Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Iraq shows why giving ultimate power to any one person, elected or unelected, is madness

Tony Blair’s interview with Fern Britton didn’t just highlight his flaws as a Prime Minister, but the insanity of allowing anyone, elected or unelected, to hold supreme power alone, as if anyone could be perfect enough in their knowledge and judgement to make the big decisions well without many others having equal say.

Tony Blair has always been seen as ‘sincere’ and ‘genuine’ by many people in Britain, before and after the Iraq war. This is perhaps because he believed his own lies - and wrote off ones like "Saddam has WMDs and is going to nuke us" as "white lies" with the "noble purpose" of "overthrowing a brutal tyrant".That doesn't mean he's not responsible for his actions, or that what he did was right or made sense - none of it did.

While calling from the overthrow of Saddam in 2002 Blair had opposed parliamentary motions calling for an end to US and British support for Saddam when he'd actually been massacring people - in the 80s against the Kurds - and did nothing to try to get the Bush senior administration to intervene to end the massacre of the Shia in 1991.

By the late 90s Iraq's economic and military strength had been destroyed by a decade of sanctions that were killing more ordinary people than agents of Saddam.The invasion involved the use of cluster munitions by air and ground forces in built up areas, resulting in many civilians deaths - and the occupation involved systematic torture using the same methods Saddam used; corruption by the Coalition and Iraqi governments leading to Iraqis' food rations being cut to a quarter of the amount under Saddam and sanctions; civilians killed due to troops being given orders to force looters into tidal canals and to fire on ambulances and civilians in assaults on cities like Fallujah and Samarra; and worst of all El Salvador style Iraqi government 'police commando' death squads, trained by the same officers who trained the death squads in El Salvador in the 80s.

It's more important though to condemn the policies and actions than to condemn the people who ordered them after they've left office. Blair will never hold any high political office again, but others could reproduce the same policies against Iran, with similarly disastrous results including massive numbers of lives lost.

It’s also important to remember that the same propaganda techniques come up time and time again in both democracies and dictatorships. Here i’ll quote Frank Finlay on an interesting example:

Who is this a character study of?

“His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”

Full marks if you knew it was a report by the United States Office of Strategic Services on Adolf Hitler.

Now i’m definitely not saying Blair is another Hitler or even nearly as bad. It’s important to remember though that living in a democracy with 24 hour news and multiple TV stations, newspapers and radio stations does not make us immune to propaganda.

A government being democratically elected does not mean that you can trust everything it says, nor that it’s aims are to promote democracy, equality and human rights – a look at history from ancient to modern times shows otherwise. The Athenians, the most democratic of ancient states (though not really very democratic given that they had slaves and women couldn’t vote either), were also the most ruthless imperialists. The ‘established democracies’ in the modern world are even more brutal and ruthless in backing torturing, murdering dictatorships and drug lords across the world from Saudi Arabia and Egypt to Honduras and Colombia - and in backing and carrying out military occupations complete with systematic torture and the killing of civilians. Only those who believe what they want to believe or are ignorant of the facts could believe that the ‘established democracies’ promote democracy or ‘freedom’ in other countries.

Blair is not uniquely flawed or uniquely dishonest either. He was believed by so many partly because he convinced himself the lies were true and so appeared utterly sincere – and because he told many people what they wanted to hear. For those who only feel safe when they know who they are and feel part of a group the temptation is to make their identity that of their country and to feel part of their government. If that is their identity then any criticism of their government becomes a personal criticism of them – they would have to be immoral if their government acted immorally and so their government can do no wrong.

The other problem is the myth of the ‘strong leader’, that one person must be given the right to make all the big decisions once they’re in office, even if a large minority or even the majority disagree. This is the opposite of the truth. Every person is flawed and no-one ever has perfect judgement or all the information they need to make the big decisions. Even if a Prime Minister or President lacked Blair’s extreme form of self-delusion they could not be trusted to make big decisions that could save or cost large numbers of lives without other people having equal in-put into the decision. Then at least the different members of the group, each with their own experiences and view-points and representing the variety of views in the country could check and balance one another.

The whole idea of a single person with ultimate decision making power is as crazy when they are elected as when they are an unelected dictator or monarch. Offices such as President and Prime Minister should have their powers spread among a much larger group.

If, for instance, elections were by proportional representation with large multi-member constituencies every party and independents were part of the cabinet in proportion to the number of seats their group had in the legislature, then they could check and balance one anothers’ viewpoints and represent the variety of viewpoints among the electorate better.

Ironically the US, which is meant to have a constitution which is the embodiment of checks and balances, has allowed the executive’s actual powers to go far beyond his constitutional ones. Britain, which doesn’t even have a properly codified, written constitution has allowed Prime Ministers and governing parties power out of all proportion to the actual political support for their policies; with the lack of any legal or constitutional measures to make all political parties be internally democratic being another big problem.

If they had to make decisions by a two-thirds majority then reform would be more gradual, but make much more sense, instead of swinging back and forth between extremes and allowing crazy decisions like the invasion of Iraq.

This goes far beyond any one person’s faults or strengths. It’s about how power is distributed and the inability of any one person to represent all views and interests and provide a democratic solution that represents them all equally; and it’s about distributing power more equally to ensure that the flaws in each person can’t be projected onto the world on a grand scale through a single, all powerful office like President or Prime Minister into a tragedy like Iraq.


seamus macniel said...

Firstly,"With 24 hour news and multiple TV stations, newspapers and radio stations" and, of course, the internet, it is probably easier than it was at any other time for our "political masters" to manufacture consent or, at least, to create the illusion that that consent exists.
Secondly, it is difficult to believe that Blair actually believed his own lies and there is enough evidence to suggest that he manipulated the political system to pursue a war which he knew was illegal. There is most certainly enough evidence to confirm that he most definitely knew that Saadam had no WMDs. Therefore, whatever the pretext, this was not a defensive war.
Finally, while we have had over a million deaths in Iraq, and there is also the question of Afghanistan, Blair isn't quite up there with Hitler, Stalin, Mao or even Pol Pot, he is. nevertheless, a war criminal of some magnitude and in a better world he would be heading not to the Chilcot Inquiry but to the ICC in the Hague.

calgacus said...

Hi James - thanks for the comment.

I agree with you that the reliance on the same few, large media sources makes propaganda easier (though i'm not sure the internet does - it gives far more viewpoints and sources).

If you re-read it what i mean is that democratically elected governments use propaganda and manipulation of the truth at least as much as dictatorships do.

I do think Blair believed many of his own lies (though obviously that's only my opinion as i can't see inside his head), but I agree with you that he knew Iraq didn't have WMD and that Saddam wouldn't use them on nuclear armed states or their allies even if it had had them.

I'm not defending Blair - I agree with you that in international law he's most likely a war criminal and morally he's responsible for a lot of un-necessary deaths. My point was that if the office of Prime Minister didn't have such unlimited power it would have been much harder for him to bring Britain into the Iraq war - though he'd still have had propaganda to fall back on.

I've attempted to understand Blair's viewpoint, but i certainly don't agree with it.