Sunday, September 25, 2005

A Date in Basra

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: A date in Basra

Ever wondered about the difference between light and highlight? Information is softly diffused light across a flat surface. Highlight is the little bits we journalists select and treat as news. Information has no dimensions. It may not be totally accurate, since deadlines are the soot that nourishes the fog of fact; but it is more objective. News is subject to the journalist’s assumptions, convictions and prejudices even when he (or, increasingly, she) tries to be carefully neutral.

Patriotism leaves a natural and even understandable tint across the telescope when you view distant events. When you are British, sitting in London, and two British soldiers have clearly messed it up in spades, the heavy weight of the media elbow dams and diverts the free flow of information towards preferred contours.

So let’s take a test. What do you remember of the dramatic events in Basra this past week, in which two British soldiers were stopped, arrested and later rescued by units of the British force but not before two tanks were lost to petrol bombs, and their occupants pelted with stones as they fled in flames?

Do you recall that:

A: The British soldiers were disguised as Arabs?

B: That there was a substantial cache of arms in the car they were driving?

C: That, when questioned, they refused to show their documents to the police (which, of course, might have ended the whole fracas before it blew up into a crisis)?

D: That the Iraqi police were only doing their duty: it is their job to stop cars being driven by "Arabs" who look suspect (the British disguise may not have been totally clever)?

E: That no explanation has been given by the British authorities as to the nature of this undercover operation; nor has the press probed to find out, although soldiers have been given permission to grant interviews to convey their side of the story?

F: That the British soldiers shot and killed an Iraqi police officer who was doing his duty, and that this murder was unprovoked since there are no reports of the Iraqi policemen opening fire on the disguised British soldiers?

G: That the initial attempt to suggest that the arrested soldiers were handed over to some dreaded militia (very useful, that Moqtada al-Sadr) was quietly forgotten after it had served the purpose of muddying the sand, to reposition a phrase?

H: That the British blasted open the jail in which the soldiers were held, and in the process permitted over a hundred prisoners at the very least to escape, doubtless strengthening the insurgents thereby?

I: That the justification offered for this illegal invasion of a country’s prison was that "75%" of the Iraqi police had become loyal to anti-Occupation militias, and therefore could not be trusted with the lives of British soldiers? And that if it is indeed true that 75% of those who are meant to fight alongside the British forces in Basra have turned, then Britain and America are arming, training, feeding and building a force in which 75% are ready to turn their weapons against the British and Americans. Even Vietnam cannot boast of a somersault at such speed. I quote from a conservative British newspaper, reporting from Basra: "The two men were held in a building belonging to the shadowy internal affairs department." Hullo. The official internal affairs department of the Iraqi government in Basra has become "shadowy"? Where’s the light then, Brother Blair?

J: That, by the rules laid by George Bush, who has said that anyone not in uniform is an illegal combatant and therefore not entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention, the two British soldiers could not claim the status of prisoners of war?

I could, as you might imagine, go on. I dwell on the chiaroscuro of journalism not in an accusatory spirit, but as self-criticism. All journalists privileged to work in the few nations with genuine press freedom are prone to such lapses. We in India hardly deserve the right to accuse. But the strength of free media is that even if the details are sometimes wrong, we almost always get the big picture right. And that is what, in the end, matters.

In London, the first reports of the Basra incidents were drowned out by the power of the image, particularly on television. The sight of two British tanks in flames in the heart of Basra was stirring enough, but was eclipsed by the shot of a soldier leaping from his burning Warrior armoured vehicle, his uniform in flames; and a third picture of a British soldier being pelted with stones as he escaped from his private hell. All around were young men, their faces wracked with anger against the tanks and soldiers, each face condemning the British as invaders and occupiers rather than liberators.

Those images, in a profound sense, shaped the big picture that emerged for columnists of all persuasions. Boris Johnson, the Tory MP and editor of Spectator, concluded in the Telegraph: "Whatever we achieve in Iraq, we will not have made our world safer, or make the risk of terrorism less likely: quite the reverse… That claim (that the Iraq campaign was part of the war on terror) was a lie, and whatever good may come out of the Iraq war, we should never forget that it was based on a lie." Above his column was a brilliant cartoon by Nick Garland. The official photograph of the two British captives had blurred their faces to protect their identity. In Garland’s blur, you discern the faces of Bush and Blair, who have become the two great captives of the Iraq war.

Deborah Orr in the Independent, ruing the many "bad reasons why this country was occupied", notes, "People continue to be dragged from their homes, just as they were in Saddam’s day, to be executed in the squares and public places of frightened cities." Patrick Cockburn reports from Baghdad how the credibility of their so-called sovereign government is collapsing. He quotes a goldsmith, Abdul Hamid: "People here have seen that our government has no authority in Iraq. The British did not respect them when they smashed into the jail, so why should we respect our own leaders?" The political class is no longer afraid to demand a phased return of British troops from Iraq. Ken Clarke, frontrunner-aspirant for the Tory leadership, has called the invasion a major mistake. Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats thinks it is the worst foreign policy fiasco since Suez. His deputy, Menzies Campbell, writes, "This was an illegal war, on a flawed prospectus, without the authority of the United Nations… The misjudgement of war has been matched by the mishandling of occupation… Now the insurgency threatens the unity of Iraq. The risk of dismemberment of Iraq increases, civil war is in prospect and instability threatens the whole region."

One answer that Tony Bush-Blair has found is to up the ante at home so that fear can remain his chief weapon. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian exposed the faultlines of a law that threatens to lock up — for five years! — anyone who "glorifies, exalts or celebrates" a terrorist act committed in the last twenty years. Master Blair’s government intends to list a series of "historic terrorisms" and the punters are waiting anxiously to see whether Stalin and Mao are included in the Gospel according to Blair. Irish terrorism has been deleted from the ambit of the proposed law, the better to concentrate upon Muslims I suppose. Jenkins describes this pithily as the "New Orwellianism". Boris Johnson’s headline summed up the mood in Britain: The war in Iraq was based on a lie — and policing Basra is an illusion.

Tony Blair, caught out, survives by shifting the goalposts. Once weapons of mass destruction were assiduously sold as the reason for a war ordered by Bush; and now the world is being saved from terrorism. The latest, and crumbling excuse for remaining in Iraq is the old excuse trotted out by the French king before the revolution: After me, the deluge. Amend that to, after we leave, chaos. Except that chaos is already there. Common sense suggests that a force will be needed to help Iraqis restore order, while they set about creating a law for their future. A joint force of Arab countries as well as units from nations whose credibility has not been destroyed, working under the UN flag, can help fill the breach for the limited period needed to calm the country.

George Bush and Tony Blair are the problem in Iraq. They can no longer be the solution. I am not alone in saying this. This is written on every Iraqi face in Basra.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Unsettled Weather

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Byline by MJ Akbar : Unsettled Weather

There are only two political blocs that can threaten the Manmohan Singh government’s stability. The first, unsurprisingly, is the Left. But what could the Left gain from such adventurism? The Left has never been as powerful as it is now, dining off the high table in Delhi, master of the kitchen in Bengal and heady with the aroma of five fulfilling years of power in Kerala after the next election. The Congress has been eager to sacrifice its version of economic reform at the drop of any red flag to keep the Left on its right side. So where’s the problem, comrade?

Dr Manmohan Singh’s government is not unstable. But it is unsettled. After the six-year stretch of Atal Behari Vajpayee’s NDA it is not possible for a Central government to be unstable anymore.

Power in Delhi is now an equation in arithmetic. If two plus two equals 272 then there is no reason on earth, or in heaven, for anyone to ruin the distribution of office that constitutes a coalition government. All you have to do is keep adding some very flexible chips till the pile crosses the magic majority number in the Lok Sabha. And it will be as stable as a pile of chips at a casino, as long as you don’t gamble. Don’t risk anything for big rewards and you can always remain ahead of the game.

Flexibility is a far better glue than ideology, as the BJP’s partners in the NDA repeatedly proved, particularly when they became flexible over the gruesome Gujarat riots. The BJP returned the compliment, like a good, rubbery partner. Three core issues catapulted the BJP from relative obscurity to comparative prosperity: the demand for the construction of a temple to Lord Rama at Ayodhya; the passage of a bill in Parliament ensuring a uniform civil code; and the abolition of Article 370, the statute by which Jammu and Kashmir is constitutionally a part of the Union of India. All three were jettisoned the moment BJP ministers took the oath of office.

No comparable fissures afflict the United Progressive Alliance now in power. It may not be very progressive, but it is an alliance. Or, more accurately, the principal partners may have radically different views on the definition of "progress" but they have consciously abstained from the tug of war that can split the fabric. (How did fabric, a solid, virtuous word, evolve towards fabrication, with all its salacious implications? Could it be because of the spin put in the weave? There may be clues here for Prime Ministers who now cannot survive without plonking a spin-master’s face in front of television cameras on their behalf. They insist on doing so even when the chap is spinning at 78rpm instead of the required 33.)

There are only two political blocs that can threaten the Manmohan Singh government’s stability. The first, unsurprisingly, is the Left. But what could the Left gain from such adventurism? The Left has never been as powerful as it is now, dining off the high table in Delhi, master of the kitchen in Bengal and heady with the aroma of five fulfilling years of power in Kerala after the next election. The Congress has been eager to sacrifice its version of economic reform at the drop of any red flag to keep the Left on its right side. So where’s the problem, comrade?

The other group that could do Dr Singh in is, of course, the Congress. Its motivation would be logical: it would thereby force a general election in which it could significantly improve upon its numbers, which are only as good as P.V. Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri delivered. There is enough disarray within the BJP to tempt Congress calculators. A general election would have the additional merit of not only depleting the enemy but also clearing the air of dubious friends, Lalu Yadav being among the latter. But, as the old and wise proverb tells it, a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Why tempt fate in this casino when you can enjoy power placidly for four more years? And who knows which way the chips will turn then.

Then why should the government be unsettled? Because the parts do not quite add up to the whole. Any tremor exposes a mismatch, and tremors are inevitable in the governance of a nation as complex as India. Candour can be seismic. One rumble was heard this week, and is doing the subterranean rounds.

I don’t know how right Rahul Gandhi was in his belief that he could have been Prime Minister of India at the age of 25, but he was spot-on when he said that there was no governance in Bihar. This has been an obvious fact for far too long. However, in conventional politics, such truths are reserved only for opponents. You don’t dish them out to friends, particularly an ally to whom you have declared undying fealty on the eve of a crucial election. Bihar will return to the polls in less than four weeks, and Rahul Gandhi’s verdict on his ally Lalu Yadav’s government will echo through the thicket as Yadav fights desperately for survival. It may be difficult for Rahul Gandhi to campaign now for the alliance, because doubtless his opponents will remind him of his remarks at every campaign stop. This is not just another election: it is literally do-or-die for Lalu Yadav, because if he loses power in Patna the ground beneath his feet will cave in. This was why Lalu Yadav virtually forced a nullification of the last Assembly election. If he is defeated, his bitterness will extract consequences.

Candour is a rare tactic in Indian politics, and a refreshing one. Rahul Gandhi’s straight-from-the-shoulder stuff will appeal to his core constituency, the young, who are fed up of the saccharine hypocrisy that sustains so much of political rhetoric. But in order to exercise such candour, Rahul Gandhi needs a Congress majority as big as his grandmother’s in 1971, if not his father’s in 1984. Ideology is not a problem among politicians, but they still want to win elections. Lalu Yadav knows that votes get trapped in mud, and he is always watchful about the direction from which mud is being slung.

There are other parts, smaller, that do not fit. Shibu Soren in Jharkhand does not suit the cleanliness standards that Dr Manmohan Singh correctly demands and the Telangana separatists have an agenda that is a direct challenge to the Congress ethos and conviction. The Congress will not divide Andhra Pradesh and hand over Hyderabad to a parochial group that in any case is too weak to bring down the Union government by itself. Mrs Sonia Gandhi hands out an irregular jar of honey each time the Telangana child begins to bawl. However, that bawl is threatening to become a brawl. And little brawls grow up to become a skirmish.

There is a way to calm the simmering unease. Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi should send out an invitation to all the UPA partners for a quiet, friendly weekend by the sea. They should then bring out the Common Minimum Programme, tear it up into tiny bits and throw it into the sea. That programme was drawn up, in a bit of a hurry, last year after the election results: a new dawn was lighting up the horizon, and the sky was flush with the rosy tint of great promise in which everything seemed possible. The government is now entering the noon of its life (time does not pass evenly in power). The sun is harsher, reality more visible, and sweat can be discerned on more than one brow. The group should sit together and write a second minimum programme. If the first was of minimum proportions, then this should be minimalist. There should be about a dozen essentials rather than a hundred wannabes.

There must be detailed and honest analysis of where the government, as well as each of its constituents, has reached since coming to power in Delhi. They should then discuss where they should, or can, go. There should be a political section as well as an economic agenda. The partners must define their territories on the political map, and shake hands against poaching. Dozens of bridges have to be planned to cover the innumerable pitfalls lying ahead. They should then pull out a three-year calendar and measure options against a timetable. The reinvention or rebirth of the Dr Manmohan Singh government can be celebrated from that weekend.

Just now, the great sin is a sense of ad hoc-ism. The Left discovers what has happened in Washington after it has happened in Washington. Others are bystanders while politics erodes a bulwark in Bihar or Andhra Pradesh. Some compulsions become too regional for the national interest, which must be the principal interest of a Union government.

Dr Manmohan Singh is a great believer in economic transparency, and probably induced more corrections into the economy than any finance minister before or after. He has to now lead the way in political transparency. Indian politics is not very holy, but it is Biblical in one sense: it does not live by bread alone.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

King George Canute

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar : King George Canute

T.S. Eliot wrote, famously:
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang but a whimper.

There are too many internet terrorists scurrying around planting stink bombs in the very heart of the Green Zone where George Bush’s credibility lives.

One of the most entertaining stink bombs that came my way compared the rain havoc in Mumbai in July with the rain havoc in New Orleans in August: 18 inches fell in New Orleans, 37 in Mumbai. Mumbai has

24 times the population of New Orleans. In 48 hours, 37 died in Mumbai and a hundred in New Orleans. In 12 hours the Indian Army and Navy were in Mumbai; it took 48 hours in America. Now which, asked this mischievous sender, is the third world country?

Four years ago, George Bush and Tony Blair were the undisputed masters of the response to arbitrary, provocative, barbaric terrorism. They strode the moral high ground.

Today a hurricane laps around the feet of King George Canute and erodes the sand below his throne while he helplessly orders the waters of New Orleans to recede.

A question does not become a fact; America is not a third world nation. But a question is always a part of an early warning system. Gods can slip and recover their footing: that is a familiar of all mythology as well as its first cousin, history. The test of leadership is the distance between slip and tip-over. For once you’ve lost your balance, descent is so much faster than ascent.

Victory is Rama; it has one face. Defeat is Ravana; it has ten faces. One of the latter is the cost of conflict. New Orleans is expected to cost $150 billion. That is not all that much for the world’s richest economy. But fifteen dollars can become difficult to find when a tycoon has crossed his credit limit many times. The most powerful businessmen, owners of the finest brands, know this — or learn it to their cost. The cost of the conflicts that Bush has taken his country into is not measured only in hard cash; it is being measured in wet blood.

Mahatma Gandhi used to say that all the hidden dirt of society flows into the hut during a flood. Hidden dirt of all kinds is flowing into American consciousness after New Orleans. The waters have to recede; the dirt will stay in the memory. New Orleans was not just a natural disaster. It was a mirror in which America saw the inherent inequality of the Bush world-view. The mind that protects the profits of oil companies at the expense of the Iraqi people is not so different from the mindset that persuades a powerful leader to head west towards a fundraiser while thousands die in the east of his own country.

George Bush has an accountant’s view of the world. On one side is a list of assets: friends, generally respectful and always obedient in a moment of need. On the other side is the column of liabilities: enemies, always evil, violent, barbaric, backward and without the redeeming virtue of having had a renaissance.

Reality, sadly, has more colours than black and white. A state of war is also a state of mind, and it is a poor leader who thinks that any conflict is a black-and-white confrontation.

On the fourth anniversary of 9/11 Bush and Blair must address one question: why have they lost so much respect across so much of the world? This collapse of trust has taken place in their own countries as well. Why were they trusted to lead a war against terrorism once and are now regarded as the Punch and Judy of a particularly nasty tragedy?

They don’t need to establish a commission to find the answer. They can take a hard look at the difference in the world’s reaction to the two wars that they launched, one in Afghanistan, and the other in Iraq. I cannot think of a nation that did not support them, particularly after the Taliban in Kabul did not hand over Osama bin Laden for trial. Pakistan, Afghanistan’s closest ally, sacrificed its strategic interests: India and Pakistan were on the same side.

By the time Bush and Blair had forced the hands of the clock towards Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the most powerful nations of Europe, France and Germany, both their people and their governments, had publicly rejected the rationale for war against Iraq, at that time. The last phrase is important, because if Hans Blix, the UN inspector, had been given time he might have proved that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Maybe that is why he was not given time. Four years later, even the legitimacy of the presence in Afghanistan has been eroded as it begins to look like an occupation. In Iraq, there is no doubt: it is an occupation.

George Bush should have listened to the man he sacked after re-election, his former secretary of state Colin Powell. Powell supported the massing of troops on the borders of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but he was a reluctant warrior. He did not want to tip-over into a war with all its unforeseen consequences (rarely have there been as many unforeseen consequences as in Iraq after Bush got onto an aircraft carrier in order to declare victory). Powell argued that intimidation had to be tried before the shooting started. But Bush and Blair were in heavy league with hubris. They thought that defeating Saddam was a stroll into Baghdad. That might have been true. But they did not realise that defeating Saddam was not quite the same thing as defeating the Iraqi people, and that the people would mobilise once they saw the war for what it was, and what became explicit when the records of the oil ministry were more important to the occupation forces than the treasures of the national museum. Or Bush might have thought about his father’s view of war when he successfully drove Saddam out of Kuwait. Nation-building, said Bush the Elder (and Wiser), was not something that American troops could do for Iraqis. To destroy a dictator as evil as Saddam might be important, but the world has to devise means that are morally acceptable. A moral cause cannot be sustained by immoral means. A war for freedom tends to lose its legitimacy when it ends up in the profit sheets of a Halliburton.

War is a course of last resort. It has a justification when it has a moral basis. When it becomes an occupation then those who oppose it acquire the moral strength. Bush and Blair surrendered the moral edge in Iraq that they possessed against the Taliban. To dismiss the response of the desperate in Iraq as terrorism, as Bush and Blair, will not get them anywhere. It will certainly not convince the young people who are ready to die in a battle against those they perceive to be conquerors rather than liberators. Even those who welcomed Bush and Blair because they hated Saddam and his brutal dictatorship have joined the war against the perpetrators of "collateral damage", the pretty phrase for excesses against civilians in Iraq.

T.S. Eliot wrote, famously:
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang but a whimper.

This is the way some Presidents and Prime Ministers end, not with a halo but as a joke, destroyed by a stink bomb.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Blame Game

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Blame Game

Contrary to anything you may have learnt from sections of the right-wing media, the current price of oil is not a Muslim-Arab conspiracy to destroy civilisation. It is nothing more, and nothing less, than market-economics coming home to roost. If the price of a car can be subject to market forces there is no reason why the price of a national source should be subject to charity. Russia, which is a very Christian country, has not offered to sell its oil at thirty dollars when the market price is around seventy.

It is a well known axiom that the victor lays down the law, or at least defines the meaning of ‘justice’. But such behaviour is not sustainable because it will be challenged — effectively. The conversion of the victim into the monster is an old tactic. As the English proverb puts, give a dog a bad name in order to hang it.
The problem, of course, is not the fact, but the perception. I am writing this column on Saturday 3 September, and here is a list of facts listed in this morning’s Asian Age. It is therefore an arbitrary or accidental list; if I had written this piece yesterday, the list would have been different. The list was distributed not by the Al Islamic Jihad News Agency but by Associated Press, which sends out a package titled ‘Today in History’. According to AP, 3 September was a pretty tough day in world history.

On 3 September 1189 Richard I was crowned King of England, a few months before the left for the Anglo-French crusade against Saladin. In 1497, Isabella of Spain married Manuel, King of Portugal: one of the conditions of the marriage was that Manuel would have to expel all Jews from his kingdom. In 1609, Henry Hudson, looking for India, discovered Manhattan. In 1791 the French reversed their revolution a little bit and created a constitutional monarchy. In 1879 the Afghans massacred a British delegation in Kabul, leading to the second British-Afghan war.

In 1904 Japan defeated Russia (the first Asian nation to defeat a European army in modern times). In 1939 Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany and in 1945 Singapore returned to British possession that day.In 1950, said AP, surely quoting from its archives, "Several Viet Minh terrorists assigned to kill US minister to Indo-China Donald Heath (were) arrested". I hope that the Viet Minh suspects (they had only been arrested, not convicted) were called "terrorists" because they were allegedly on an assassination assignment rather than because they belonged to the Viet Minh, because at least in my book a guerrilla fighting for the liberation of his nation from a colonial occupier and imperialist is a nationalist rather than a terrorist. (That is why I have such high regard for George Washington.)

Check out what happened on 3 September 1497. Five years before, in 1492, Granada had fallen to the Castilians, ending 781 years of Arab rule over various parts of the Iberian peninsula. What was the foremost priority of the new Catholic rulers? The expulsion of Jews, who had lived peacefully under Muslim rulers for nearly eight centuries. But do an opinion poll and the overwhelming majority will believe that Muslims have been the enemies of Jews for 1,400 years. Try pointing out that Jews were given a place of dignity for four hundred years after being expelled from Spain and Portugal in the Ottoman empire and eyebrows will rise. I can’t help adding that Richard I had a peculiar sense of humour: one of the things that made him laugh was watching teeth being extracted from ageing Jews.Such mischaracterisation fits in with the portrait of Islam as a religion of war, spread by the sword etc etc. (If it had been spread by the sword there would have been no Christians left in Spain.) The few war verses of the Quran are lifted out of context and hammered into the collective consciousness of the world. A handful of stupid, or evil, clerics spewing nonsense — whether in India or Britain — are turned into the evidence required to demonise a whole community, which is a bit like saying that all Hindus share the disturbed thought-process of a fire-breather like Togadia or Singhal.

In a wise article in the Guardian of July 23, the Reverend Dr Giles Fraser,vicar of Putney, says about Tony Blair’s Britain: "Muslims who preach hate are to be deported and subject to new restrictions, Charles Clarke (British home secretary) announced in the Commons on Wednesday. So what would the home secretary have to say about stuff like this: ‘Blessed is he who takes your little children and smashes their head against the rocks’? Or this: ‘O God, break the teeth in their mouths… Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime; like the untimely birth that never sees the sun… The righteous will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.’ No, this is not Islam, it is the Bible. And there is a lot more where that came from. Why, then, are so many commentators persuaded that the Quran is a manual of hate — compared to the Judeo-Christian scriptures, it is very tame stuff indeed." The good Reverend also points out that Samson could well be considered the world’s most famous suicide-missionary.The temptation is alluring, but it doesn’t help to blame Islam for the sins of Muslims. Just as no one in his right mind would blame Christianity for the deeds or misdeeds of Robert Mugabe today or Augusto Pinochet yesterday.

Clever politicians like Tony Blair, who will be in India this week, are always correct in their remarks, even while they encourage just that little touch of hysteria in mass media that will deflect attention from the correct diagnosis of their problems. Blair’s problem after the suicide bombings in London is to explain how young men, born in liberal, modern, progressive Britain could behave like children from a Palestinian refugee camp. It is an extremely pertinent question, and the answer lies not in Islam, but in Tony Blair’s mirror.Like a good politician, Blair has found his scapegoats, including one cleric who looks like a made-for-tabloids leftover pirate from a Peter Pan movie. But if he wants to know the truth, which I do not believe he does, he would be better advised to watch television news instead of Friday sermons. The war in Iraq comes home to Britain every day on television. The dangerous anger of those young men was not aimed against Britain, but against a government and its decision to go to war and occupy Iraq behind a gauze of lies. This does not make their violence acceptable. Killing innocents is a crime in any text (and specifically forbidden, incidentally, in the rules prescribed for a legitimate Jihad). But neither does their crime exonerate Blair from his crime. Blair is not paying for his sins. His country is.It is no accident that the Conservatives have an old candidate with a new message in their party’s leadership contest, Kenneth Clarke. The new message is direct: the war in Iraq is among Britain’s costliest mistakes. Clarke is an old-blue Tory, and a businessman (he is vice chairman of British American Tobacco). The only thing radical about him is the suede he prefers for his shoes. Conservatives are traditionally more pro-American than Labour. Clarke would not have made Iraq an issue if it did not have bounce. There was an inevitable spurt of support for Blair after the bombings. Good politicians always benefit from a crisis, and Blair is among the best at his game. But the fizz can leak as fast as it builds up.

The Arab-Israel war of 1973 changed the place of oil in the world’s economy. Opec has not looked back. The Anglo-American occupation of Iraq has been the principal reason for the price of oil touching seventy dollars a barrel and remaining in stratosphere. War does not come cheap. George Bush and Tony Blair look steely when anyone mentions the number of soldiers who have died fighting for their misjudgments, and indifferent when Iraqi casualties are speculated. Nemesis appears in more than one form, sometimes as a child’s haunting coffin, and sometimes as a mother’s tent near your holiday home. Both Bush and Blair have fought their last election. Their successors will go broke paying death duties.