Wednesday, 21 April 2004

The duo of doublethink

This world is fast turning into an Orwellian nightmare...

Bush and Blair's pronouncements are becoming ever more Orwellian in their resolute defiance of reality

by Jonathan Freedland


Fetch Tony Fetch.... Good boy.... All credit to the BBC for its latest period drama. He Knew He Was Right makes an inspired choice, if only because the title sounds so completely contemporary. The sentence describes perfectly the man of our time: our prime minister Tony Blair.

It seems long ago that critics branded the PM as "phoney Tony". Now we know that he is a conviction politician - with no greater conviction than his faith in his own rightness. What he is right about is a secondary matter; indeed, the opinion itself can change by 180 degrees within a few days. The important thing is that he holds it. Once he does, it becomes true. He knows he is right.

This is why yesterday's volte-face on the European referendum would have discomfited lesser politicians, but not Blair. He finds the change effortless. When he said, in October last year, that "There will not be a referendum" on the European constitution, because the changes in the document did not merit it, he knew he was right. And when he announced yesterday that there would, after all, be a national vote, he knew he was right again. There was consistency between the two positions: in both cases, Blair was certain of his own rectitude.

This was why the prime minister was only half-accurate when he told last autumn's Labour conference: "I've not got a reverse gear". Actually, he does have one and it works very well; it's just that, when he uses it, it does not feel like reverse. Blair believes he is pushing ever forward.

It amounts to an unusual knack - to deny reality and keep smiling - and it can be unnerving to watch. But Blair is not the only man to be so blessed. As in so much else, he shares this trick of the mind with his soulmate, President George Bush.

Friday's performance at the White House rose garden was a display of the technique so virtuosic, requiring such intellectual gymnastics, the pair should take their show on tour in a political Cirque du Soleil. They could call themselves the Duo of Doublethink.

Naturally, Bush went first with a rapid-fire series of statements that stand at almost surreal odds with the truth. "Iraq will be free, Iraq will be independent," he promised, just as soon as the "transfer of sovereignty" is complete on June 30. But look at the reality. On July 1 Iraq will still have up to to 130,000 foreign troops on its soil as well as 14 "enduring" US military bases. Every move of the new authority - consisting of individuals handpicked by the American pro-consul Paul Bremer and with no democratic mandate whatsoever - will be subject to the approval of a "US embassy" which will administer some $18.4 bn in reconstruction funds and be the largest such mission in the world. Iraqi infrastructure, from the electricity grid to the courts, will be reshaped and run out of the embassy. Iraqi industry will be on sale to foreign ownership and the Iraqi military will still take its orders from the US commander. So June 30 will not be a handover of "sovereignty" at all, and Iraq will be neither "free" nor "independent", at least not according to any common-sense definition of those terms. Yet Bush and Blair continue to speak of the end of June as if it was Iraqi independence day.

And that's nothing compared with the rest of the Bush-Blair show. Behold the comedy of the president's declaration that "our coalition has no interest in occupation". Or the prime minister's insistence that no "outside" forces will be allowed to determine Iraq's future - as if the US and British armies are not outside forces doing precisely that. These are examples of doublethink to rival Bremer's exquisite remark to an American interviewer earlier this month that the Iraqi resistance is made up of people who "think that power in Iraq should come out of the barrel of a gun. That's intolerable and we will deal with it". (Where does the coalition's power flow from, if not the barrel of a gun?)

Perhaps the problem is one of self-awareness. Maybe Bush, Blair and Bremer do not see that they are heading a US and British occupation of Iraq, and genuinely forget that they are outsiders ruling the country. Or maybe there is a wider error here. For the doublethink spreads far. Witness Blair's assertion that "we have been involving the UN throughout" - when the one thing everyone knows about this war is that it was waged without the involvement or backing of the UN. Or Blair's breezy reassurance that from now on "the UN will have a central role", as if he had not noticed that, one year ago, he stood beside Bush in Belfast and watch him repeatedly promise the UN a "vital role" which never came. Does the prime minister not see reality? Or does he think the rest of us won't notice?

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