ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 24
Columns - Thoughts form London

Transatlantic brothers in distress

By Neville de Silva

The troubles that now confront George Bush and Tony Blair are a good lesson for all political leaders who refuse to accept the truth that political popularity is as evanescent as a desert mirage.

Those who believe that they have an eternal honeymoon with their people are best consigned to the dustbins of history as early as possible before they further ruin the countries they rule, not to mention others they wish to rule.

George Bush won a second term quite comfortably and enjoyed the support of a Republican-majority Congress that virtually gave free rein to run the United States with scant concern for the thinking and feelings of rest of the world.

Indian activists of the leftist organisation Social Unity Center of India (SUCI) shout anti-US slogans as they burn hanging effigies of US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair during a protest rally in Bangalore November 09. The rally was organised to protest against the death sentence handed by a tribunal to the deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussain and two of his associates for their role in the killing of 148 Iraqi people. AFP

Tony Blair won three consecutive elections and achieved what no other Labour prime minister has done in the history of British parliamentary democracy.

But where are they today? All the goodwill they had accumulated over the years has been dissipated by their disregard for the norms of civilised political conduct. Kicking public opinion in the teeth and sweeping corruption and misdeeds in their inner circles is hardly the way to win friends and influence voters.

To think that previous personal popularity will forever rescue them from political foolhardiness and the scandals swarming like bees round their political parties is the kind of short-sightedness politicians and their close cronies should avoid but rarely do.

If political leaders and their closest aides learnt from the mistakes of their predecessors or the leaders of other countries we might have thought that salvation is at hand. Alas that is not to be, for rarely do political leaders wish to admit their mistakes or those of the kindred spirits that surround them.

If a mixed metaphor might be permitted it is those round the leaders who make hay while the iron is hot.

Bush and Blair's rejection by their own people is a lesson they have lived to learn even before exhausting their respective terms of office.

The US mid-term elections on Tuesday saw the control of Congress passing on to a more assertive Democratic opposition that would virtually seal Bush's unilateralist policies. The political demography of Washington where power resides in the US has been perceptibly changed because of the Bush administration's individualistic and reckless policies and the scandals that have dogged it, from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib to the lucrative reconstruction contracts in Iraq for Bush and Dick Cheney contacts and several republican Congressmen.

Tony Blair is surviving by the skin of his teeth. The last local government elections earlier this year proved that the public has lost faith in his leadership and resulted in calls from within his party to hand over the reins of office to Chancellor Gordon Brown.

This month he had a very close call in a parliamentary vote that was proof enough of the anger within his own party.

Scandal after scandal has brought the two administrations into public disrepute. These scandals that have plagued the two administrations over a range of issues are also responsible for the electoral defeat doled out to Bush and the growing public antipathy to the Blair government.

With only months to go before he hands over power to a new leader Blair now faces the ignominy of being questioned by the Metropolitan police over a cash-for-peerages scandal that has rocked party politics in this country.

Scotland Yard is investigating whether British political parties have awarded peerages and other honours to individuals who donated funds to party coffers.

Already some of those close to Tony Blair have been questioned by the police and several ministers have also answered questions directed at them by the investigators wanting to know whether they knew about the cash-for-peerages exchange that would violate two laws including one introduced by the Blair government itself.

The danger to Blair comes from the fact that the investigation is closing in on him and he is expected to be questioned by the police next month.

Whatever other defects the British political system might have, its strength is that nobody is really above the law. The fact that the Metropolitan police acting on a complaint made by a Scottish MP could question ministers and now even the prime minister without being overawed by political power is indeed to the credit of this parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.

Would the Sri Lanka police, even if it had wished to, be in a position to summon ministers and the prime minister to be questioned over an investigation they are conducting.

Apart from ministers, even if some lowly government politician or party faithful was questioned that police officer would find himself in the wilds of the Wanni or some other god forsaken place, if he had not already been sent on compulsory leave.

True, both in Bush and Blair believed in their own ways they were doing good. Conjoined by an evangelical zeal that bordered on bigotry the two messiahs from either side of the pond misled the world into believing that Saddam Hussein was a danger not only to the West Asia region but also to the western world.

Their insistence that the Iraqi dictator had weapons of mass destruction that threatened the world was merely the excuse they used to hide their real purpose which was depose Saddam Hussein and install a regime that was benign and a lackey.

Regime change was the real reason, bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq the glorious lie with which they fooled the world.

Now democracy has struck back in a way that neither Bush nor Blair expected as both leaders in their twilight time in national politics face troubled times at home and surely abroad.

Right now their respective problems are different. Some of them stem from the Iraq war which was popular in the United States largely because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Bush administration's gung ho policy of wanting to beat its opponents into pulp appealed to the American psyche not fully recovered after Vietnam.

That display of American might was in keeping with the increasingly reckless and unilateralist foreign policy that the White House under George Bush relentlessly pursued, egged on no doubt by neo-conservative thinking that provided the ideological foundation for the Bush administration's policies.

By clinging to Bush's coat tails Prime Minister Tony Blair ignored British public opinion and opposition in his own Labour Party and found himself also stuck in the Iraqi quagmire.

Now a change of approach, a new direction is being hinted at by President Bush having taken the scalp of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for the failed Iraqi policy.

This has been forced on Bush by last week's election. The suggestion of policy shift hinted at in Washington and the groping for new ideas could be measured in terms of the votes that have turned the tide of American politics.

Tony Blair has no such mid-term election before he surrenders power to his successor unless one considers elections in Scotland and Wales next May as a referendum on his policies which have at times been adopted despite differences in the cabinet.

In the US, the Iraq war that was initially popular has turned sour as huge mistakes were made and the body bags came home.

In the UK the war was never popular and Blair has suffered because he tied his apron strings to the Bush White House.

While the Iraq war was a major factor in Bush and Blair getting their comeuppance, it is not the only cause for public anger. They were never too far from scandals in their administrations and political parties.

Political leaders who shut their eyes to such moral turpitude will be made to pay the ultimate price- public opprobrium, in whatever way it is expressed.

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