Byline by M J Akbar: Fiction? Non-fiction? Just a horror story
The most reassuring aspect of Tony Blair’s just-released memoirs was evident in the Reuters photograph of a bookstore shelf stacked with copies on opening day. A red sticker on the hardback cover bore the legend: “Half Price”. This is poetic justice. A man who sold lies to his nation has been peremptorily discounted by its public. All the oily self-pity that has stained the book’s pages – tears for the dead, alcohol for the living author – was placed in perspective by the cold reception that this unapologetic misleader has got from a people disgusted by his malodorous past and continuing hypocrisy.
Blair’s problem is not that he was mistaken when, in March 2003, he became a poodle-partner in George Bush’s gratuitous war against Iraq. Anyone in office during a time of turmoil will make mistakes that could easily blemish an otherwise favorable record. Blair’s problem was and is that he is an unrepentant liar who ordered the fabrication of excuses to launch a war and destroy a nation that had never threatened Britain militarily or shielded Al Qaeda. His foreign minister knew that Blair’s thesis for war was a lie, and resigned, but the rest of the Labour Party mortgaged its conscience for power.
It was a coincidence that Blair’s story [in the circumstances, an appropriate word] appeared on the day that America officially declared the end of combat operations in Iraq. The formal cessation of hostilities seems to have released many American commentators and officials from pretence. While some analysts struggled hard to justify the war with contorted definitions of victory, America’s defense secretary Robert Gates admitted, at Camp Ramadi, 100 km west of Baghdad, that he no answer to a fundamental question: “The problem with this war for any American is that the premise on which we justified going to war proved not to be valid. Even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States, it will always be clouded by how it began.”
Blair knows how it began in 2003: Bush ordered his secretary of state Colin Powell to lie before the United Nations. Powell compromised his personal credibility by arguing that America had discovered incontrovertible evidence that proved Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Blair, never to be outshone in the deception stakes, told his Parliament that they were only 45 minutes away from mass destruction itself.
The natural growth trajectory of a serial liar is to become fantastically self-delusional. And so when Blair is forced, in his book, to admit that he lied, he compares himself with Nelson Mandela! After all, Mandela could spin a fast one along with the best of them, he writes with a smirk. It requires a temerity beyond the reach of mere mortals for a smug middle class lawyer with sharp wits and enormous luck to compare himself with a man who challenged apartheid and a barbaric, murderous regime; spent decades in solitary confinement and then, when he finally came to power, ushered in an age of harmony between the once-enslaved and their tormentors. But hallucinating Blair is not content with comparing himself to a mere Mandela. “I bet Gandhi was the same,” he squeaks.
He cannot get off this lunatic pinnacle even when he has to concede that he has been a manipulator. Princess Diana was another one, wasn’t she, he giggles. So that’s all right, then; if you are as good as Diana you can safely destroy the world.
Blair is unable to come to terms with the Great Mystery: why didn’t the Iraqis roll over before advancing Anglo-American armies, and welcome the Bush-Blair Viceroy who would lead them towards civilization and McDonald’s, whichever came first? Why, after Saddam had been vanquished, did the people resist the onward march of such impregnable armies and air forces? Since his porous intellect cannot find an answer from the behaviour patterns of the world, the reason must lie in heaven: Islam. He writes he misunderstood the hold that “extremism” had on Islam. Only “extremists” could fight the toy soldiers sent by Pentagon and Whitehall, carrying chocolates and democracy; “moderates” would have welcome the liberators while they looted the museum, took over the oil ministry and extended their march to the capitals of other nations on their “axis of evil”, like Syria and Iran. There are laws of libel; why are there no laws against hypocrisy? Or would that mean the end of bombastic memoirs? One records, with relief, that no Iraqi Arab memoir has, to my knowledge, called warmongers like Blair and Bush examples of extremist Roman Catholicism or American Puritanism.
Bush-Blair had a bizarre sense of humor: they contrived to name Blair a special peace envoy to the Middle East after he lost his job as Prime Minister. When Barack Obama hosted Israel and Palestine for talks on Thursday, along with Egypt and Jordan, he should have explored the potential benefits of amnesia. Alas, he forgot to forget.
An European cartoon shows a puzzled London bookstore employee asking her manager whether she should place Blair’s memoirs in the fiction or non-fiction category. It should really be among the horror stories.