2 Sep 2011

The lure of the 'very bad man'

So, Tony Blair‘s Head of M15 opposed the “war on terror”. Eliza Manningham-Buller also opposed the invasion of Iraq. I wonder whether she said so at the time. Her confession comes in a Reith lecture to be broadcast next week – but it is already in the can. One wonders whether by the time the Iraq Inquiry reports there will be anyone to be found beyond the former  Prime Minister and his old friend George W Bush, to defend either the “war on terror”, or the invasion.

And yet, beyond Robin Cook and a tiny handful of other political rebels, there were only two “officials” who put their beliefs on the line at the time. The redoubtable Elizabeth Wilmshurst – number two in the Foreign Office legal department – and Carne Ross, a senior UK diplomat at the UN – both paid the ultimate price in both nobility and pensions, in resigning over it all. Both were fast rising stars in their departments, none of their superiors saw fit to join them.

Carne Ross’s book, The Leaderless Revolution, is published this week. I have read it, and it is a remarkable call to arms. Ross believes the present domestic and international “system” cannot deliver the change the world urgently needs and calls on the individual citizen to play his and her part as never before.

The Iraq war is far from over. The killing continues apace – 250 civilians a month according to latest figures from Baghdad. A suicide bomber killed 29 in the capital’s biggest mosque last weekend alone. Just before the invasion, Tony Blair summoned four of the UK’s top Iraq analysts to Number 10 to advise him. All four counselled strongly against going ahead with it. As they left, after a solid one and a half hours of deliberation, Mr Blair is reported by one of the academics as saying: “But you do agree, don’t you, that Saddam is a very bad man?”

Another “very bad man” is still lurking about in Libya today. I first encountered Gaddafi in the 1970s. His was a Green Book-supported cult of personality – but a strangely egalitarian one. Libyans initially did rather well out of him – he spread the wealth about and spent on schooling and health. But as with all such cults, the green turned to brown, and eventually to black, tinged with the red blood of those who opposed his dictatorship.

Once again, the west allowed itself to become obsessed with another “very bad man” with oil. As our own Lindsey Hilsum has observed, the Libyan matter may not end easily or soon and could yet be messy. The rather nicer man, King-Al Kalifa of Bahrain, whom I found Tony Blair taking tea with in Sharmel Sheikh when I went to interview him there on the last day of 2005, has been left alone to bludgeon some of his country’s people and their doctors back into order. The US has this week rewarded him by extending the rental on Bahrain’s bunkering facilities for the US navy until 2016.

We are left with the son of another “very bad man” President Assad of Syria, who continues to kill his people unabated, and unfettered by any misgivings of the west. The nice erstwhile ophthalmologist from Willesden had been seen as infinitely nicer than the father who slaughtered 10,000 of his people in a go. Syria’s continuing bloodshed will bubble up to the top of the page if Libya does begin to settle. But with less oil, and the UK and others suffering defence cuts, the eye specialist is likely to benefit from the west’s blind eye for a time yet.

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