Britain in the firing line


When, on 11 September 2001, I heard Tony Blair state on our behalf that Britain would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the US, my first thought was that Canary Wharf would be next.  And in the past two years, as it became more difficult for al-Qaeda to attack the US mainland, I expected a strike on the more accessible British mainland, particularly after the US/UK invasion and occupation of Iraq.


But it wasn’t until last month that there was a specific strike against a British target, and then it was not on the British mainland but against the British consulate and an HSBC building in Istanbul.  As was to be expected, the Government did its best to pretend that the attack had nothing to do with its chosen policy of always being at America’s side.  We are supposed to believe that it was sheer coincidence that the perpetrators chose to attack a British target on a day that Blair was literally standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Bush in Downing Street.


Speculation now abounds that London will be hit: Oxford Street during the Christmas rush has been mentioned as an ideal al-Qaeda target.  Whether al-Qaeda or its associates has that capability is unknowable, but what is not in doubt is that being shoulder-to-shoulder with the US increases the risk that British targets will be hit, at home and abroad.  And invading Iraq alongside the US has further increased the risk.


Blair made those choices for Britain, and unfortunately they were endorsed by Parliament.  Those choices will get British targets hit and British people killed.



It is frequently said by the police and the security services that it is inevitable that Britain will be hit.  That is nonsense.  There is no inevitability about it.  The threat is a product of choosing to be America’s closest ally.  A change of policy away from being an uncritical follower of the US, coupled with specific action to demonstrate that we are serious about it, for example, by withdrawing our forces from Iraq, would eliminate the threat at a stroke, permanently.


Of course, that’s not going to happen.  But let us be clear that the Prime Minister has made a policy choice that has put British lives in danger.  And no amount of concrete bollards, or security guards, or draconian laws so beloved by David Blunkett, will eliminate that danger.  As the IRA said in its message to the Government after the Brighton bombing: “We have only to be lucky once; you have to be lucky all the time”.


Blair speechless

At a press conference in Downing Street, a few hours after the Istanbul bombing on 20 November 2003 (transcript here), Nick Robinson of ITV News did the unthinkable and put it to Blair that his policy choice has put British lives in peril.  Robinson asked:


“What do you say to people who today conclude that British people have died and been maimed as a result of you appearing here today, shoulder-to-shoulder with a controversial American President?”


Blair went white with anger and, remarkably for him, was speechless for about 30 seconds.  He then came up with the following acute analysis:


“What has caused the terrorist attack today in Turkey is not the President of the United States, is not the alliance between America and Britain. What is responsible for that terrorist attack is terrorism, are the terrorists. And our response has got to be to unify in that situation, to put the responsibility squarely on those who are killing and murdering innocent people, and to say, we are going to defeat you, and we're not going to back down or flinch at all from this struggle.”


What is missing from this “analysis” is an inkling of what drives people to kill themselves and others in carrying out these awful acts, and therefore what action might be taken to make these awful acts less likely.



To those of us who live in Northern Ireland, this is very reminiscent of the British Government’s public response to the IRA campaign during its first 20 years or so.  Then, the IRA was denounced as bunch of evil fanatics, who carried out mindless acts of violence because they were evil fanatics.  They had to be defeated, full stop.  There was to be no backing down.


It was anathema to suggest publicly that, like it or like it not, the IRA was politically motivated, that its violence was geared to achieve a political end.  Of course, the British Government gave the game away from time to time by negotiating secretly with the IRA, and later openly with its political wing, Sinn Fein – which is why there is relative peace in Northern Ireland now.


Zbigniew Brzezinski

The four Kurdish suicide bombers from the Great Eastern Raiders’ Front responsible for the bombs in Istanbul on 15 and 20 November may not have a definite political objective like the IRA.  But as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, wrote in an article in the New York Times on 1 September 2002, “lurking behind every terroristic act is a specific political antecedent”.  He went on:


“In the case of September 11, it does not require deep analysis to note - given the identity of the perpetrators - that the Middle East's political history has something to do with the hatred of Middle Eastern terrorists for America. …


“American involvement in the Middle East is clearly the main impulse of the hatred that has been directed at America. There is no escaping the fact that Arab political emotions have been shaped by the region's encounter with French and British colonialism, by the defeat of the Arab effort to prevent the existence of Israel and by the subsequent American support for Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, as well as by the direct injection of American power into the region.


“Yet there has been a remarkable reluctance in America to confront the more complex historical dimensions of this hatred. The inclination instead has been to rely on abstract assertions like terrorists ‘hate freedom’ or that their religious background makes them despise Western culture.


“To win the war on terrorism, one must therefore set two goals: first to destroy the terrorists and, second, to begin a political effort that focuses on the conditions that brought about their emergence.”


Messianic fervour

There might be a case for Blair sticking close to Bush if he was telling Bush to focus on the conditions that gave rise to the emergence of al-Qaeda, and, in particular, to cease backing Israel in its continuing theft of Arab land. 


But he is not.  On the contrary, he has taken up every silly Bush refrain, and amplified it with his own particular brand of messianic fervour. 


One needed a very strong stomach to listen to his address to the US Congress on 17 July 2003, during which he received 17 standing ovations.  He ended by committing Britain in perpetuity to stand by America’s side in the great struggle ahead against “terrorism” and for freedom, democracy and the rule of law:


“And our job, my nation that watched you grow, that you fought alongside and now fights alongside you, that takes enormous pride in our alliance and great affection in our common bond, our job is to be there with you. You are not going to be alone. We will be with you in this fight for liberty. And if our spirit is right and our courage firm, the world will be with us.”


By comparison, Bush’s speech to an invited audience in London on 19 November 2003 was a measured discourse on the need for freedom and democracy, particularly in the Middle East.


Democracy in Palestine

On 26 January 1996, there was a remarkable outbreak of democracy in the Middle East.  Elections took place to the 88-member Palestinian Legislative Council on a multi-member constituency basis, in 16 electoral districts.  Turnout was high: 73% in the West Bank and 88% in Gaza.  Fatah won 68 seats (47 official and 21 unofficial, classed as independents), but other independent candidates were elected as well, including candidates opposed to the Oslo agreement.  At the same time, Yasser Arafat was elected president of the Palestinian Authority: he got 88% of the votes in a contest against Samiha Khalil.


Unlike the US Presidential election of 2000, nobody disputes the fairness of these elections.  Arafat won by a street, unlike George W Bush who, after weeks of controversy about the voting in Florida, including about his brother’s massaging of the electoral roll, was declared President by his father’s appointees to the US Supreme Court.


Nevertheless, the doubtfully elected President of the US refuses to meet and recognise the duly, and overwhelmingly, elected President of the Palestinian Authority.  He is so committed to bringing democracy to the Middle East that he refuses to deal with the one Arab leader who has an unambiguous electoral mandate.  Like Ariel Sharon, he insists that the Palestinians find another leader, because he doesn’t like the one they elected in 1996. 


Democracy Bush-style

Here are his words in what was hailed as a landmark speech on 24 June 2002, because he committed the US to a so-called two-state solution in Palestine:


Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership, so that a Palestinian state can be born.


“I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practising democracy, based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts. 


“If the Palestinian people meet these goals, they will be able to reach agreement with Israel and Egypt and Jordan on security and other arrangements for independence. And when the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbours, the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state whose borders and certain aspects of its sovereignty will be provisional until resolved as part of a final settlement in the Middle East.”


If the Palestinians get a new leadership acceptable to George Bush, then they can have a state.  Otherwise, they can’t.  That’s democracy Bush-style.


(A few weeks after this “landmark” speech by the President, a senior member of his administration expressed the rather different view that the West Bank and Gaza belonged to Israel by right of conquest.  He said:


“My feeling about the so-called occupied territories are that there was a war, Israel urged neighboring countries not to get involved in it once it started, they all jumped in, and they lost a lot of real estate to Israel because Israel prevailed in that conflict. In the intervening period, they’ve made some settlements in various parts of the so-called occupied area, which was the result of a war, which they won.”


That was Donald Rumsfeld, speaking at a so-called Pentagon Townhall Meeting on 6 August 2002.  He is still a member of George Bush’s administration.)


Acceptable to Blair

Bush-style democracy is entirely acceptable to Blair.  On 19 November 2003, Bush made a speech in the Royal Banqueting Hall in Whitehall to an invited audience.  The next day, Blair described this speech as “a powerful, telling speech extolling the virtues of freedom, justice, democracy, and the rule of law, not just for some people, but for all the peoples of our world”. 


In that speech, praised to the skies by Blair, Bush once again made it plain that the leadership elected by Palestinians is unacceptable to the US:


“As we work on the details of peace, we must look to the heart of the matter, which is the need for a viable Palestinian democracy. Peace will not be achieved by Palestinian rulers who intimidate opposition, who tolerate and profit from corruption and maintain their ties to terrorist groups. These are the methods of the old elites, who time and again had put their own self-interest above the interest of the people they claim to serve. The long-suffering Palestinian people deserve better. They deserve true leaders, capable of creating and governing a Palestinian state.”


It is noticeable that Bush’s demand for new leadership is never accompanied by calls for fresh elections on the grounds that the 1996 mandate has expired.  Understandably so, since Arafat would be returned with a fresh mandate, which would be difficult to ignore while at the same time extolling the virtues of democracy.  And any elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council would produce a body less acceptable to Bush and Sharon than the current one.


(As for corruption in the Palestinian Authority, remember that George W Bush was a personal friend of Kenneth Lay.  He called him Kenny Boy.  As the head of Enron, Kenny Boy presided over a multi-billion dollar scam, from which George W’s received major contributions to his election fund.  By comparison, any corruption in the Palestinian Authority is a minor matter.)


It is reasonable to assume that the enthusiasm of Bush and Blair for democracy in the abstract is conditional in practice upon the democracy electing leaders who are acceptable to the US/UK.  That is the experience from Palestine.  Is there any doubt that, for all their windy rhetoric about democracy and freedom in Iraq, that experience will be replicated there?



There is another glaring example, where the Bush/Blair attachment to democracy and the rule of law in theory is contradicted in practice.  During the press conference in Downing Street on 20 November 2003 (transcript here), Adam Boulton of Sky News referred to it in a question to them:


“What do you say to those people, both those who support what your two governments have done since September 11th, and those who oppose it, that, in fact, the treatment of the captives in Guantanamo Bay actually belies all your talk of freedom, justice and tolerance?”


Bush uttered the usual formula that these people were illegal combatants, picked up off a battlefield, as if that justified holding people without trial and incommunicado for more than two years.  (He actually said “illegal non-combatants”, but that must have been a Bushism).  In fact, not all of them were picked up off the battlefield in Afghanistan: some were captured in Pakistan, and in other states including Bosnia. 


Justice Blair-style

Blair’s response was:


“… let's just remember, this arose out of the battle in Afghanistan, that arose out of September the 11th and the attack there. … So, even though this arose out of this appalling, brutal attack on America on September the 11th, nonetheless, we make sure that justice is done for people.”


So, because the US was subject to an “appalling, brutal attack”, the Blair version of the rule of law allows the US to:


1.       detain hundreds of people in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the vast majority of whom had nothing to do with 9/11,

2.       remove them from the state in which they were detained without any judicial process, which, if done by an individual, is called kidnapping,

3.       transport them to a location specially chosen so that they can continue to be denied access to a judicial process (because it is under US control but outside the jurisdiction of US courts), and

4.       detain them without trial and without access to legal representatives for more than two years.


And now he says they are making sure that justice is done for these people.


That is, of course, another big lie.  The six British detainees may get some form of trial somewhere, because Blair has come under pressure at home about it, and his friend George is trying to help him out.  But Blair hasn’t shown the slightest interest in “justice” for the other 99% of detainees.  The Blair version of the rule of law doesn’t include the concept of equality before the law.


Loss of life

Another thing: it is about time the loss of life in the US on 11 September 2001 was put into perspective.  3,000 people died that day.  Bush and Blair have killed many times that number since, in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The number will never be known with any precision, because they have never made any attempt to count Afghan or Iraqi dead and wounded, either civilian or military.  The US army doesn’t even keep a count of the civilians it has killed during the occupation.  Their attitude is profoundly racist: dead Afghans and Iraqis, combatants or non-combatants, don’t matter.


Various individuals and organisations have tried to estimate civilian dead.  Marc Herold estimates, from news reports, that 3,000 to 3,400 civilians were killed in Afghanistan (see here).  The Iraq Body Count organisation estimates Iraqi civilian deaths at 8-10,000, including 1,500 who have died in Baghdad alone in the general mayhem since the occupation began. God knows how many combatants have been killed, but it can hardly be less than the civilian deaths.  Blair and Bush may have been responsible for the deaths of ten times the number who died on 9/11.  But these deaths never get a mention.


And remember, at most a few of these people had anything to do with 9/11.


Bad people

Adam Boulton’s devastating question at the Bush/Blair press conference in Downing Street on 20 November 2003 (transcript here) wasn’t the first time he had bowled a yorker at them about the detainees at Guantanamo.  On 17 July 2003 in the White House, he asked if they had concerns that the detainees were not getting justice.  This prompted Bush to declare them all guilty without trial, saying, in a remark worthy of David Blunkett:


“No, the only thing I know for certain is that these are bad people”


Remember, in the military court system being prepared to try the detainees, the US President is the court of last resort.  He may have the power of life or death over them.  You can see what Blair means when he says they are making sure that justice is done to the detainees.


Bush’s on the spot conviction of the detainees prompted Nick Robinson to ask:


“Mr. President, do you realize that many people hearing you say that we know these are bad people in Guantanamo Bay will merely fuel their doubts that the United States regards them as innocent until proven guilty and due a fair, free and open trial?”


Bush made a half-hearted attempt to withdraw his guilty verdict:


“Well, let me just say these were illegal combatants. They were picked up off the battlefield aiding and abetting the Taliban. I'm not trying to try them in front of your cameras or in your newspaper.”


(Every year, the US State Department publishes detailed reports on human rights violations around the world.  They are readily available on the State Department website.  The report for 2002 on Saudi Arabia says (see here):


“Security forces continued to … arbitrarily arrest and detain persons, and hold them in incommunicado detention.”


What are they complaining about?)


“Terrorist” free zone

Blair took Britain to war against Iraq, because, he said, its possession of  “weapons of mass destruction” made it a threat to its neighbours and to the world.  He specifically stated that, if Iraq gave up these weapons, the Iraqi regime would not be overthrown.  Disarming Iraq and removing the threat it posed to its neighbours and the world was the object of Government policy, not regime change.  Vile though the regime was, it would be left alone, providing it gave up its chemical and biological weapons.


Now that no “weapons of mass destruction” have been found, Blair invites us to rejoice at the overthrow of a regime which he said he would be content to leave in place, providing it had no “weapons of mass destruction” – which it obviously hadn’t.  The “liberation” of Iraq is now his ex post facto justification for the invasion and occupation.


But faced with Iraqi resistance to being “liberated” by the US/UK, he has had to engage in further piece of twisting.  The line now is that the Iraqi resistance are “terrorists” opposed to “freedom and democracy”, just like the “terrorists” who flew aircraft into buildings on 9/11 and the ones who planted bombs in Istanbul last month.  Speaking on 20 November 2003, just after the bombing of the British targets in Istanbul, he said:


“And what this latest terrorist outrage shows us is that this is a war, its main battleground is Iraq. We have got to make sure we defeat these terrorists, the former Saddam people in Iraq, and we must do that because that is an essential part of defeating this fanaticism and extremism that is killing innocent people all over our world today.”


This is yet another theme which Blair has copied from Bush, who, as Iraqi resistance has grown, has increasingly portrayed his Iraqi adventure as an integral part of the “war on terror” and therefore essential to prevent a repeat of 9/11.  It’s understandable that Bush should mouth such nonsense since he is up for re-election next year, but does Blair have to insult our intelligence by repeating his nonsense.


How did Iraq become what he now calls the “main battleground” in the war on terror?  Could it be that it was something to do with the fact that he and George Bush invaded Iraq in March this year and have occupied it ever since?  Could it be that, had they not invaded Iraq, it would have remained a “terrorist” free zone?



Labour & Trade Union Review

December 2003