I went to the QE II Conference Hall on Friday afternoon to watch the questioning of Tony Blair live in the spirit of a political tourist.
Now, I am neither Iraqi nor British. I am Indian, and India cleverly refused to commit any troops to the Iraq War. I don’t know a single British/American/Iraqi who suffered personally in the invasion and its aftermath. My interest in the Iraq War had always been purely political. As the citizen of the world, I had always been appalled that Bush and Blair did what they did and got away with it. And now, I had won a ticket through a nation-wide lottery to attend Blair’s grilling in person, and hell, I was not going to miss the chance.
The sight outside added to my sense of bonhomie – there was a small group of protestors outside screaming “Blair Dies” which I thought was bit extreme but oh well.. he was their ex-prime minister, so who was I to judge. (It was actually “Blair Lies”, but the penny dropped later). Most ticket holders like me looked flushed and pleased with their luck… like me.
It was only when the questioning began that all else faded away, and the seriousness of what I was attending struck me. Here was a nation trying to understand how did it manage to get itself embroiled in a war not of its making, under completely false pretences, and with minimal preparation and are continuing to bleed both money and life into it seven years later? How did all their systems – cabinet, parliament, labyrinthine government departments, military, intelligence, and legal advisors – fail to predict how horribly wrong the Iraq invasion would go?
Tony Blair was of course the architect of Britain’s involvement in the invasion seven years ago. Not only was he the prime minister of Britain at that time, he actively convinced (coerced?) all the offices and advisors around him and the people of Great Britain that it was the right thing to do, the right time to do, and they knew the right way to do it.
Only it didn’t turn out to be the case. And hence, here he was sitting before a panel that made no effort to hide its accusatory tone, in a room full of people who had lost their family to Blair’s ill-gotten war, trying to explain his actions. Or as the Evening Standard later describe, “explain away” his actions. What Blair was at pains to point out that while he took responsibility for the decisions taken, he wasn’t alone in making those decisions. That other people supported him: his cabinet, the parliament, the attorney general, and for what it’s worth, the military generals. Everyone hated him for trying to spread the blame – for not coming out and spitting it, that he was responsible for it all and he was sorry about it.
But that would have been too easy, wouldn’t it? That Tony Blair lied to everyone, that nobody had the means to check his lies, that he manipulated their moral reasoning, that the rest of the cast (and the nation) is simply exonerated.
But if that were the case, what would be the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship, where one man decides for the nation and takes responsibility for the action. I thought democracy gave other arms of the government the power to check the actions of a runaway prime-minister/president. Why didn’t the other arms exercise this power? Why did the attorney general Lord Goldsmith capitulate under pressure? Others had quit their job on the issue, why couldn’t he stand up to his views? Why didn’t the parliament try to conduct their own investigations into the issue instead of just blindly believing everything Blair and party dished out to them? That is what a parliament is there for.
If this inquiry is to be a success, these are the questions it must try to answer. (And, to be fair, that is what it is trying to.)
When I came out of the inquiry, the protest had only gotten bigger. Blair lies, Blair lies – the skies seemed to be screaming. Only, I wasn’t feeling the same bonhomie as before. I wasn’t a political tourist anymore. I was engaged in this debate.
Yes, Blair lied. But how is Britain going to ensure that next time a prime minister lies to its people, they don’t fall for it? And this is question that all democracies around the world – including India – must ponder over.