Blair in California
Blair didn’t move the
goal posts, just the playing field
The move began last week. Angered by what a substantial number of
British MPs and the public see as their country's disconcertingly
pro-American stand on the continuing Lebanese crisis there were
tangible moves in Westminster to recall parliament for a debate
on the issue.
While Lebanon is burning the House of Commons
is on its annual 11-week recess and Prime Minister Tony Blair and
family have departed to the sun and sand of the Caribbean while
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett has left for France. (On Friday,
she arrived in New York to vote for Resolution 1701)
Not that one should begrudge politicians their
annual holidays but when crisis hits during the summer recess and
all that is left is telephone diplomacy to be conducted from some
holiday home, there are natural bestirrings among back benchers
in government and opposition at being left out of decision making
in troubled times.
So some 100 MPs or more, several of them from
the ruling Labour Party are trying to gather support to demand parliament
be recalled. They are preparing a letter to Jack Straw, a former
foreign secretary and now leader of the commons, asking the government
recall the House.
The Speaker who must ultimately make the decision
will do so only if the government recommends the unscheduled sitting
of parliament. With Israel determined to stay the course and threatening
to continue with its incursions into Lebanon for another month or
so, the anti-Washington/Israeli pressure is mounting in political
circles and civil society.
If Blair turns down the call then he will earn
the wrath of sections of his own party which are already angered
by the UK's toadying up to the Bush administration and for standing
alongside Washington in its refusal to call for an immediate ceasefire
in West Asia that is fast turning into a massacre of the innocents.
Blair must take cognisance of the fact that Labour
Party's annual conference is due next month and he must try to defuse
the growing antagonism towards him before it blows up into a full
scale rebellion at the party conference. It was bad enough when
Blair got the country embroiled in the Iraq war by standing shoulder
to shoulder with President Bush and his neoconservative mission
to impose the US will on the world in the guise of fighting international
Now he has stepped into the West Asia imbroglio,
once more aligning himself and the country with Washington, a move
that is increasingly proving to be unpopular and adding to the opposition
that built up over the Iraq war. Despite frantic denials by Blair
and his Downing Street aides it becomes clearer with the passage
of time that the prime minister keeps changing his reasons for going
to war with Iraq.
As a former cabinet minister Clare Short who resigned
over Blair's involvement in Iraq on the side of Washington, said
on television last week people are fuming at his support for Bush
in the Lebanese crisis.
It will be recalled that before committing his
country to follow Bush into the invasion of Iraq, Blair claimed
that Saddam Hussein was a threat not only to the region but also
to Britain and British interests. He pointed to Saddam's possession
of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that could be launched within
45 minutes of the order being given. These weapons threatened British
forces in Cyprus.
So the reason at the time was the WMDs and the
need to destroy them and eliminate Saddam's perceived threat. When
no weapons were found even after Blair kept insisting that the weapons
were there and would be found, he eventually shifted his ground
for the invasion. This time round it was regime change. Saddam was
an evil man who gassed his own people (with some help from the West,
of course) and therefore had to be removed for the sake of the Iraqi
people who would then be free.
Fine. But then the world saw that there was more
insecurity, more internal dissension and clashes between the Shia
and Sunni communities that has brought Iraq to the brink of civil
However evil Saddam was, Iraq and the ordinary
Iraqis were not living daily under the threat of being blown apart
every time they stepped outside their homes. As the former British
ambassador to Iraq and senior US generals in Washington said recently
in their assessments of the situation, Iraq is on the verge of civil
war and the US/UK military presence has only helped to create a
So now what does Tony Blair do. He changes his
game once again. No, he does not move the goal posts as so many
politicians do when their stories fall away like rotten fruit. With
US/UK foreign policy in Afghanistan, Iraq and now over the Lebanese
crisis coming unstuck he strikes a different note during a speech
to the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles earlier this month.
It sounded like a plea of mea culpa though Blair and his closest
aides would rush to deny it was a confessional.
But Blair did call for a fundamental reappraisal
of UK and US foreign policy, obviously chastened by his own experience
of seeing the failure of western policy in the region.
He said that when the Lebanese crisis ended "we
must commit ourselves to a complete renaissance of our strategy
to defeat those who threaten us." If by renaissance he meant
the rebirth of a similar attempt to impose western values on a sceptical
world then he would only be repeating earlier mistakes.
But if by renaissance Tony Blair meant a flowering of a new policy
drawing lessons from recent failures it would have some significance.
For all his rhetoric of a new dawn in foreign
policy, one thing stuck like a sore thumb. That was how he once
more changed his tune on Iraq. At first the war on Iraq was to destroy
the weapons of mass destruction. Then it was regime change. In Los
Angeles he moved the playing field again. The invasions of Afghanistan
and Iraq were not to secure "regime change but values change."
At least one could say for Tony Blair, he is consistent in his inconsistency.
Wagah border at dusk
Indo-Pak relations: Light and
darkness at Wagah border
“At last”, I remarked when I received from Lahore an
invitation to bring with me five more persons to join the Pakistan
independence day celebrations. This was not from any big organization.
Still it reflected a thaw of sorts. Never had such a gesture been
made since partition.
But my happiness did not last long. The organizers
sent a message that the Ministry of Interior at Islamabad was not
happy over the participation of Indians. I knew that this was Islamabad's
reaction which had never been happy over people-to-people contact,
whatever its pious statements. The hosts were, no doubt, embarrassed.
They dared not protest, at least publicly, lest they should face
some trouble. We came to their rescue and cancelled the visit. The
other side felt relieved.
In contrast, our successive governments at Delhi,
I must say to their credit, relax the curfew at night in the area
to enable us to light candles right at the Wagah border, the iron
gate, where the Indian territory ends. The response of the public
is tremendous. We began with only 15 people, lighting candles on
the 14-15th August midnight to mark the birth of the two countries.
In 11 years' time, the number has crossed the figure of five lakhs.
In the midst of unending singing and dancing near
the border from 8 p.m. – the best of Punjabi artistes consider
it a privilege to sing there-— there are only a few pauses
to raise the slogan: 'Hindu-Pak Dosti (friendship) Zindabad' or
to pass a resolution for visa relaxation.
The participants come on their own, on foot, cycle,
truck, tractor, bus, car or whichever transport they can find. They
stay till the early hours and linger even later. Villages all around
have an open house that night and offer meals which their women
folk cook the whole day long. Some also send truckloads of chappati
and dhal to the site. The night vigil is something special for all
Yet, they ask me year after year, the same question:
whether there are people on the Pakistan side and whether they too
light candles. I have told them 'Not yet' because I have confidence
that they will do so one day. So far people in the Indian side are
disappointed, not only because they want to see the Pakistanis reciprocating
but also because they are keen on meeting them. Nonetheless, they
are overjoyed to see in their midst the Pakistan parliament members
from the last three years.
Visitors from the other side are a big draw. But
they come only up to the visiting gallery on their side when the
soldiers of the two countries haul down their respective national
flag at the sunset. All of them — their number has swelled
to thousands — go back after the ceremony.
The security forces make sure of this. None from
the public is present on the other side when our programme begins.
I believe a few years ago a group of Pakistani people wanted to
come up to the border to express their solidarity with our cause:
people-to-people contact. But the threat by the Jamat-e-Islam stopped
them from going beyond the suburbs of Lahore.
The military was behind the Jamat in this task.
The lack of response from the other side at night is disappointing.
But then the two societies are different. India has been following
the democratic system since independence. People have been tempered
by free environment. On the other hand, Pakistan has been a military-controlled
state for more than 45 years. Even otherwise, feudal in outlook,
people in Pakistan have developed an attitude which responds to
control and discipline.
The difference between the two societies is clear
from prime minister Manmohan Singh's reaction to the police misbehaviour
towards the leading human rights activist Asma Jehangir from Pakistan.
She was in Delhi last week to attend the Bureau
meeting of South Asian Human Rights (SAHR). The police searched
her room and the luggage. The prime minister caught her at the airport
half an hour before her departure to Lahore to express his apology.
He told her that he was 'ashamed' over what had
happened. Asma was overwhelmed but she took the opportunity to tell
the Prime Minister that the peace process should not stop.
He assured her that he was all for it. People on
both sides should pick up the thread from where it has been left
off. All know that whatever India's limitations, it has sustained
a free, open and democratic society.
In a letter to an Indian newspaper, some prominent
human rights activists from Pakistan have themselves conceded this:
'The people of India have a right to take pride in the deeply rooted
democratic dispensation in their country and the manner in which
it has been promoted in its true spirit by prime minister Manmohan
Let us learn to study regional problems in the
larger perspective of the world and let us not permit the minor
questions of the day to overwhelm us. I have faith in South Asia
and its destiny. We have a long way to go and much leeway to make
up before we can take our proper station with others. We should
therefore seek friendship and comradeship wherever we can find it
and cooperate with one another in common tasks.
My generation has been a troubled one. We may carry
on for a little while longer but our day will be over and we shall
give place to others. They will live their lives and carry their
burdens to the next stage of journey — the burden of normalizing
relations not only between India and Pakistan but also among all
South Asian countries.
How we have played our part, I do not know. Others
of a later age will judge. In spite of all frustrations and rebuffs
we have lighted a candle to dispel darkness of enmity and hatred.
It should keep burning in the face of effort by fanatics and fundamentalists
to snuff it out. We have no other option.