Blair in California

Blair didn’t move the goal posts, just the playing field
European Notebook by Neville de Silva
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 terrorism.

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 war.

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 possible catastrophe.

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
By Kuldip Nayar
“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 of them.

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 Singh'.

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.

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