The Iraq War, Tony Blair and the Shopkeeper’s Discourse*
A big prisoners’ fiasco in Iran showed to the world what exactly the so-called ‘UN Mandated’ US-UK alliance in Iraq is really up to. Trying to incite the Iranians into war, via provocative steps. As if the world hasn’t had enough of the sort of thing that is making a hell out of Afghanistan and Iraq, at this very time.
“I have no regrets [about the Iraq War]”, insisted British Prime Minster Tony Blair, very barefacedly, in a recent Interview (Sky News TV, 14th March)—despite all the chaos, anarchy and bloodshed that he and his ‘senior partner’ President Bush of the USA have been responsible for.
While President Bush is now facing a full-fledged Democratic onslaught in Washington D.C., over his role in creating this excruciatingly tragic humanitarian crisis, British voices have been comparatively muted against Blair in political circles. But the wheel seems to be turning, there, too, towards some form of general sanity. Only just now, on 4th March, Sir Menzies Campbell addressed the Liberal Democratic Party Spring Conference in Harrogate, lambasting Blair and his Iraq policy, and the consequent loss of ‘British prestige worldwide” (BBC Online Report). And others, including the Conservatives, seem to be now following suit more assertively.
Yet, in terms of contemporary international discourse(s), this rather lackadaisical approach by British politicians seems to be surprising, given Britain’s self-proclaimed ‘traditional’ image as the defender of liberal, humane and peaceful, compassionate values. So what are the dynamics at work? And what is the essential reality, not of the British nation or people in general only, but of the British ‘establishment’ that has long held sway at Whitehall and Westminster, and still exerts its considerable influence in all matters of national interest, especially with regard to foreign affairs? We shall attempt to look at some of the major factors shaping this particular discourse in historical, political and sociological terms. I believe it is important to do so, because, unlike the USA, Britain has had longstanding interaction with nations like Iraq, as well as others in the Middle East and South Asia, which are today at the hub of events. And Britain has both a historical culpability in giving rise to many of the problems besetting the region(s) as well as the potential to rise to the occasion by addressing these fundamental, or root issues.
Just think about this for a minute. Iraq, a nation in the Middle East, perhaps not with the best of governments or rulers (but when has that bothered the US or Britain before, who continue to support and back some of the worst regimes across the world even now?) yet at peace, with a respectable level of stability and law and order, and moving along quietly. Which is today riven with sectarian strife, a sea of blood, in a state of almost complete social collapse, with a weak political structure and no real, visible end of its plight anywhere in sight. All because, some years four ago, for one reason or the other, Messrs. Bush and Blair duped people in their own countries into believing that there was a terrible danger from this country— with huge stocks of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ hidden away just waiting to be handed over to Al-Qaeda and similar ‘Islamic terrorist organizations’. I shall not go into the strategic implications of these actions as much has been said, is being said and will continue being said about this over the years. But I would like to highlight, at this time, how strongly most of the world media is now criticizing the US and British roles in this horrendous conflict, a cruel, needless war, with justifiable cause. As Bush and Blair’s positions become increasingly tenuous at home, with them just about managing to keep this pet project afloat, such criticism will definitely grow.
I would also like to bring focus unto Britain, and in particular Blair’s role, in this mess. Within these parameters much has been said and written about Tony Blair’s seemingly bizarre, even inhuman conduct. Therefore, let us consider, at this moment, the mindset, the basic type of thinking that lies at the core of those British attitudes that are best exemplified by the likes of Mr.Blair. With due apologies to British citizens generally, it would be right for them to also think about how many outdated, even anachronistic, modes still survive and control their country, its policies and discourses abroad and which they must reconsider in today’s world. A historic ‘first step’ has been taken via the House of Commons’ overwhelming majority vote of 8th March 2007, towards reforming the House of Lords, for one, but a lot of ground remains to be covered, in many directions. Yet, it is ultimately by these radical changes that Britain will be able to transform itself into a nation in touch with contemporary realities and needs, in a highly complex world.
It was Napoleon who first, presumably, called the British “a nation of shopkeepers” (Ferguson and Bruun, p.636). This appellation has been justified by the British colonial experience, from the late-18th century uptil the 1950s, in which period they built up a colossal empire with obviously mercantile interests disguised rather thinly as some twisted sort of ‘civilizing’ mission—a joke, really, on the part of a nation which hasn’t any recorded literature beyond Beowulf (c.630-640 A.D) and which considers Yorkshire Pudding as the height of culinary achievement. So, sleek and knowing shopkeepers (not to mention manufacturers, shippers, wholesale slave-traders, arms dealers, exploitative planters and other varieties of assorted boxwallahs) had their hey-day, singing “Rule Britannia” and ‘ruling the waves’ and generally misbehaving throughout the world with the vulgar cockiness one associates with Kipling’s Stalkyesque (1899) juveniles, or Victorian moral fables like Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857).
Then, it all came to an end. The Post-World War II period brought about the liquidation of the ‘British Raj Inc.’, and the borders of Britain shrank back into insular insignificance and they suffered the rude shock of awakening into a reality where Britain didn’t ‘matter’ by any reckoning in the shadow of the USA-USSR Cold War. Where it was relegated to not a second but a third class status in the community of nations, and the proverbial ‘stiff upper lip’ began to tremble rather markedly. The trauma of it! “The loss of imperial power, the failure of economic nerve, the diminishing influence of Britain inside Europe, all this has led to a new sense…of the native English experience”, said the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney in a memorable essay (p.169).
Sensible Britons eventually tried to came to terms with the new realities, though not without a twinge of bitterness. Raised to the ‘idea of empire’ it was bitter to be reduced, to become empireless, without the pomp and the glory and all the baubles and paraphernalia. “Silks at the start, against the sky/Numbers and parasols”, remembered Philip Larkin in his famous symbolical lament, about the anonymous, retired racehorses, “The eye can hardly pick them out/From the cold shade they shelter in” (“At Grass”, 29). Others, still, tried to console themselves with Shakespeare’s ‘Gaunt’ imagery, of the “scepter’d island”, the “demi-paradise”, the “happy breed of men”, the “precious stone set in the silver sea” and so on. Still others, with perpetual schoolboyish enthusiasm, tried to recreate an Old Boys Club (i.e. the Commonwealth Organization) or otherwise maintain ‘links’ with the ‘natives’ and their ‘exotic’ lands (the Thesiger mentality) while gingerly side-stepping the idea of a Franco-German dominated European Union. Then, of course, you have the ‘yobs’, the British hordes at home and abroad, lousing up the pitches everywhere with equal mindlessness. And, last but not least, those unique creatures living in a J.R.R Tolkien fantasy, the Frodo Bagginses and Aragorns, battling ‘evil’ in the dim, misty recesses of their minds. In a telling comment on this particular phenomenon, developing out of the ‘decolonization’ process, Roy Harris said that, “For the British [today] communal life is tenable only on the understanding that one may withdraw from it, temporarily or permanently, into another world…” (in Paulin, 1990). Frighteningly enough, the majority of the proponents of such an angst-ridden escapism are presently ensconced in Downing Street, Westminster and Whitehall. Gandalf (or is it Harry Potter, now?) has, of course, cleverly disguised himself, using the powers of magic, into the persona of Tony Blair. As we can now see very clearly, in the middle of the US-engineered Iraq War, he makes a nice pair with Mr. George W.Bush, a.k.a. Clark Kent, alter ego of Superman. Like a team of good cowboys, they’ll both ride out of the sunset and clean up Dodge City.
In any case, this embittered sense of cultural decline that Britain experienced in the Post-World War II era, from around the 1940s onwards, never really got out of their system, despite a general lessening of what the French term the morgue anglaise (lit. ‘The English/British Death Rigor’) in later times. Whole generations of British men and women, born during the war years and even until the late ‘60s, were indelibly marked by this deathlike rigor. What, then, were the primary manifestations of this dire state or condition? In the arts, literature, drama and broad cultural expressions of these times, we obtain valuable insights into this—the breakdown of any sort of valuable interchange, or relationship between the generations; a dysfunctional society with insecure familial units, often comprised of single-parent families; a fundamental loss of faith, whereby religion and spirituality became nothing but empty, meaningless rituals and ceremonials; the growth of a narrow, bigoted insularity that was intensely xenophobic in its fear and disapproval of the waves of new immigrants who were entering Britain in ever-greater numbers, subsequent to the fall of its colonial empire, and who were perceived as economic threats; an attendant growth in the sort of submerged racism that is finally showing itself in diverse, ugly forms and so on. Perhaps, the upper and upper middle classes in Britain were the worst hit by some of the key factors shaping these sad, existential, quasi-Pinteresque decades, for obvious reasons. These classes had the most to lose and lost the most. The poor, wretched and exploited, then and now, have somehow pulled on in their pathetic conditions. And Tony Blair is a typical representative of the British bourgeoise, born and raised at a particular time under a specific set of circumstances, with a certain set of ideas well-entrenched in his mind.
I would like to aver here, that this is not the first time I am setting out to highlight Tony Blair’s strange perspective(s) on world affairs, that too under extremely serious circumstances. In a couple of articles in the now sadly defunct weekly Pulse, Islamabad (May 1998 and June 1999), I expressed my earliest reservations, as a citizen of this world and a student of history, regarding Blair’s dubious credentials as British PM in this particular era. And I predicted, back then, that he would end up in exactly this kind of situation. The chief problems, as I see them, still, concern (a) Tony Blair’s essentially narrow, unintelligent and mediocre abilities, in combination with (b) his inordinate ambitions, based on the emulation of some grand model of ‘Churchillian statesmanship’ on the world stage, without even an iota of Churchill’s vision or humanity, under (c) practical ground realities in a world context radically different to Churchill’s. Furthermore, as the British media themselves recognized even as early as 1997—only a very short while after ‘New Labour’ swept into power—Blair, with his delusions of grandeur, is and always has been averse to criticism. In its 13th September issue of that year, for example, The Economist bemoaned that, “It is not permitted to criticise the prime minister. No law decrees this…yet self-censorship achieves a near-unanimity which would be the envy of many a totalitarian regime” (p.68). And, further, explaining the cause of this ‘self-censorship’, it says, “Mr.Blair does plenty to sustain it. He runs a centralised media operation, which is able to use exclusion to punish…[and] he is skillful in deploying patronage, from seats in the Lords to invitations to Number 10” (Ibid). Nothing much has changed ten years later, except maybe a deepening of the delusion and the media-phobia. In this sort of situation, with the USA aligned to a Britain with a delusional PM at the helm of its affairs, it is indeed foolish to insist upon some kind of ‘Anglo-American’ hegemonic dispensation vaguely linked to the principles of the Atlantic Charter of 1941. So much has changed in the world 66 years on, and the USA and Britain, themselves, no longer represent an exclusively ‘Anglo-Saxon’ civilization but are multiracial, composite societies with citizens of every conceivable origin.
In such a scenario, it is worth contemplating not only Mr.Blair’s personal delusions and misapprehensions but also British foreign policy generally, within altered world conditions. As far back as 25th March 1995, The Economist, London, criticized Britain’s “international pretensions” (p.70) and lamented at the same time, the decline of her share of world trade (11.5 % in 1948 and 4.8 % in 1994), laying the blame for both on the country’s foreign policy establishment and elitist bureaucracy which misguides the political leadership. The Foreign Office’s “privileged position” in Britain was especially cited as a serious concern because, “…it fosters illusion. Grand people who live in grand palaces at the grand expense of others will inevitably spend time thinking grand thoughts. Any coincidence between these and Britain’s real interests will be largely accidental” (Ibid.). This is precisely what has been the case until now, with official illusions diverging radically from popular British interests and demands. Tony Blair, already in the thrall of his own delusions, has also remained fogged in by British fantasy-making mechanisms, and none of them could, for a long time, make any sense of what the world was saying and what the British people themselves were telling them in no uncertain terms. However, Britain’s bureaucracy even in the Post-colonial period, is, in Steven Marcus’s words, rather like, “the Empire it [once] served and the class system it embodied—it has all gone to pot; it is irrelevant to the contemporary world” (1965, p.20). Of this bureaucracy, the Foreign Office and the intelligence services (with their falsified Iraq reports, lest we forget) are the original ‘cheats’. “Lying is second nature to them. Half of them don’t know any longer when they’re telling the truth” (le Carre, p.29).
It is interesting to note the results when we coalesce this sort of narrow, insular and delusional British discourse with a Post-Cold War, American Neo-Conservative one. There, too, a ‘loss’ seems to have occurred, a vacuum created, which, perforce, had to be ‘filled’. Tom Weiner (1995) quotes Milt Barden, with reference to one significant vacuum in the American polity, i.e. that manifest in its intelligence community whereby the Cold War had been seen as a ‘crusade’ against the Soviet Union. Then, “you took the Soviet Union away from us and there wasn’t anything else. We don’t have a history [anymore]. And now the mission is over. Fini.” (p.67). This vacuum, it seems certain today, in the light of our previous analyses in these pages of the larger ‘clash of civilizations’ paradigms/discourses, is now finding or creating new directions and meaning by engaging in a crusade against Islam. Indeed, Holt (1995, p.35) believes that this is ‘shaping’ itself into a Western Jihad, ironically enough. He also opines that it is a disturbing phenomenon in Western democracies in general, and in the US and Britain in particular, that their much-touted ‘open [democratic] society’ claims and insistences were, increasingly, being replaced by a ‘secret’ or covert bureaucratic-intelligence nexus that in fact determined policy. Thus, in the words of Aronoff (1999), “Britain’s loss of a sense of direction, unwillingness to face new realities, and failure to adapt to them, [finds] in the Britain bewildered by the changing international environment an echo of the present conditions of the United States” (p.187). The difference is, of course, that the United States, which is to all intents and purposes leading/directing Blair’s messed-up Britain at this point in time, remains the dominant military and economic power in the world—and this makes for an extremely dangerous, unstable global situation for the future.
As we stand today on the threshold of a possible new conflict being initiated by the US-UK '‘dynamic duo” in Iran, or even elsewhere, wherever their fancy takes them, it seems imminently necessary, in my opinion, to take stock of things. It is high time that the nations of the world—sane nations, that is—sit together at this particular juncture and think out their options and consider measures to reassert the commonly-held principles of international law, justice and humanity, in the larger context of global co-existence and the peaceful resolution of disputes. At the same time, regardless of whether public opinion solidifies further against Tony Blair in Britain and Bush in America, there are a number of steps which intelligent nations, acting in concert, can take to compel these governments to heed reason. We must keep in mind this—that if Saddam Hussein and his junta were unstable lunatics, to be removed, replaced and punished, the so too are Tony Blair, Bush and Co—and the sword of morality must cut both ways, indiscriminately.
- Aronoff, MJ. “Post-World War II United Kingdom and the Post-Cold War United States”. Essay. N.p, London, 1999.pp.186-200.
- Campbell, Sir Menzies. Address to the Liberal Democratic Party’s Spring Conference, Harrogate, 4th March 2007. BBC Online news report. bbc.co.uk.
- Ferguson and Bruun. A Survey of European Civilization. Part II. 6thNew York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1962.
- Harris, Roy. Quoted by Tom Paulin, in “Into the Heart of Englishness”. The Times Literary Supplement July 1990.n.p.
- Heaney, Seamus. ‘Englands of the Mind”. fr. Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978. London & Boston: Faber, 1980.
- Holt, Pat M. Secret Intelligence and Public Policy: A Dilemma of Democracy. Washington, D.C: US Congressional Quarterly, n.i., 1995.
- Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown’s Schooldays. 1857. London: Bancroft Ed, 1966.
- Kipling, Rudyard. Stalky & Orig. 1899. New York and London: Garden City Pubs. Authorized Ed., 1957.
- Larkin, Philip. “At Grass”, fr. Collected Poems. London: Faber & Faber, 1988.
- Le Carre, John. The Looking Glass War. London: Heron Books, 1966.
- Marcus, Steven. “Grand Illusions”. New York 5th August 1965, pp.20-21.
- Shakespeare, William. “Gaunt's Dying Speech”, fr. Richard III (Act II, Sc.1). In The New Dragon Book of Verse. Oxford: OUP, 1986.pp.6-7.
- Sky News Special TV Report in Iraq, 12th to 17th March 2007. Tony Blair’s Interview shown on 14th
- Tarin, O. “Some Britannic Reflections” (May 1998, p.8) and “The Whining of Curs” (June 1999, p.13), in the now defunct weekly Pulse, Islamabad, Pakistan.
- The Economist, London, 25th March 1995, p70.
- London, 13th September 1997, p.68.
- Weiner, Tim. “CIA Chief Says Moscow, with Help from Double Agent, Warped US Perceptions”. New York Times International, 9th December 1995.
Originally published in the 'Defence Journal' , Karachi, Pakistan, 2007