spontaneity and freshness that marked its beginning. I say this with sadness. Cuba hurts.

My conscience clear, I will repeat what I have previously said both on and away from the island: I do not and have never believed in single-party democracy (including in the US where there is a single party disguised as two) nor do I believe that the omnipotence of the state is a valid response to the omnipotence of the market.

The long prison sentences handed down in Cuba can only backfire. They make into martyrs for freedom of expression certain groups that operated openly from the house of James Cason, representative of Bush interests in Havana. Cason’s passion for freedom reached such extremes that he himself founded the Juvenile Branch of the Cuban Liberal Party, with the delicacy and modesty that characterize its leader.

Acting as if these groups constituted a grave threat, Cuban authorities paid them homage and granted them the prestige that words acquire when they are forbidden.

This ‘democratic opposition’ has nothing to do with the real hopes of honest Cubans. If the revolution had not done them the favour of repressing them, and if Cuba had full freedom of the press and opinion, these pretend dissidents would be unmasked and receive the punishment they deserve – the punishment of solitude for their notorious nostalgia for the colonial period in a country that chose the path of national dignity.

The United States, that indefatigable mill of world dictators, does not have the moral authority to tutor anyone on democracy – though President Bush could certainly give lessons on the death penalty which he championed as governor of Texas, signing warrants for the execution of 152 people.

But do true revolutions, those that are generated from below like Cuba’s, need to learn bad habits from the enemies they are fighting? The death penalty has no justification.

Will Cuba be the next prey for President Bush’s state-hunting party? That’s what his brother Jeb, governor of the state of Florida, indicated when he said: ‘Now we’ll have to take a look at our neighborhood.’ Cuban exile Zoe Valdes hurled her demand via Spanish television that ‘they bomb the dictator’. Secretary of Defence, or rather Offence, Rumsfeld, clarified the matter of whether Cuba was next on the hit list: ‘For now, no.’

It seems that the dangerometer and guiltoscope, the instruments used to select of Washington’s next victims, are pointing instead to Syria. For now anyway, as Rumsfeld says.

I believe in the sacred right to self-determination for people everywhere and at any time. I can say this without any twinge of conscience because I spoke out publicly each time this right was violated in the name of socialism and applauded by vast sectors of the left – when, for example, Soviet tanks entered Prague in 1968, or Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in late 1979.

You can see in Cuba signs of the decadence of a model of centralized power that transforms into a revolutionary virtue obedience to orders from above. The US blockade, and a thousand other forms of aggression, are blocking the development of democracy in Cuba, feeding the militarization of power and providing alibis for bureaucratic rigidity. Current events show that it is harder than ever to open a city that was closed because it had to defend itself. But they also show, now more than ever, that democratic opening is inevitable. The revolution which was capable of surviving the fury of 10 American presidents and 20 CIA directors, needs the energy that comes from participation and diversity to face the dark times that surely lie ahead.

It must be the Cubans and the Cubans alone, with no interference from outside, who forge a democracy for themselves and win the rights they lack – working within the revolution that they made, the most profound on earth, animated by the greatest solidarity that I know.

Eduardo Galeano is one of Latin America’s foremost writers. He lives in Montevideo, Uruguay, and his latest book Upside Down is published by Metropolitan Books, New York.


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Why the world is ignoring Darfur

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has made it plain that if the genocide in Rwanda were to happen again, Britain would have a duty to act. In 2001 he told the ruling Labour Party’s annual conference that there was a moral duty to prevent such carnage being repeated. President George Bush famously wrote the words ‘not on my watch’ on a memo summarizing the Clinton Administration’s inaction over Rwanda.

The United Nations now acknowledges that in the last two years 180,000 black Africans have died in the Darfur region of Sudan. The British House of Commons International Development Committee, in line with several non-governmental agencies active in western Sudan, believes the figure is nearer 400,000, with two million people displaced because of ethnic cleansing.

The Blair Government’s reaction has been to deny the scale and cause of the suffering in Darfur, to portray it as a humanitarian rather than a political problem, and to cast both ‘sides’ as equally guilty. In other words, apart from sending food to refugees, British policy in the face of mass murder and ethnic cleansing is not to confront the perpetrators, in this case the National Islamic Front regime in Khartoum.

Kofi Annan has repeatedly warned the United Nations that events in Darfur demand a tough multilateral reaction to convince the Sudanese to stop the bloodshed. However, the Security Council’s resolutions on Darfur have lacked teeth, and the massive oil interests of the Chinese and the French, both permanent Security Council members, will ensure those countries put their national self-interest first and veto any action.

Last May Annan’s staff believed they had persuaded the Canadians to lead a civilian protection force of like-minded interventionists such as the Australians, Dutch and Scandinavians. When Canada announced it wanted to send troops, the Sudanese regime feigned outrage. To general dismay, the Canadians backed down rather than arguing the case, or calling Khartoum’s bluff.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that what has occurred in Darfur is genocide, as defined by the 1948 Convention. Sudan’s military junta in Khartoum has deliberately targeted the black Africans of Darfur because they want the land for their largely Arab supporters. The Coalition for International Justice, the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and others are in agreement: Sudan’s regime has burned and bombed 90 per cent of black villages in Darfur, and it has paid and armed Arab militias known as the Janjaweed to sweep across this vast, dry region, killing, raping and looting as they go.

When I interviewed dozens of women survivors in refugee camps in Darfur, they told me remarkably consistent stories about aerial attacks by Sudanese airforce Antonovs and helicopters, followed by waves of Janjaweed on horse and camel. The Janjaweed killed the men and boys, raped the women, stole cattle, torched homes and threw babies on to fires (for photographic evidence please visit www.wagingpeace.org.uk). The women walked for days to the camps, built shelters from twigs, and now face daily attack whenever they venture out for firewood.

Of the women I met, all had been attacked or raped within the last two weeks. They told me that the Janjaweed screamed racial abuse at them as they raped them. The racism did not surprise them, however, because it is common practice for Sudanese Arabs openly to refer to black Africans as ‘slaves’.

Despite Prime Minister Tony Blair’s commitment to prevent another Rwanda, and his concern about Africa, his Government shows no inclination to pressure the Sudanese regime. In off-the-record briefings, British ministers warn that the small-scale Darfur rebels are equally as responsible as the mighty Sudanese armed forces working in concert with their Janjaweed proxies. The subtext is that these savage people are all as bad as each other, and that we will only provoke an Islamic jihad if we intervene against the junta in Khartoum. Evidently, the same concern about attracting militants from around the world did not inform the Blair Administration’s thinking over Iraq. Even the House of Commons International Development Committee recently condemned ministers for deliberately downplaying events in Darfur and for misrepresenting the genocide there as a humanitarian disaster resulting from ‘ancient ethnic tribal hatreds’.

In 2004, at the height of the slaughter, officials at the British Embassy in Khartoum made it clear to me that Darfur was an irritating sideshow, and that their priority was Sudan’s north-south peace deal. In saying this they revealed who was driving British foreign policy: the White House.

Since it took power the Bush Administration has been under pressure from highly organized American Christian groups to stop Islamist Khartoum from killing southern Sudan’s black Africans, many of whom happen to be Christians. Coincidentally, there are vast oil reserves under the blood-soaked earth of southern Sudan, and everyone is keen to establish a stable economic environment there.

The future looks bleak for Darfur. The genocide and ethnic cleansing have succeeded

In an impressive display of tough, focused diplomacy, the US State Department’s John Danforth forced the Sudanese regime to come to a power-sharing agreement with southern rebels, led by General John Garang. Danforth’s unrelenting pressure on Khartoum was a textbook example of how to use the threat of military and economic action to achieve your aims without firing a shot. Britain assisted Danforth in south Sudan, and together with the Americans is determined to make sure the comprehensive peace treaty sticks, despite the death of Garang in a helicopter crash in July 2005. They believe this entails not upsetting the generals in Khartoum, rather than using other possible tactics such as the prospect of economic aid as an incentive to stop the killing in Darfur.

There was a brief period when Britain was at odds with the Bush Administration. The same Christians, in coalition with black church groups, pushed the White House to get tough with Khartoum over Darfur. In September 2004 Colin Powell, then Secretary of State, determined that genocide was happening in Darfur, and the Government of Sudan was to blame. Cynics might suggest that the November 2004 presidential elections could have had some bearing on Powell’s announcement.

Nevertheless his view was echoed by President Bush, and the governments of Germany and Canada. Unfortunately it seems that recognizing the existence of genocide no longer triggers any duty to act – a development that surely deserves wider debate. The Americans were at least applying pressure to the authors of the genocide in Khartoum.

In sharp contrast, in April 2004, during one of the deadliest periods in Darfur, the then British Ambassador, William Patey, boasted to an audience in Khartoum that British trade with Sudan was up by 25 per cent. ‘We are and shall remain good friends with Sudan,’ he assured them.

Seasoned Sudan-watchers, such as the American professor Eric Reeves of Smith College, credit the generals in Khartoum with fine diplomatic skills, pointing to the way they have run rings around Westerners for years. The junta quickly responded to American pressure on Darfur by offering to share their intelligence on al Qaeda with Washington. Osama bin Laden lived in Khartoum for five years during the 1990s, and in 1998 the Clinton Administration sent several cruise missiles to destroy a factory thought to be producing chemical weapons near Khartoum.

In April 2005 the CIA sent a private jet to collect the head of Sudanese intelligence, himself wanted for war crimes in Darfur, and ferried him to their Langley, Virginia, headquarters for debriefing on bin Laden. At the same time Bush stopped describing the events in Darfur as genocide or even mentioning the issue. It is also rumoured that the name of the head of Sudanese intelligence has been removed from the secret list of 51 individuals accused of war crimes in Darfur. In the War Against Terror it would seem that anything is negotiable.

The excuse for remaining cosy with the junta is that pressure on the Khartoum regime might endanger the north-south deal. Underlying this is a favourite mantra: we must work with the big powers in any region, whatever our reservations about their human rights record, because the worst possible outcome is instability. The foreign policy establishment lives in fear of someone redrawing maps according to the wishes of the inhabitants of the nations created in an arbitrary fashion by colonial powers.

British ministers warn that a much worse gang of thugs might replace the current mass murderers, were they to be overthrown. When questioned about his relationship with Khartoum, Chris Mullin, then Africa minister, said in November 2004: ‘In diplomacy sometimes you have to work with people with whom you might not see eye to eye on everything.’

Of the women I met, all had been attacked or raped within the last two weeks. They told me the Janjaweed screamed racial abuse at them as they raped them

At the risk of being picky, taxpayers might not see ‘eye to eye on everything’ with a junta that allows no elections and no free press; tortures hundreds of political prisoners; has encouraged and facilitated institutional racism towards its black African citizens in all walks of life for decades; has killed two million in south Sudan and another 400,000 in Darfur; imposes extreme Sharia law, and allows virtually every eight-year-old girl to be forcibly mutilated.

Anyone demanding consistency from diplomats does not appreciate the subtle arts of realpolitik. As explained to me by sundry officials and ministers, those of us outside the system simply don’t understand the complexity of Sudan. We should be grateful that humanitarian supplies are being sent. ‘There is no military solution,’ Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary in Britain contends, although he believes military intervention was the appropriate response to Saddam’s Iraq.

The future looks bleak for Darfur. The genocide and ethnic cleansing have succeeded. Now the priority is to protect the survivors in refugee camps. Sadly both the African Union and the Arab League have chosen not to condemn Sudan. The African Union has a mere 2,700 soldiers ‘monitoring’ an area the size of France with only a handful of paved roads.

Human Rights Watch believes that the Janjaweed are joining the army and police, and Médecins Sans Frontières catalogues their systematic rape of Darfur’s women. The BBC dutifully reports that the Sudanese Government is investigating reports of attacks on women, as if it were not the architect and paymaster of the whole wretched disaster.

The international community disgraced itself over Rwanda and it is doing so again in Darfur. The Canadian general turned human rights activist, Romeo Dallaire, who was present in Rwanda, believes more than 40,000 troops are needed in Darfur to protect civilians. The Sudanese junta needs international investment and respectability, which gives the ‘international community’ the power to make them stop the killing and terror. Although they deny it, Khartoum could call off the roaming bands of Janjaweed rapists and looters tomorrow. Instead the survivors of the genocide must fend for themselves. It is, in Dallaire’s words, ‘Rwanda in slow motion’ – and he should know.

Becky Tinsley is director of Waging Peace.


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Sleepless in Oxford

Here’s a question, something that has been bothering me for some time now: How does Tony Blair sleep at night?

I mean, how does he do it? I can’t sleep if my daughter’s hamster has a cold, or I’ve forgotten to defrost the fridge. This guy bombs countries, taking out thousands of innocent men, women and children, and sleeps like a baby. I mean, how does he do it?

Perhaps Cherie makes him a cup of hot cocoa each night…
CB: ‘What was your day like, sweetheart?’
TB: ‘Not bad, dear. Very busy. Baghdad blown to smithereens, Afghanistan reduced to rubble… oh, and I’ve just given the go-ahead for a new generation of nuclear weapons and… goodness, I’m ready for some shut-eye.’

So, back to the question, how does he do it?

I guess, like so many in a position of supreme power, he believes in what he’s doing. Totally. ‘I am right, everyone else is wrong.’ It’s a stance that has served our rulers well over the years, enabling them to rest easy. ‘I’m at peace with my world, so screw yours.’ I mean, how else can they live with themselves, let alone grab a regular eight hours? And Blair is not alone in all this is he? The list is endless.

Did Haig sneak off for an afternoon kip after sending thousands to their slaughter at the Somme? Was Harry Truman snuggled up in bed as the atom bomb obliterated Hiroshima? Nixon, Kissinger snoring their heads off while B-52s blasted Cambodia back to the Stone Age? Margaret Thatcher catching up on her, er, ‘beauty’ sleep as the Belgrano plunged to the ocean floor?

But is it enough to believe you are right? Of course not. There must be something else. Rhino-hide skin? Fear of losing face? Of failing? The sheer inability to say: ‘Sorry, got that wrong’?

Actually, I’ve no idea how Tony Blair sleeps at night. It’s a mystery to me. But somehow he does. So, I’ll let you figure it out. I’m off to take the hamster to the vet.

Pass me those sleeping pills…!

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The first casualty of war is truth

The British Government has recently blocked the release of Cabinet minutes which would outline the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The reason for the censorship? Well, according the Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, it would ‘risk serious damage to Cabinet government’ and ‘far outweighs’ any public benefit (of publication). The decision was greeted by MPs of all political shades by calls of ‘shame’ and ‘disgraceful’. What is clear is that the Government is terrified at the prospect of Cabinet minutes seeing the light of day. What gems would be revealed there?

The decision to attack Iraq was highly controversial at the time, and remains so. We were taken to war on a lie – a lie that claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that they were 45 minutes away from attacking Britain. Governments lie, especially during times of war. After all, the first casualty in war is the truth.

Here’s a quote I saw the other day:

‘Of course the people don’t want war... that is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country’.

Who said that? Tony Blair? George W Bush?

No, it was Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler’s Deputy Chief and Luftwaffe Commander, at the Nuremberg trials in 1946.

We must all demand to know the legal basis of a war in which tens of thousands died.


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Cage dinners

Photo by: openDemocracy under a CC Licence

On a quiet street behind Whitechapel tube station in London, the Maedah Grill serves up spicy lamb kebabs and deep fried squid.

Like any other Turkish restaurant in London, it buzzes with the chatter of city types, cash-strapped students and hungry locals. Once every six months, though, it hosts a more extraordinary party.

The dozen or so men who meet on these nights come from as far away as Birmingham and Manchester to embrace each other with warm cries of ‘salam e lekum’. They laugh and exchange gossip before ravenously scanning the menus and ordering portions of shish kebab and steak.

To an outsider, they look like brothers happily arguing, but their bond is as unique as it is terrible. They are the Britons who were held without charge in Guantánamo Bay naval base in the Bush Administration’s ‘war on terror’. These meals, dubbed ‘Cage Dinners’ in a wry nod to years spent behind bars in Cuba, are a chance to swap anecdotes of freedom and shake off memories of darker times.

A difficult journey

Media interest in Guantánamo Bay has gradually waned since Barack Obama announced plans for its closure in January. More than 540 of the 760 or so inmates held since 2001 have now been released without charge, and the lurid allegations of inhumane treatment that emerged with them have crystallized in the public consciousness as fact. For the 12 Muslim men sitting around the table in east London, however, returning to Britain has only been the start of a difficult new journey.

Among them is Tarek Dergoul, a 31 year old from Tower Hamlets. He was released from Cuba in 2004 after almost three years of imprisonment, during which time he alleges he was beaten and tortured. Beneath the jollity of every reunion, Dergoul says there is a starker reality. Meeting up with his fellow detainees is the only time he gets to truly relax.

‘I feel paranoid, like people are out to get me. I feel more comfortable with the guys that were there with me – I feel at ease and I’m OK. If I’m with other people I start to feel they don’t understand me’

‘It’s still hard for me to communicate with people who weren’t there,’ he begins. ‘I feel paranoid, like people are out to get me. I feel more comfortable with the guys that were there with me – I feel at ease and I’m OK. If I’m with other people I start to feel they don’t understand me.’

Dergoul’s struggle to settle back into life in the East End has been a long one. He came home to his terraced house five years ago, fighting his way through the gathered scrum of TV cameras and fending off the attentions of publicist Max Clifford. He sat down on the family sofa and realized he didn’t know where to begin.

‘All my brother said to me was that when I was looking at him, it was as if I was looking through him,’ Dergoul says. ‘I had this weird look in my eyes, looking straight at him as if he wasn’t in front of me. I had so much in my head, there was so much evil to explain. Who was I going to tell it to? Who was the right person to speak to? All these things were rushing through my head.’

Just a nightmare

Dergoul lost most of his left arm in a bomb blast in Afghanistan before he was captured by the Northern Alliance and sold to US troops in 2001. With this physical disability and the scars of mental trauma inflicted in Cuba, he finds it hard to work. But obtaining income support and housing benefits when he got home five years ago was, in his words, ‘just a nightmare’. Even with the help of the Helen Bamber Foundation and Oona King, then-Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, Tarek had to battle for three years to get back his passport and sign up for state support.

‘The Government was saying “no, no, no” to everything and I had to appeal every time,’ he says. ‘As if I wasn’t disabled, as if I hadn’t spent time in prison, as if I was a nobody. It took until about 2007 to get the things I was supposed to get in six months.’

Shafiq Rasul and Ruhal Ahmed came home to their Midlands town to find locals had erected an orange jump-suited effigy in the park under a banner reading ‘Hang the Tipton Taliban’

The story is a familiar one. Shafiq Rasul and Ruhal Ahmed, two of the ‘Tipton Three’ made famous in the 2005 film The Road to Guantánamo, came home to their Midlands town in 2004 to find locals had erected an orange jump-suited effigy in the park under a banner reading ‘Hang the Tipton Taliban’. The community is tight-knit and insular, they explain, and more than five years later all three men are still unable to find work. They blame Tony Blair’s Administration for refusing to help clear their names.

‘It doesn’t help that the Government didn’t openly say we were innocent,’ Ahmed says. ‘If they had turned around and said, “actually – these guys didn’t do anything wrong”, it would have made things a lot easier. Everyone in town knows us and still no-one wants to give us a job. After all these years there’s still the perception we’re terrorists.’

Ahmed recounts a rare interview with a media company for a telesales job. After three rounds, someone spotted a line at the end of his CV mentioning a part in a Channel 4 documentary.

‘Although I could have lied and said I was a tea-maker or technician or something, I told them I was a subject and the film was about my time in Guantánamo Bay,’ Ahmed shrugs. ‘Their eyes popped out on stalks and there were no more questions. They never called me back after that.’


The picture of three Muslim men outcast by a small-minded, working-class town on the grounds of religion is not entirely accurate. Rasul chips in to explain his experience of alienation extends into the Muslim community, too. He mentions a recent incident in which the imam of a mosque in nearby Walsall asked him not to attend prayers, saying he didn’t want the organization associated with any former Guantánamo detainees. Rasul gives a cutting laugh when he remembers his first moments of freedom in 2004.

The imam of a mosque in nearby Walsall asked Rasul not to attend prayers, saying he didn’t want the organization associated with any former Guantánamo detainees

‘After the three of us were released, it was weird walking down the road to [human rights lawyer] Gareth Peirce’s house in north London. In prison, everywhere we walked we had chains on our feet and we had to take baby steps and we realized we were still doing that, still thinking the chains were on our feet… Those chains might be gone but still today I feel like I can’t go into Birmingham by myself, even just to go shopping.’

Of course, some of the British detainees have been able to begin rebuilding their lives. Moazzam Begg, a former Islamic bookshop owner who was freed in 2005 after three years in Kandahar and Guantánamo Bay, has since written an acclaimed account of his time in US custody – Enemy Combatant – and acts as a powerful voice for those still detained in Cuba through the charity Cageprisoners. Omar Deghayes, who trained as a lawyer in Huddersfield before being arrested in Pakistan in 2002, now lives in Brighton and works with Clive Stafford Smith’s Reprieve, the legal charity which has helped many of the British men held in Guantánamo Bay.

The longest spell

Deghayes was released in January 2007. Like Dergoul, he faced a lengthy fight with the Government – in his case, to obtain UK residency as he was previously an asylum seeker – which would stretch out for almost two years. He strikes an optimistic note when talking about his plans to set up his own practice as a human rights lawyer, but the physical and psychological stains Guantánamo Bay has left on him are indelible. He is blind in his left eye, allegedly as a result of being gouged by a camp guard during a beating. Having been captured in Islamabad in 2002 he also endured the longest spell of imprisonment of all the British detainees.

‘Six years of your life is not an easy thing to lose, especially if you are a young man,’ Deghayes says. “It means destroying your life, destroying your family, your relationships, the relatives who rely on you. And without any compensation, without any apology, without anything. It’s a sad thing.’

To be refused UK residency on his return was devastating, Deghayes adds. ‘How are you going to support yourself if you’re not allowed to work? How do they expect you to live?’

‘Six years of your life is not an easy thing to lose, especially if you are a young man. It means destroying your life, destroying your family, your relationships, the relatives who rely on you’

Many of the detainees say their faith in Islam flourished in prison, fortifying them against the harsh cycle of interrogations, beatings and days of boredom. Ahmed and Rasul learned Arabic from other prisoners and deepened their knowledge of the Qur’an; Deghayes says he learned to pray inwardly, even when the guards forbade kneeling, and Dergoul believes his religion sustained him. The mood around the table at Cage Dinners can be boisterous or introspective, but it is never regretful: to curse your life’s course is un-Islamic, Dergoul explains.

‘We believe as Muslims that everything in our lives – whether you’ll be rich or poor, happy or sad – was written 50,000 years before the earth and the heavens were created,’ he says. ‘If you’re a Muslim you have faith, and that’s not something you do – sit there thinking about it.’

The spirit of equanimity extends to a few of the guards who patrolled the gangways of Guantánamo Bay. Some, such as Chris Arendt and Brandon Neely, have offered public redress by speaking out against the brutalities they witnessed being handed out to Muslim prisoners. Dergoul says those who recognize the wrongness of what has happened in Cuba in the name of the ‘war on terror’ should be forgiven.

‘Even if [former President George W] Bush apologized, I would invite him to my house and give him a hug,’ Dergoul adds with a smile. ‘Bush – who’s killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims, who said it’s a crusade, who’s an evangelist. If he apologized I’d invite him to my house, share my food with him, help him in whatever way I can.’


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President Blair: The great escape

Which movie are we in? The final act of The Omen? Or maybe Goodfellas?

After heroically stalling the advance of Tony Blair by rejecting the Lisbon Treaty, which would (among other horrors) create the role of President of the United States of Europe, the Irish were told to vote again until the required result was reached. So they finally caved in and midwifed the birth of the monster like something out of The Omen and for a few moments it looked like only an act of God stood between us and a Blair shoo-in. Cue shrieking horror chords.

With his abasement before the rich and powerful, free holidays, dodgy dossiers and phantom weapons of mass destruction, dead government scientists, a mushrooming property portfolio, a million dead Iraqis and British soldiers returning in body-bags, first President of the US of E is not the final destination many of us find most appropriate for Blair, even if the imaginative demises in the Final Destination movies are suitably poetic.

Presiding over this country’s wealthiest decade ever, where the gap between rich and poor widened into a chasm with oceans of money siphoned off by various privatization schemes, millionaire status is hardly just desserts for someone who was supposed to be serving us as Labour Prime Minister.

Garlanded with praise from powerful men welcoming the newbie into their club, swaddled in the warm embrace of the high-paying lecture circuit, honoured among the élite, the ego massage did enough damage for an army of wannabe Masters Of The Universe, and now they want to make him unelected President of Yurp? Move over, Pope Benny, ‘cause he’ll have his middle finger in your Big Ring, next.

Blair has made his bones and claimed his dues. He’s been having a high ol’ time, travelling the world and hoovering up his rewards. Some £2.5 million a year from JP Morgan, the bank that co-ordinated the ‘revamping’ of Iraq’s financial system and made a fortune from the war he started. A million-dollar honorarium from an Israeli university for Britain’s Middle East peace envoy. Some might holler ‘conflict of interest’ and set the cops onto him but maybe they do things differently now.

When he looks in the mirror, does he know that it isn’t the beatific numinous aura of the martyr he’s beaming out? This is the thousand-yard stare of empty space. Blair may aspire to Gandhi as played by Ben Kingsley but he’s more like Sir Ben as Don in Sexy Beast.

If the unelected post of President had gone to this man, what would the rest of the world have made of our much-vaunted western civilization? ‘It would be a good idea,’ as Gandhi once said. Or is that the voice of Blair’s inner Don I hear, telling himself, ‘You got some fuckin’ neck, ain’t you? You should be ashamed of yourself. Who do you think you are? King of the castle? Cock of the walk?’

Anna Chen is a writer, performer and broadcaster. www.annachen.co.uk


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Tony Blair - a bright shining lie*

World Economic Forum under a CC Licence

‘Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?’
(Epitaphs of War, Rudyard Kipling, 1865-1936)

We live in strange times. In October 2009, the fledgling President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ‘his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples’. He was ‘surprised and deeply humbled’, accepting it as ‘a call to action’. Oh good, a call to more ‘diplomacy and co-operation’ then? Not quite.

Under this shining example of all the Nobel Peace Prize now stands for, US drones are killing citizens of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia

Two months later Obama announced that killing more Afghans and throwing millions of dollars into doing it was his first priority. (He didn’t quite put it like that. He told an audience at West Point on 30 September 2009 that the deployment of 30,000 additional troops was a goal vital to ‘the common security of the world’. It would ‘break the Taliban’s momentum and increase Afghanistan’s capacity’. Goals would not be set ‘beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests’.)

Six and a half months in to 2010 US deaths from IEDs (impovised explosive devices) alone have reached 188, already exceeding the 152 for the whole of 2008, in ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’. Total deaths for 2009 within Afghanistan were 317, this year they are already 231. (1) Youthful dismemberments, disfigurements and deaths, on a hiding to nowhere, are seemingly part of those ‘interests’. Enduring freedom indeed, from life and limb, with of course, Afghan killings and casualties ‘not productive to count’.

Under this shining example of all the Nobel Peace Prize now stands for, US drones are killing citizens of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Iran is in the cross hairs and Poland has had the dubious honour of hosting US missiles, to protect it in case it is attacked by – Iran, according to the seemingly increasingly delusional US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world

Into this Orwellian world, enter ‘Teflon Tony’ Blair, set to collect the latest in a glittering array of Awards for services to humanity. His contribution to the betterment of humankind has included enjoining the US, in the Afghanistan invasion and between 1997 and 2003, in the silent cull of an average of 6,000 Iraqi children a month, instructing Britain’s UN officials to veto everything from vaccines to ventolin, insulin to incubators and intubators, paper to pencils, female hygiene appliances, to aids for children at the schools for the blind and deaf.

Into this Orwellian world, enter ‘Teflon Tony’ Blair, set to collect the latest in a glittering array of Awards for services to humanity

After six years of this decimation under his watch, added to the previous seven under his predecessor, John Major, Blair’s officials cooked up a pack of lies. He ignored the advice of his top Law Lord, Lord Goldsmith, and joined his little friend on Capitol Hill, in reducing what remained of the Cradle of Civilization, to an illegally invaded pile of rubble, the destruction of swathes of its ancient history and historical records, and the lynching, ‘disappearing’ and imprisoning of a legitimate government, whose sovereignty was guaranteed by the United Nations.

Recent estimates are that a further million Iraqis have died since the invasion, almost certainly an underestimate, since those in remoter areas are often unrecorded, as are those who died in vast numbers at the sieges of Najav, Tel Afar, the two assaults on Falluja and numerous other mass murders.

Lord Goldsmith, it now transpires, had written in his advice, six weeks before the invasion of Iraq: ‘My opinion is that Resolution 1441 does not revive the authorisation to use force ... in the absence of a further decision by the Security Council.’ Barrister Blair scribbled in the margin: ‘I just do not understand this.’ Did anyone ask which part of ‘No’ he could not grasp? Two weeks later the legal opinion was reiterated in a further note.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Blair of course, walked from this carnage to be Middle East Peace Envoy, telling Parliament on his resignation: ‘As I learned ... it is important to be able to bring people together.’ He can undoubtedly do delusion with some of the greats. As William Blum recently pointed out:

General Augusto Pinochet of Chile, mass murderer and torturer: ‘I would like to be remembered as a man who served his country.’
PW Botha, former president of apartheid South Africa: ‘I am not going to repent. I am not going to ask for favours. What I did, I did for my country.’
Pol Pot, mass murderer of Cambodia: ‘I want you to know that everything I did, I did for my country.’
Tony Blair, former British prime minister, defending his role in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis: ‘I did what I thought was right for our country.’

Patriotism is indeed the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Blair certainly did what he ‘thought was right’ for Tony Blair. As Peter Oborne pointed out in March : ‘We now know that the wretched Blair has multiplied his personal fortune many times over by trading off the connections he made while in Downing Street. Shockingly, he fought a long battle to conceal the source of his new-found wealth, and only this month did it finally become public that one of his largest clients was a South Korean oil company, the UI Energy Corporation, with extensive interests in Iraq ... he has also made £1million from advising the Kuwaiti royal family. It can be fairly claimed that Blair has profiteered as a result of the Iraq War in which so many hundreds of thousands of people died ... in the league of shame, Tony Blair is arguably the worst of them all.’

Teflon Tony joined his little friend on Capitol Hill in reducing what remained of the Cradle of Civilization to an illegally invaded pile of rubble

And the rewards for being an ally in mass starvation and murder, keep rolling in. The latest is the 2010 Liberty Medal, awarded by the US Constitution Centre (plus $100,000 prize money. Small change compared to the estimated $20 million he’s raked in since leaving office, but every little helps.)

The Liberty Medal, according to the Constitution Center ‘reflects the values of the US Constitution – a belief in justice, fairness, self-governance ... a balance between individual rights and communal responsibility, in the power of the people ... and in resolving issues through deliberation, compromise and respect for diverse viewpoints.’

It is to be presented to him by his close friend and fellow Iraqi children tormenter, ‘Bomber’ Bill Clinton, who says of Blair: ‘Tony continues to demonstrate the same leadership, dedication and creativity in promoting economic opportunity in the Middle East and the resolution of conflicts rooted in religion around the world, and is building the capacity of developing nations to govern honestly and effectively. I’m pleased the Constitution Center is awarding him the Liberty Medal in recognition of his work to promote the actions necessary to make peace, reconciliation, and prosperity possible.’

‘Economic opportunity’ indeed.

Million dollar baby

If your head is not yet over a bucket, David Eisner, President and CEO of the National Constitution Center, said: ‘Tony Blair has significantly furthered the expansion of freedom, self-governance, equality and peaceful coexistence. This award recognizes both his dedication to and his success in building understanding among nations and creating lasting solutions in areas of conflict.’

‘TeflonTony’ responded: ‘It is an honour to receive the Liberty Medal ... Freedom, liberty and justice are the values by which this medal is struck. Freedom, liberty and justice are the values which I try to apply to my work ... preparing the Palestinians for statehood. They are the values which drive ... as we try to show that people of different faiths can live together constructively, in peace and harmony.’

Barrister Blair scribbled in the margin: ‘I just do not understand this.’ Did anyone ask which part of ‘No’ he could not grasp?

He will be donating the prize money to two of his charities. He said the same thing when he won a million dollars in February 2009 with the Dan David Award, from the Tel Aviv-based Dan David Foundation, for his ‘steadfast determination and morally courageous leadership’. Revolving doors come to mind.

A month earlier he had been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W Bush for being ‘a true friend of the United States (who has) at his very centre (belief) in freedom.’ Tell that to the Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians with the ghettoized people of Gaza. He was in good company, receiving it with Australia’s former Prime Minister John Howard and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, both adherents to Blair and Bush’s particularly unique interpretation of freedom.

Patriotism is indeed the last refugee of the scoundrel

In July 2009, he pitched up to collect his Fenner Brockway Award, in London (for ‘shared vision ... global role in working for justice and security’.) with a black eye. Had someone finally found a dark night, a dark alley and a baseball bat?

Incidentally, six of those who were awarded the Liberty Medal have gone on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. It was Tom Lehrer who said: ‘Satire became redundant the day Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.’ No longer.

Blair may already share something with Kissinger: checking with his legal advisers every time he boards a plane, should he be arrested for war crimes on arrival.

And just another reminder, George Orwell’s real name was Eric Arthur Blair.

*(with thanks to Neil Sheehan.)


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Blair’s wilful misrepresentation?

Charles Anthony Lynton Blair’s reappearance last Friday before the Chilcot Inquiry into the assault on Iraq was heralded by an inside source commenting: ‘There is a feeling... he wilfully misrepresented the facts.’ Goodness, surely not.

It was a depressing performance. The Inquiry had clearly spent considerable time preparing questions related to anomalies in his previous evidence, but when he repeated blatant falsehoods – such as Saddam Hussein expelling the UN weapons inspectors, when in fact they had been withdrawn by their then Head, Richard Butler, ahead of the (illegal) 1998 US/UK Christmas bombing – the Chilcot panel appeared not to have the knowledge – or perhaps will – to pick up on that and other similarly misleading statements.

For me personally, one scene encapsulates the invasion – before it even began. I had checked in to a small family hotel in Mosul, northern Iraq. Mosul is in hauntingly beautiful, ancient, Nineveh province, of which Masefield wrote: ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir, rowing home to haven, in sunny Palestine, with a cargo of ivory, and apes and peacocks, sandalwood, cedarwood and sweet white wine.’ The wine came from Mosul grapes. The romance is undimmed, from the spine-tinglingly beautiful remains left by the Assyrian Kings (721-626 BC) to the great flocks of birds, who blacken the sky at dawn and dusk, their song rising and falling, filling the senses. I climbed the steep steps to the entrance and anticipated the beams and the ‘welcome, welcome, welcome home…’. The lobby was deserted.

It took a moment, then I looked through to the lounge: the entire staff, from the owner/manager to the kitchen boy, were huddled round the television, aware of nothing but Colin Powell’s address to the UN making it clear that an attack on Iraq was imminent. He cited Downing Street’s shameful work of fiction (‘Iraq – its infrastructure of concealment, deception and intimidation’) saying: ‘I would call my colleagues’ attention to the fine paper that the United Kingdom distributed... which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities.’ It was 5 February 2003.

Lost in translation

I stood unnoticed behind the group, watching in astonishment at purported translated conversations between Iraqi scientists, discussing how to hide their weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) – a conversation straight out of a Hollywood gangster movie, using expressions utterly alien to the Arab world. Further, there were camps teaching people how to make ricin poisons, numerous munitions bunkers, ballistic missile sites, UAVs (unarmed aerial vehicles), biological weapons, chemical weapons, anthrax. Iraq was a threat to life on earth: ‘We must not shrink from what is ahead of us,’ Powell concluded.

The staff switched off the television, clearly stunned, then noticed me. No greeting, just drawn, desperate faces and: ‘Madam Felicity, are they really going to bomb us again?’

The staff switched off the television, clearly stunned, then noticed me. No greeting, just drawn, desperate faces and: ‘Madam Felicity, are they really going to bomb us again?’ My face must have shown the answer. The region had anyway been being (illegally) bombed for 13 years, by US and British planes. Evocative ancient homes, standing a few months before just a few hundred metres from the hotel were no more. The hotel had somehow survived. Bombing had increased dramatically over the previous months. I had driven up from Baghdad along the main highway, which had many army bases and an airforce academy. Iraq had had no planes since 1991 and the tanks were all circa 1950s. All were reduced to rubble. I thought of bomb sites I had visited over the years, the shoes – it is always the shoes that are left. I remembered the child shepherd (aged 10) who had stepped on munition from 1991, which still littered the country. He silently pleaded through his remaining eye. He had also lost his foot. I pondered the years of recording words from broken hearts.

Three days later the Guardian pointed out that the dossier not only plagiarized an old thesis from an American PhD student, but it: ‘appeared to be a journalistic cut-and-paste job, rather then high grade intelligence analysis.’

Yet Blair, whose Faith Foundation ‘aims to promote understanding about the world’s religions’, authorized lies of near unprecedented enormity and enjoined Bush’s ‘Crusade’ against a crippled country, whose children were dying at an average of 7,000 a month of ‘embargo-related causes’ – the UN-flagged siege driven by the US and Britain. For anyone who has any doubt about the term ‘Crusade’ being a slip of the tongue, New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh cites research for his upcoming book, The Bush-Cheney Years. After the fall of the regime in 2003: ‘In the Cheney shop, the attitude was... “We’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals. And when we get all the oil, nobody’s gonna give a damn.”’

A sinking ship

However, if Chilcot has no legal authority to prosecute for what former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan finally said was an ‘illegal’ invasion, arguably a war of aggression (Nuremberg’s ‘supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole’), enough politically weighty rats have plopped over the side of HMS Blair and swum for the shore to give some hope that they may yet, as in their remit, refer evidence to ‘the appropriate authorities’. The latest to at least damp his fur is the former Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith.

Enough politically weighty rats have plopped over the side of HMS Blair and swum for the shore to give some hope that they may yet, as in their remit, refer evidence to ‘the appropriate authorities’

On 30 January 2003 he wrote to Blair that the latest UN Resolution (SCR 1441) ‘does not authorize the use of military force... having considered the arguments... my view remains that a further decision is required.’ Suggesting he hear the views of his US counterparts, he wrote: ‘I am not convinced that this will make any difference to my view.’ Blair wrote in the margin: ‘I just don’t understand this.’ On 17 March, however, Goldsmith produced a short statement opining the invasion legal. However, documents released to the Inquiry show a vein of deep unease over the legality throughout. On 20 March, the bombing began.

Iraq, had, of course, on 7 December 2002, delivered to the UN 12,800 pages, accounting for the weapons it did not have, which was, in a word, stolen by the US delegation to the UN. Fewer than 4,000 pages were returned, so heavily redacted as to be ‘indecipherable’, according to UN ambassadors contacted at the time. Removed entirely was the index of companies who had sold weapons to Iraq over the years, including those from the US, Britain, France, Germany and Russia.

In another arguably underhand act, the Cabinet Office has refused the Chilcot Inquiry access to communications between Bush and Blair during the run-up to the invasion. Sir John has said: ‘The Inquiry regards (these) essential to fulfil its terms of reference.’ Indeed. He has written saying that Blair’s cross-examination would be damaged by witholding the memos.

Blair appeared in the week that marks exactly 20 years since the 42-day carpet bombing of Iraq in 1991. However, missing evidence or not, there are reports that, like Henry Kissinger, Blair consults his lawyers before he travels, for reassurance that he will not be arrested on arrival. A little difficulty may arise nearer home soon. On 18 January, Dr Bill Wilson, MSP, convened and chaired a meeting in the Scottish Parliament of ‘lawyers, academics, MSPs and concerned citizens to discuss the incorporation of the International Criminal Court’s definition of the crime of aggression into Scots Law’. Consensus was reached that the Scottish Parliament is competent in this respect, and that this can and should be done soon.

Missing evidence or not, there are reports that, like Henry Kissinger, Blair consults his lawyers before he travels, for reassurance that he will not be arrested on arrival

Robert Manson, founding member of the UK-based Institute for Law, Accountability & Peace, and Don Ferencz, a US lawyer and convener of the recently-organized Global Institute for the Prevention of Aggression, presented detailed historical and legal arguments before answering questions from the audience, which included MSPs and academics from across Scotland. Among these arguments was that the International Criminal Court (Scotland) Act 2001 incorporated the offences in the 1998 Rome Statute for the Establishment of an International Criminal Court into Scots domestic law, with unanimous support, and that this was done the year before the Rome Statute came into force. Consequently, there is no impediment to Scotland adopting the June 2010 Kampala definition of the crime of aggression immediately. Dr Wilson commented: ‘As an outcome of the meeting, we have sent an open letter to the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, asking him to amend the ICC (Scotland) Act 2001, adding the “crime of aggression”.

‘If we did so it would be an excellent example to the rest of the world. It would send the clear message that we respect international law. It would prevent Scotland being dragged into murky and counterproductive military ventures in the future. I call on all MSPs to support such a move. Scotland could lead the fight against illegal war.’

When I left Mosul, days before the invasion, Western rhetoric trumpeting Saddam Hussein’s ability to launch WMDs in Blair's ‘45 minutes’, I drove again past the ruined bases, the road near empty, no troop movements, military vehicles. In the circumstances, it was surreal. Suddenly, nearing Baghdad, a convoy of army lorries appeared. We neared and overtook. There were 11 of them, early 1950s Mercedes. The tyres were down to the canvas, they were covered in rust – and the one in front was towing the other 10. Dr Wilson’s initiative is a vital step towards ensuring that never again are facts ‘wilfully disregarded’, and that those who try, pay the price.


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The Middle East peace envoy’s thirst for war

Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and waiting for different results, so perhaps it was madness to hope Tony Blair, appearing for the second time at the Iraq Inquiry, to tell us anything new. But whilst there were no big revelations over the decisions he made in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, the former prime minister’s statement before a number of grieving parents who had lost family members in the war, that he ‘deeply and profoundly regrets the loss of life’ caused something of a stir.

As he came to the end of a bravura four-and-a-half hour performance during which he robustly defended all his decisions over Iraq and even used the platform to urge possible military action against Iran, Blair decided to take the opportunity to express sorrow for deaths resulting from the war. But his statement was met by jeers of derision from the military families attending the hearing. ‘Too late!’ cried one woman. Two others stood up and left the room. Rose Gentle, whose son Gordon was killed in Basra in 2004, looked Blair in the eye and told him, ‘Your lies killed my son.’

Looking sun-tanned and relaxed, the ex-PM had strode into the hearing room that morning, taking his seat before the five-person panel led by an avuncular Lord Chilcot. The inquiry, officially launched in July 2009, is intended to identify lessons that can be learned from the Iraq conflict and has so far heard testimony from scores of key government and military officials from the time. Tony Blair, who testified last January, was recalled in order to clarify some discrepancies between his earlier evidence and that of later witnesses. Indeed, before today’s hearing there was speculation that the inquiry might demonstrate that he had deliberately misled his cabinet, parliament and the British people.

During questioning Blair dismissed suggestions that he had committed British troops for the US-led invasion long before the issue was discussed in cabinet or debated in parliament. Earlier this month Lord Goldsmith, the government’s chief law officer at the time, had told the inquiry that in October 2002 he learned that ‘the prime minister had indicated to President Bush that he would join the US in acting without a second security council decision if Iraq failed to take the action that was required by the draft resolution [1441].’ Blair explained this away by saying that he had not wanted to ‘start raising legal issues’ with President Bush until he was absolutely sure of the British legal position.

Indeed, he did not deny that in January 2003 he had assured George Bush that he was ‘solidly’ with him despite the fact that it was not until two months later, on the eve of the invasion, that Lord Goldsmith had given Blair the formal legal advice that a ‘reasonable case’ could be made for launching an attack without further UN backing.

Challenged as to why, in direct contradiction to advice provided by Lord Goldsmith, Blair had told Parliament on 15 January that in certain circumstances a second UN resolution would not be necessary, Blair said that he had been ‘making a political point’ rather than ‘a legal one’.

Anyone hoping for this to be a judgment day for Blair was in for a sore disappointment. Instead, ‘Teflon Tony’ rose to the occasion, defiantly repeating his ‘I did what I thought was right’ mantra and once again using the platform to warn of the ‘destabilizing’ and ‘negative’ influence of Iran. At his first appearance before Lord Chilcot, Blair managed to mention Iran no less than 58 times. Today, although his first reference to Iran came within the first three minutes of his testimony, it was only at the end of his session that he went into detail about the ‘looming, coming challenge’ posed by Iran.

When asked what lessons he took from the Iraq war, Blair replied: ‘The link between AQ [al-Qaeda] and Iran.’ He went on to say that ‘we must get our heads out the sand’ and meet the Iranian threat with ‘the requisite determination and, if necessary, force’. The Middle East peace envoy has clearly lost none of his thirst for war.

Outside the hearing, as the former prime minister prepared to leave, the chants of demonstrators could be clearly heard:  ‘Mr Blair, to the Hague.’ Whilst Blair will never have to face the International Criminal Court, his religious beliefs meant that in own mind he will one day face a higher form of judgment. ‘In Catholic terms there are three clear steps for forgiveness: confession, firm purpose of amendment and penance,’ veteran peace campaigner and former Roman Catholic priest Bruce Kent tells me outside the Inquiry. ‘Mr Blair has done none of these.’

Though Tony Blair has made it clear that he feels no guilt, he clearly does feel a sense of responsibility: responsibility for the decisions made in office and responsibility for the blood price paid by British soldiers as well as Iraqis. By repeating the mantra ‘I did what I thought was right’, he may be able to insulate himself from some of the guilt, but as news this week comes in of 130 deaths in Iraq, that decision must still weigh heavily on his sun-kissed shoulders.

In those heady days in 1997 a newly elected Blair said in a speech: ‘Mine is the first generation able to contemplate the possibility that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war.’ Two wars and countless deaths later, he must sometimes ask himself where it all went so horribly, horribly wrong.

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face Politics

new internationalist
issue 314 - July 1999

[image, unknown]
Happy-face politics
Joel Bleifuss probes the ‘Third Way’ approach to politics
pioneered by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

The happy face of Tony Blair. The art of politics has come a long way since the 1960 US Presidential election when Richard Nixon and John Kennedy met in the first televised debate. Kennedy handily won the exchange, his powdered face more than a match for Nixon’s sweaty, in-need-of-a-shave visage. Electoral politics would never be the same again. With the US leading the way and the rest of the world quick to follow, image manipulation replaced policy formation as the key ingredient of political success.

In 1992, the 46-year-old candidate Bill Clinton dyed his hair gray in order to appear more statesman-like. In 1997 in Britain, Tony Blair exploited his youth to lead ‘New Labour’ to victory over the ossified Tories. Last year in Germany, Gerhard Schroder, the 1960s radical retooled as a 1990s pragmatist, beat out the veteran Helmut Kohl.

Appearances, of course, aren’t everything. In today’s political world, elected officials also rely on opinion management to craft their agendas and mold an electoral majority. In effect, successful politicians have stopped being leaders and become followers, adherents to the spinmeisters, polls, political consultants, focus groups, television ads, psychographics and make-up artists that shape the candidate and the message. These gambits succeed best when the politicians eschew ideology and position themselves in a nebulous center. Such electoral engineering may not produce leaders who challenge conventional wisdom. But it does win elections.

President Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996 after reminding the voters that, among other things, he ‘ended welfare as we know it’. That August he had cravenly signed the Republican Congress’ welfare reform bill. The American public wanted something done about welfare, and Clinton did what was politically expedient. Most of his advisors opposed his action. In an internal White House debate Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros put it this way: ‘The objective reality is that people are going to get hurt.’ But in politics objective reality takes a back seat to perceived reality.

In signing the bill, Clinton was following the advice of the master image manipulator and political consultant Dick Morris. Morris counseled him in 1996 to aim for the center and adopt conservative policies, taking the initiative from the Republicans and isolating liberal Democrats. In The New Prince: Machiavelli Updated for the 21st Century, Morris writes: ‘To win and to govern successfully, a candidate of either party must take care not to be captured, branded and held hostage by the extremists and ideologues in his own party. He must transcend party and appeal to the middle.’

Morris’s own ‘New Prince’ has taken this lesson to heart. Soon after his re-election, speaking to a gathering of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) – an organization of conservative ‘New Democrats’ – Clinton explained that what the country needed was ‘a vital American center where there is co-operation across the lines of party and philosophy’. Last June, again speaking to the DLC, Clinton explained: ‘We have called our approach “the Third Way”– with a government that is more active, more effective, less expensive; one that can bring us together and move us forward, not drive us apart and set us back.’

Clinton’s words are echoed in Britain by the ‘New Labour’ Prime Minister Tony Blair. In September 1998, Blair heralded the Third Way as ‘the route to renewal and success for modern social democracy’ that is ‘free from outdated ideology’. ‘There’s change in our economic and social reality,’ he said. ‘It would be strange if it didn’t make a difference in the way we look at our political realities.’ But as media critic Morris Wolfe has observed: ‘It is easier and less costly to change the way people think about reality than it is to change reality.’

Before the Information Age, before spinning, there was shilling. In gambling lingo, a shill infects others with his betting fever, priming them to be fleeced by the house. In the days of medicine shows, a shill helped establish the credibility of the huckster who promoted dubious products or services. As times changed so did the shills. Thirty years ago, PR men were employed in the business world to present the company’s viewpoint on a particular issue. Since then practitioners of the shilling arts have expanded their client base to include politicians, political parties and governments. To further their clients’ political fortunes, ‘communications professionals’ employ lobbyists, fund their own media, develop ad campaigns and create instant grass-root constituencies.

One of the most successful examples of this manipulation of public perception took place during the Gulf War. In the fall of 1990 stories were published everywhere detailing the barbarism of the Iraqi invaders, specifically how Iraqi soldiers had looted hospitals, stealing incubators and leaving their infant occupants to die. These allegations were detailed in a firsthand report by a young Kuwaiti woman, Nayirah, to a hearing of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Only later was it revealed that the eyewitness was Nayirah al-Sabah, the 15-year-old daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, and that the story was concocted by Hill and Knowlton, the Washington PR firm to which the al-Sabahs, Kuwait’s royal family, paid $10 million to build public support for US intervention in the Gulf.

In building public support for candidates in electoral campaigns, image engineers perform a similar sleight of hand. According to Dick Morris, ten or so consultants from each political party run most of the major campaigns. These consultants ‘focus entirely on tactics, ads and strategies and learn little about the substance of public policy’. Until recently, political consultants advised politicians on how to garner support from particular constituencies. Nowadays, the consultant recreates the politician to match the constituents’ desires – as indicated by focus-group data and scientific opinion polls – and then markets the finished candidate back to that constituency. Without experts adept in scientific polling and analyzing demographic data today’s politician would have hardly any idea what to say.

Bill Clinton's happy face. In Alexandria, Virginia, the marketing firm Claritas Inc has divided the 260 million US residents into 62 ‘clusters’ and then mapped out where these clusters live, postal code by postal code. In the élite suburbs, Claritas has discerned the ‘winner’s circle’, a group of people with a median household income of $80,630 who ‘use a maid’ and ‘eat brie cheese’. They have also mapped out the haunts of urban-dwelling ‘young literati’ who, with a median household income of $52,145, ‘buy expensive pens’ and ‘read fashion magazines’. The ‘family scramble’ subset, on the other hand, get by on a median household income of $19,441 and ‘smoke regular cigarettes’ and ‘buy children’s frozen dinners’.

These colorful maps make entertaining coffee-table reading, courtesy of Harper Perennial. But political consulting firms and well-heeled conservative groups are compiling similar maps charting precinct-by-precinct voting patterns and hot-button issues. The Chicago Tribune explained their rationale this way: ‘Fewer products today are aimed at everyone. Instead, the goal often is to fit a product, whether it be a dog food, a wristwatch or a political candidate, into a market niche.’

Dick Morris in The New Prince underlines the importance of a focused message the politician can use to ‘translate the public’s grief into the system’s issues’. The next step is ‘media play’ for the message. ‘It is the one-paragraph sound-bite on which the story lives or dies.’ Visuals are also key. ‘In handling television, bear in mind that the medium cannot help itself. It needs pretty pictures,’ he writes. ‘Backdrops matter. The candidate should stand in front of an assemblage of American flags or a bevy of uniformed police with medals.’ Sex can’t hurt either. In the fall of 1990, as George Bush exhorted a rally in Minnesota to support the looming Gulf War, a row of cheerleaders kicked their legs in the background.

Should anything go wrong, the candidate’s handlers are there with the right ‘spin’. The exact derivation of this word is a little obscure. One spins a yarn, making up a story that deviates from the truth. In the world of politics, spin-meisters use spin to cast their client in the best possible light and their opponent in the worst. Spinning is well suited for the New Information Age with its reliance on electronic media.

During the age of print it was the journalists’ job to interpret the utterances of civic leaders. But television relies on effervescent bites of sound that allow public figures to tell the TV audience whatever they want. No journalist stands between the politician and their audience. Ron Arnold, the far-right propagandist and founder of the Wise Use Movement who describes himself as the ‘Darth Vader for the Capitalist revolution’, put it bluntly: ‘Facts don’t matter; in politics, perception is reality.’

Governments employ legions of specialists to shape public perceptions. In Britain more than 1,000 civil servants work in the Government Information and Communication Service. Tony Blair’s Government in its first year replaced 25 of the 44 heads or deputy-heads of information. The ousted head at social security, Steve Reardon, charged the Government with repeatedly trying to politicize departmental press releases. In addition the Blair Government established a ‘strategic communications unit’ to respond to events rapidly and with one voice.

C Wright Mills, in his 1951 classic White Collar: The American Middle Class, wrote: ‘Under the system of explicit authority, in the round, solid nineteenth century, the victims knew they were being victimized; the misery and the discontent of the powerless were explicit. In the amorphous twentieth-century world, where manipulation replaces authority, the victim does not recognize his status.’ The dangers to democracy posed by the shills, flacks and spin-meisters who engineer consent are difficult for citizens to comprehend. It’s hard to fight what you don’t see. But what you don’t see can hurt you.

The shills of today concede nothing. They micro-manage human perceptions on a macro-scale. They obfuscate the past. And they appropriate the future, skillfully shaping people’s expectations, desires and dreams with the best communication science money can buy. Orwell wrote in 1984: ‘Those who control the present control the past.’ Today, those who control the present also control the future. Unless we recognize this threat and fight for spaces in our public and private spheres that are free from the influence peddlers, all signs point to an ugly future on which the spin doctors have put a happy face.

Joel Bleifuss is managing editor of the Chicago-based bi-weekly In These Times.

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