Completely by accident I found myself at my first anti-war demonstration on Saturday. I was walking up from St James's Park towards the West End, specifically Soho, when I heard, as I passed Horseguards Parade, the fairly familiar sound of a rally taking place in Trafalgar Square. So, being curious (and always interested to know how 'professional' demonstrators know that, somewhere in town there's a gig on – is there a newsletter?) I turned right into the Mall and wandered through Admiralty Arch to see what was happening. It was the largest crowd, outside of new year's eve, I've ever seen in the Square – far bigger, for instance, than the one Mandela got when he appeared on the balcony of South Africa House. There were masses of Palestinian flags, some pretty het up Arabic shouted through loudspeakers, intermittent chants from the placard wavers (dead babies, abusive slogans about Blair and Bush, that sort of thing – and neatly printed up too) of 'God is Great', and a fair amount of splashing about in the fountains in front of Nelson's column. Needless to say, it was hardly reported at all in the press, either before or after, even though a crowd a fifth the size of this, if it had been gathered for a purpose congenial to the media, would have been hyped to the skies.
Still, it's difficult to dissent from the press silence, as it's hard to justify how the rally in any way mattered, or will impact upon government policy. If you've ever had to walk through a large body of football fans returning home after a soccer match, you'll know that British humanity en masse can be less than agreeable, hence, something which should be said about this assembly was that it was astonishingly good natured. For all I know the platform speakers could have been calling for the Jackal State to be driven into the sea, or something equally unpleasant, but the families present were all far better behaved than their British peers would have been in similar numbers. Though that points up another tiny lesson available to be drawn from this under-reported event, organised by the 'Muslim Association of Britain': there weren't, I'd guess, but I think fairly, many British nationals present. Virtually everyone was of Middle Eastern descent. A quantity, of course, must have been British Arabs, but it had the look of a fairly foreign event. Generally, monster meetings conducted in a language other than English aren't aimed at British audiences. All in all, then, this may have been just another facet of 'London: world city', but should we get excited too?
And the Hacks Had To Stay In Waco . . .
The Prime Minister evidently thought so – a longstanding trip to Texas to see Dubya was considered important enough for Mr. Blair to ask Buckingham Palace if he could go ahead with it, the sad death of the Queen Mother notwithstanding. And on coming back, Mr. Blair even offered himself up to the House of Commons to report on this mini-summit. This was an unusual decision, as although we have an excellent habit of obliging heads of government to report to Parliament on even the most trivial things, meetings with US presidents are generally seen as been far too commonplace even for that. However, as the Prime Minister said in the Commons, explaining his presence there:
Normally, an informal bilateral meeting would not be the subject of a statement. Exceptionally, because of the situation in the Middle East, I thought it right to come to the House and give hon. Members a more extended chance to put questions than Prime Minister's Question Time affords.
Of course, at Crawford, we discussed many issues, including bilateral relations, trade issues, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, Russia and NATO, Africa, and energy policy. I am very willing to answer questions on those issues. However, I shall concentrate on the Middle East. [...] There are many situations, both at home and abroad, which are called a crisis when, in truth, they are not. In this case, however, it is hard to overstate the dangers or the potential for this conflict to impact far beyond the region. It is, indeed, a genuine crisis, and one on which all of us, in whatever way we can, small or large, have a duty to act.
But do we? Do we have a duty to act? Leaving to one side whether a debate in the House of Commons makes a jot of difference to anything happening in Israel and Palestine, what responsibility is it of ours? Are we propping up one side or the other? Or, when the Prime Minister says that what we, in Britain, have to do is 'act', is he being characteristically honest – should we simply satisfy ourselves with a bit of mumming and leave it at that? Well, that's doubtless what we will do, but, bluntly, does what's happening in the Levant matter, in any sense other than the let's-all-hug-each-other, to Britain?
You'll have noted with a sneer that I've written 'the Levant' rather 'the Middle East', and for good reason too, since foreign policy is only ever a matter of names, not places. We, that is to say, just about everyone in a first world economy, have an undeniable interest in what goes on in oil-producing regions of the world. The eastern littoral of the Mediterranean (roughly, Cyprus, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Syria and Palestine, with Turkey sui generis) is notable for one thing above all else: the providential absence of oil. To put that another way, if, say, Jordan and Syria spent the next thirty or so years knocking seven shades of Shi'ite out of each other, occupying bits of each other, sponsoring suicide bombers and calling each other nasty names – there wouldn't be agonised visits by Colin Powell. There might well be gasbags in the House of Commons who'd want to spout on about it, but they'd have their fun without the Prime Minister being present to lead the hand-wringing. Rightly, the outside world wouldn't care one way or the other if we had a 'Syria-Jordan conflict' that rolled interminably across the decades – let them, would be our unspoken thought. It's not as if, in foreign policy terms, Britain, let alone the US, hasn't enough to be getting on with anyway.
Britain and the World
It's of no consequence to anyone save the poor man's family, but in Afghanistan, where (as you'll remember) it is vitally in Britain's interest that we should do a job the Americans won't do for themselves – this, although the failure to see this aforementioned (if under-explained) job done was, apparently, a core reason why several thousand US civilians were slaughtered in under an hour a few months ago – a British soldier has been killed. We have to expect that sort of thing to happen, and not just by accident, either, since these troops have been sent there on the explicit basis that they'll have to fight against hostile forces.
Closer to home, we've seen a truly extraordinary sight: Labour Eurosceptics have hoved into sight again. There are nowhere near enough to make a heap of difference, but it's good to know that they're out there. There was a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party last Tuesday, when all the press coverage focused in on rumblings about whether we'll join in with any US attack on Iraq. This matters not a jot partly because the executive doesn't need to pay any attention to the legislature, and partly politically too, because for every Labour opponent of such collusion, the government gains two Tories (the Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, having made during the debate on the Crawford report, and during questions to the Prime Minister, a series of pro-Israel contributions sufficient to earn him, at the very least, an associate editorship at The Weekly Standard), but chiefly because, if Labour MPs knuckle under when Tony Blair says socialism's for losers, trust me, they're not going to go to the wall for starving Iraqi babies.
It's precisely for this reason – that on matters of foreign policy (even on European issues) there is no serious domestic political comeback for them, that Labour MPs can enjoy the luxury of public dissent, and ask, in a very obvious form of displacement activity, scathing questions, in tones they would never otherwise have the chance to employ.
Back at the Ranch
The source of this licensed dissent – for whereas mouthing off on some matter important to the political future of the government would see the whips in action, no one is being chased for chuntering on about Iraq – was the meeting between Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush at the latter's ranch near Crawford, Texas. A pretty pathetic piece of Downing Street spin originally claimed this as a signal honour, Tony Blair being the first 'overnighter' at the ranch, but then someone woke up to the fact that President Putin had been there and done that, so instead, to show the specialness in action, the pantingly urgent claim was made to the press: 'the Prime Minister's the first vassal to spend two nights in the presence'. Anyway, out came the principals afterwards, with smiles on their faces, and agreement in their hearts. Because of the transience of media-memory, it's worth reflecting on how unlikely this would have seemed to the fourth estate little more than a year ago – then their chorused question was, 'how will Tony Blair ever have as good a relationship with Dubya as he's had with Bill Clinton?' Anyone familiar with the historic trajectory of Presidential-Prime Ministerial relationships could have answered that one.
Harry Hopkins, at the end of the Second World War, went as far to say that, 'the most cardinal principle of our foreign policy [must be to] make absolutely sure that now and forever the United States and Great Britain are going to see eye to eye on major matters of world policy. It is easy to say that. It is hard to do, but it can be done and the effort is worth it'. It's fair to say that, in the last four decades, it's become, uh, that bit easier for the US to secure British compliance. I keep harping on about this – the fact that, if you're an American and disinclined towards imperialism, this facile relationship isn't exactly helpful – but showing the patriotic little hearts beating even amongst the readers of Antiwar.com, every time I do this, in come the emails, 'aw, go suck your head, Britain's help doesn't matter a whit'. To this retort, since Dr. K knows even more about American imperialism than you and me put together, what does uncle Henry think?
So matter-of-factly intimate [is Anglo-American 'consultation'] that it is psychologically impossible to ignore British views. They evolved a habit of meetings so regular that autonomous American action somehow came to seem to violate club rules.
This habit of agreement is the very thing that is dangerous and that requires comment: to posit the alternative, that a British Prime Minister and President might disagree, is to see what is missing.
Some disagreement coming from a British Prime Minister, if only for its novelty value, could do America the great service of pointing out that, in the hateful dispute between Israel and Palestine, nothing much, save the self-involved concerns of outsiders, is at stake. What would matter would be inter-state action. Yet, thanks to the useful instability of the (oil-producing) Arab regimes, an inevitable timidity governs their foreign policy, so they, at least, evidently, are not going to start a war.
Socialistic Brown People With Their Hands On Our Oil
Now watch this for a left curve. What lesson should we draw from all these things: the dumb but dangerous habit of Anglo-American collaboration; the fact that some issues we're told are all important don't really, to us, matter a damn; and that, like it or not, electorates don't give a tinker's cuss about foreign policy? The lesson is the same one that Britain's minister responsible for South America should have known long before he pronounced on Hugo Chavez, hero for our time.
Denis MacShane – who, to provide some background, was a ski-tanned placeman, working for the International Labour Organization in Geneva before he won election to Parliament for one of the Britain's most grimly deprived constituencies – was (and would you credit this?) lined up and ready to go during the Chavez interregnum, and supplied The Times with an article reflecting on the tyrannical strongman's downfall. Though, when I say downfall, I obviously mean what the State Department referred to as, 'the Venezuelan people taking back their democracy' . . . from their elected (and chad-free) president, natch. This was an event which garnered the most fatuous sentence ever written in the annals of English-speaking journalism. The Daily Telegraph, in a leader, praised the US for sitting on their hands through the Chavezian horror, and leaving it to the natives to free themselves. 'The last thing the Americans need is a new set of myths about Yanqui coup-mongering, after the fashion of their alleged role in the overthrow of Chile's Salvador Allende in 1973'. Whoever wrote that leader should have the word 'alleged' branded into his forehead.
Sorry, got a bit excited there: 'what about Mr. MacShane?' you say. Simply this. British foreign policy is not crass because an ethical foreign minister praises a coup; still less because a Labour foreign minister witters on about a third world country's foolishness in, oh, raising its pitiful minimum wage. What's so effing stupid is that he jumps in, feet first, when no one would have given a thought if he'd just kept his stupid mouth shut, and praises an abortive coup. Government ministers can whore for BP and Shell as much as they want, but when they, in one idiotic act, lose the inevitable modernisation of the fourth largest oil producing economy in the world to Elf, well, now you see the problem for us – one of them, anyway – of being America's Mister Me-Too.
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