INCONVERSATION

Blair’s House of Cards: Clare Short with Hirsh Sawhney

Erudite and engaged, Clare Short has been a member of the UK Parliament since 1983. She was a member of Tony Blair’s cabinet as the Secretary of State for International Development. Although she thought “the run-up to the conflict in Iraq was mishandled,” she “agreed to stay in the government to help support the reconstruction effort for the people of Iraq.” In May 2003, however, she resigned from the cabinet, claiming that Blair had broken promises about the UN’s involvement in the reconstruction of Iraq. Since then, she has been one of the most vociferous critics of both the Iraq War and the Blair government’s ongoing support for it.

In her book An Honourable Deception? New Labour, Iraq and the Misuse of Power (Free Press, 2004) she offers indispensable insight into the attitudes and policies that produced the calamity. In late May, the Rail’s Hirsh Sawhney sat down with Short at the House of Commons in London.

Rail: Have Neo-Conservative and New Labour become synonymous terms?

Clare Short: The New Labour around Blair has just taken on the whole rhetoric of the Neo-Cons. He’s about to go to America, where he’s going to make a big speech justifying everything—saying how they’ve really done Iraq for the benefits of humanity. He’s just swallowed the whole thing and takes on [the Neo-Cons’] analysis and way of talking. And Blair does this “triangulation” thing that Clinton started.

Rail: What is triangulation and why is it so dangerous to government?

Short: Well, it’s a positioning system. You look at where the right wing is and where the left wing is, and you choose someplace in the middle that sounds reasonable. Blair would say, “There are the peaceniks and there are the hard-line aggressive warmongers. But I will present myself as a caring human being reluctantly willing to use force when it’s necessary to advance the condition of some of the neediest people on the planet.” And it’s a lie. It muddles political debate. No policy is fully considered or properly consulted upon or scrutinized. Triangulation and that whole new way in which politics is done through bouncing misleading accounts of ill-thought out policies through the media and driving policy in that kind of way—it’s badly motivated, and it’s incompetent.

Rail: So Blair has also modeled himself after Clinton and the New Democrats?

Short: He and Gordon Brown used to go to America to the Democratic Convention and watch the Clinton campaign. Blair chose to head his office in Number 10 a young foreign office official who’d been in our embassy in New York and was appointed to follow the Clinton campaign. So they thought, New Democrats, New Labour. Lots of it was straight imitation. He adored Clinton—liked to be pictured with him. What was incredible was, when the President changed, Blair just sort of went for the new President as though there was not a spark of difference between them.

Rail: Is there that big a difference between the Clinton and Bush administrations?

Short: After the bombs in ’98 on the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, Clinton sent a cruise missile to bomb a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. There was no doubt afterwards that the target was just a normal pharmaceutical factory. But Clinton wouldn’t have been quite as deceitful or disrespectful of international law. On Kyoto, yes, America was always being difficult. But Clinton didn’t want to be absolutely separated from the international community. So it’s a difference of degree rather than of kind.

But we now know the stuff that Wolfowitz, Cheney and Rumsfeld were writing when they were in opposition—as part of the Project for the New American Century. They were writing about the need to control Iraq in order to remove American troops from Saudi Arabia but still dominate the Gulf. They were cruder, harder, more ignorant and more aggressive, but they weren’t traveling in a different direction than the Clinton administration.

Rail: What really motivates the defense-oriented polices of Neo-Conservatives, New Labour or New Democrats?

Short: I think that in the case of America, a large part of the explanation can be found in what President Eisenhower said in his final address—“Beware of the military industrial complex.” This is Eisenhower—a general and a Republican president—saying to his people there’s such vested interest in the arms industry and they do so much lobbying, be careful. The [military industrial complex] can distort American foreign policy. I think in the case of the so-called War on Terror, the military industrial complex was terribly threatened by the end of the Cold War and the slashing of defense spending.

Rail: Describe the relationship between the media and 10 Downing Street.

Short: Alastair Campbell—who was the Karl Rove of Blair —was brilliant. The political media around Westminster go twice a day for a briefing at Number 10 Downing Street. Campbell will offer journalists exclusives. So there’s always something a bit extra—a scoop. But anyone who displeases him [won’t get any] exclusive information. So if you’re consistently critical, you’re out of the loop and don’t get any stories. It’s a way of controlling the media.

There used to be scholars of the Soviet Union who would read the various publications of those dictatorial regimes and would say, “I think the Foreign Ministry’s saying this, and there’s pressure from these defense people to say that.” They knew who was close to whom. Now you can read the top quality British press and think, “That correspondent’s close to Gordon Brown, that one’s close to Peter Mandelson, and that one’s very close to Alastair Campbell.” It’s government by media management, and the media collude in this and cross the line from being people who scrutinize the executive to being almost part of the executive machine.

Rail: You pushed for a Road Map to a Palestinian State before the Iraq war. What’s the connection between the need for this Road Map and Iraq?

Short: The fundamental cause of enormous anger in the Arab and Muslim world is the endless suffering of the Palestinian people… If a foreign power was oppressing and locking up and hurting all the people [of one state in the United States], most other Americans would be angry. You feel a kind of solidarity with the people who speak your language, live in your region, and are being endlessly mistreated and hurt. So the fundamental anger in the Arab world, and one of the reasons why some angry young men are willing to sign up to the use of force, is because of this sense of injustice…

The Road Map to the establishment of a Palestinian State should have taken place by the end of 2005 on the basis of international law… And then in the case of Iraq we could have gone through the UN and got the inspectors back in, indict[ed] Saddam Hussein for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and help[ed] the Iraqi people get into the international court like we did with Milosevic. And if you did both these things, you’d take the fundamental anger out of the Middle East. Then you could have an era of spreading democracy. The third component—which is supposed to be American and British policy—is that all WMD should be out of the region. Israel has massive nuclear capacity.

Rail: Was it illegal to go to war based on UN Security Council Resolution 1441, which offered Iraq “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations”?

Short: There’s no doubt it was illegal, and Kofi Annan has said so. We now have the long legal opinion of the British Attorney General saying there wasn’t legal authority for war, which was suppressed and not circulated to the cabinet. Then the Attorney General, at the last minute, gave a legal opinion that said almost the opposite of what he had said in his long legal opinion. But the viewpoint of international lawyers that it was illegal was overwhelming. 1441 didn’t give authority for war, there’s no question about it.

Rail: How was it possible that Bush and his coalition went to war then?

Short: In Britain, and in America as well, people were completely lied to. We all know politicians put the best face on things and don’t tell the whole truth. But in a matter of going to war, risking and taking human life, destabilizing the whole international order? If anyone had told me before that the US President and the Prime Minister of Britain would lie through their teeth to this degree, I would’ve said, “impossible.” It would mean a corruption of all our political systems.

Rail: Has society held these administrations accountable for this corruption?

Short: Although there are critics, scholars and books, the political system hasn’t held either administration to account – Bush nor Blair. But they were lying to provoke a war in which thousands have people lost their lives and a whole country’s been destabilized. And that really means to me that our systems are not safe—lies are permitted, propaganda is the way governments communicate.

Rail: You identify Blair as one person who had some leverage with Bush to swing this in a more positive direction.

Short: The American people, having been lied to on the attacks on the Twin Towers, thinking it came out of Iraq, said in survey after survey, that they would go to war in coalition yes, but alone, no. And Britain was the spectacular coalition. If you remember at the time, Bush endlessly talked about coalition. They went around the world bullying countries like Eritrea, Rwanda, Ethiopia—some of the poorest countries in the world who couldn’t afford to alienate America. It shows how desperate they were to have a coalition, and that was because of American public opinion. Now the real partner that made it seem internationally appropriate was Britain. And if Blair had said, “We’ll be with you in resolving the situation in Iraq, sanctions are awful, Saddam Hussein is abusing his people. But there are ways through this. Let’s make progress on Israel-Palestine, let’s do this in a proper cooperative international way,” the whole world could be better off and America could’ve avoided this horrendous error. But I think he felt it makes him big to be the only guy in the world who can pick up the phone to President of the United States.

Rail: What does the future look like in Iraq?

Short: I think that America can’t succeed in Iraq. And of course the talk that’s going on now—Blair’s doing it and Bush is doing it—that we’ll leave as soon as the Iraqi people ask us to, is a lie. America’s building four massive permanent bases. What they want to do is withdraw into those bases and have a pro-American Iraqi government that will keep law and order for them. And I don’t think it can work. The resistance is so strong and so powerful.

I think a future American president will have to withdraw from Iraq genuinely, and probably by then will have to look for a new Middle East policy. Because the turbulence and the [amount of] young people who conclude there is no political route to justice and therefore support those who use violence will probably go on growing.

Rail: Any words you’d particularly like to share with an American audience?

Short: [The Iraq War] is a horrendous mistake, but there is a just solution. We could negotiate an end to the occupation of Iraq and get the international community to help the people of Iraq stabilize their country… That’s still available, if America would only go for a just policy. I don’t think they will. I think the death, the killing and the suffering will go on. And in the end, America will fail, having lost prestige and respect all over the world.

Any American with pride should say, “Let’s come back into the fold of nations; let’s behave according to international law; let’s get a just settlement in the Middle East. Let’s restore our constitutional arrangements, abide by the rule of law and close down Guantanamo.” Because as well as in the Middle East, we need international agreements to deal with the crisis of global warming. And if we shatter all our international institutions, our ability to get the people of the world to cooperate to deal with this real crisis for the future of humanity is going to get worse and worse.

America is the key.

Contributor

Hirsh Sawhney

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