Tag Archives: Tony Blair

While you were sleeping

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

As Monday night turned from the Night of the Long Knives that some had expected into the Night of the Long Wait that everyone dreaded, and as the reshuffle began to resemble more an open-house barbecue than a precision-timed cull of inefficient ministers, one member of government was likely to have slept through the whole affair much more soundly than any other: Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos.

The 72-year-old is one of those rare political beasts that seem untouched by time or the events that unfold around them and who become forces of nature that others have difficulty dealing with. Pangalos had made it very clear to the media in the runup to the reshuffle that he would not be going anywhere. He also informed journalists there was no way he would accept anyone being made his superior, taking over his role of watching over ministers and making sure they were not lollygagging.

It was a typical show of bravado from a politician who has become known for his bold, abrupt and sometimes callous statements. It was also a reflection of the political chicanery that Pangalos has become so adept at in the 50 years since he first stood for office. If there had been any thoughts flitting about in Prime Minister George Papandreou’s mind about prizing Pangalos out of his office, then the implicit threat in his statements – that he would not go quietly – were enough to convince him to play musical chairs with other ministers’ seats. It also meant the government played down one of the most significant aspects of the reshuffle – the appointment of Interior Minister Yiannis Ragousis as the central policy coordinator of a small team of ministers that will meet regularly with Papandreou. Maybe they were hoping that if they didn’t say it too loudly, Pangalos would not notice someone had been given a very similar remit to his.

If all other things were equal, though, Pangalos would have little cause for complaint had he been one of those to lose their jobs on reshuffle night. He was given one task and one task only when appointed last October: to watch over ministers like a hawk, make sure that they were not falling behind with their workload and, if necessary, knock some heads together. Yet, 11 months later, the Cabinet has been overhauled mainly because there was a lack of coordination within government ranks and too many projects were slipping behind schedule.

In other words, it appeared that Pangalos was not up to the task. His chosen method for proving that progress was being monitored was the slacker’s ultimate decoy tool: the excel spreadsheet. Anybody logging on to the deputy prime minister’s website (http://antiproedros.gov.gr) can open the regularly updated tables which indicate how closely ministers are keeping to the timetables they have been assigned for various projects. It’s embarrassing that in a government as technologically savvy as Papandreou’s is supposed to be and for a man as intelligent and authoritative as Pangalos, all he has to show after 11 months, during which some phenomenally challenging reforms were undertaken by those around him, are a collection of measly spreadsheets. It brings to mind the late US comedian George Carlin’s comment about God being unable to do anything about, among other things, war, disease, destruction, hunger, poverty, torture and corruption. “Something is definitely wrong, this is not good work,” he said. “Results like these do not belong on the resume of a supreme being. This is the kind of thing you’d expect from an office temp with a bad attitude.”

Nevertheless, these shortcomings have to be weighed against what Papandreou gains by including the 72-year-old in his government. Pangalos, who, like all true Socialists was once a member of the Communist Party, has earned his leftist spurs. He had his Greek nationality stripped from him for opposing the military junta and has stood for election since 1981 in the working class district of Elefsina, west of Athens. This has won him the respect of his party’s left wing and old-timers. At a time when Papandreou and his team have to take thoroughly unsocialist decisions, such as cutting wages and adjusting pension requirements, it’s useful to have a revered leftist voice within the party telling people how painful but necessary these choices are for PASOK.

Also, having a man of Pangalos’s intelligence and experience in its ranks helps give the government added gravitas. Pangalos studied and later researched and taught at the Sorbonne University. He’s also held three ministerial posts. He’s the type of politician who commands people’s attention when he speaks, not just because he has no qualms about being controversial but also because he often has something thought-provoking to say, as opposed to the politician-speak-for-dummies that many of his colleagues opt for.

It became clear this week that the reasons that convinced Papandreou to include Pangalos in his Cabinet are the same ones that prevented him from removing him. His qualities imbue him with more power than his deficiencies detract from him. Pangalos has carved out a niche similar to the fiefdom created by Gordon Brown when he was the British chancellor. You can imagine Papandreou saying about Pangalos some of the things former Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote about Brown, who he described as “someone of extraordinary ability and capacity,” in his newly published autobiography, “A Journey.”

Blair’s self-declared “difficult” relationship with Brown and the anguish he suffered over whether to sack him or not will be familiar to Papandreou and gives us a good indication of why politicians like Pangalos are such survivors. “When it’s said that I should have sacked him, or demoted him, this takes no account of the fact that had I done so, the party and the government would have been severely and immediately destabilized,” writes Blair. “I came to the conclusion that having him inside and constrained was better than outside and let loose or, worse, becoming the figurehead of a far more damaging force well to the left,” he adds.

The reality for Papandreou is that he cannot afford to leave Pangalos outside the city walls, free to take potshots at his government’s crumbling defenses. It’s for this reason that in this week’s reshuffle he included in his new Cabinet several MPs – such as Dimitris Kouselas, Michalis Timosidis, Yiannis Koutsoukos and Manolis Othonas – who had been critical of the government’s choices over the previous 11 months. It’s one of the strange quirks of politics that those with the bluntest opinions and loudest voices are the ones who have the least to worry about, while those with the task of working with them face plenty of sleepless nights.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on September 10, 2010.

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Mission unaccomplished

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There have been many occasions during the Iraq War when the conflict has felt like a badly stage-managed show rather than a chaotic, bloody affair: from the sound and light display of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign of late March 2003, to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square the following month and George W. Bush landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 to declare “mission accomplished.”

There was another moment like this on August 19, when the 4th Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division, rolled over Iraq’s border with Kuwait to signal the end of US combat troops’ involvement in the war. Almost two weeks ahead of the deadline that President Barack Obama had set, American soldiers left the country they had invaded on March 20, 2003. In another piece of slick presentation work, Obama is due to deliver an address on August 31 from the White House, in which he will officially declare the USA’s participation in fighting in Iraq over.

Like the media-set pieces that went before it, though, Obama’s speech will ring hollow. At the same time that the President will be addressing the nation, there will still be about 50,000 US troops active in Iraq. Technically, they’re not “combat teams” but “advisory and assistance brigades.” But these soldiers will be accompanying Iraq troops on missions and if they come under fire from insurgents, I imagine the Americans will not hesitate to turn their “advice” on the enemy combatants and “assist” them to death.

Perhaps it’s fitting that a war born out of mendacity, falsehoods and exaggerations should be ushered into its closing stages – although clearly not its end – by half-truths and manipulation. Like his predecessor and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Obama, who is desperate for a public relations windfall, appears to be relegating the Iraq War to nothing more than a media spectacle. It also devalues his stance on ending US involvement in Iraq, making it seem a policy of convenience rather than an attempt to provide answers to the very profound and troubling questions posed by the conflict.

More than seven years after the first coalition troops moved in to find weapons of mass destruction and overthrow Hussein, the West – the countries that backed the war and those that opposed it – still desperately lacks self-knowledge. For all the flag waving on one side and the banner unfurling on the other, we are in a state of ambivalence about if or when it is right to use force. Apart from the deaths (between 97,000 and 106,000 civilians according to the Iraq Body Count website), the destruction and the geopolitical ramifications which have seen Iran and Turkey drawn into events, the Iraq War has had another devastating impact – it proved to be the moment when democratic politics broke down.

It failed on two accounts: firstly because Bush, Blair and several other leaders chose not to be straight with their electorates about an issue as important as going to war. This breakdown in the democratic process was compounded by the fact that, despite the attempts of their leaders to obfuscate, voters who knew they were being hustled still remained powerless to prevent the relentless march to war. Secondly, the right and the left both produced very shallow responses in the face of a complex situation. The neoconservative-led right claimed the moral high ground because it was supporting the ousting of a dictator and moves to bring democracy to not just a country but a whole region. The left felt it was superior because it was rejecting armed conflict as an option and drawing attention to possible ulterior motives for the conflict. To a small extent, both sides could claim to be right but in actual fact they were mostly wrong.

The moral bankruptcy of the neocons has long been proven. For all the bluster of bringing freedom to Iraq, it soon became obvious that there was no reconstruction plan to ensure its people were free to lead normal lives. For all the talk of wiping out “evil” with democracy, there was clearly never any intention of tackling dictators in other countries, such as Zimbabwe, or intervening to stop innocent people being slaughtered in places like Darfur.

The weakness of the left’s position took a bit more time to become evident but it’s clear now that it too has been guilty of treating the Iraq War as a zero-sum issue, when it’s actually a much more complex equation. Although the left clearly had plenty of fodder to support its argument against the war, it has not come up with a convincing alternative. As British journalist Nick Cohen wrote in “What’s Left?”, his 2007 critique of the antiwar movement: “They didn’t support fascism but they didn’t oppose it either. Their silence did not bode well for the future.”

Well, the future has arrived and the silence is still ringing in our ears. We have a Democratic president in the White House who appears to have no moral blueprint to guide him on US intervention around the world. We have European leaders who have plenty to say about fiscal deficits but nothing to say about democratic deficits. We have a feeble United Nations that seems unable to have an impact even in places where it has mustered up a presence – an investigation has been launched this week into how its troops missed the rape of 150 women and boys in the Democratic Republic of Congo when they were patrolling the area. In Greece, we have a prime minister who is a democratic idealist that wants to contribute to the Middle East peace process but is not willing to commit more than a few dozen troops to Afghanistan, where the specter of another brutal Taliban regime hangs over the country.

Iraq, many thought, was going to be the watershed moment for this generation, when beliefs would be honed and theories sharpened — but now that the dust is subsiding, it’s clear we’ve been left with only an ideological bomb crater. When lines were drawn over the invasion, it gave decision makers a chance to turn their backs on vital moral and political questions. More than seven years later, we have made no apparent progress in being clearer about when there is legitimate cause for intervention. In that sense, as well as others, Iraq has been a failure.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on August 27, 2010.

Judgment day

Earlier this year, I landed in London a few hours before former Prime Minister Tony Blair was due to face the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War. It was the first opportunity the British people had to see Blair answering questions about his deeply unpopular decision to send British troops to Iraq since he stepped down from office some three years earlier. It had all the makings of a watershed moment for British democracy: a prime minister who was perceived as mendacious being brought to account by a team of experts. The reality, though, proved much less fulfilling.

Time did not stop for Londoners, apart perhaps for the few dozen protesters outside the hearing, brandishing their “Bliar” placards, and the families of British soldiers killed in Iraq who attended the sessions. In fact, most people went about their normal business. This sense of normality on what was in many ways a historic day suggested Britons had long ago accepted Blair went into Iraq for the wrong reasons and they had since moved on with their lives. For the rest, the hope of any politician — let alone one as skilled in the art of communication as Blair — being forced into a corner by an inquiry panel had long since passed.

As Andrew Rawnsley, a political commentator for the Observer weekly, wrote at the time: “There was never a chance that the former prime minister was going to break down in a blubbering confession to atrocious errors before handing himself over to the protesters outside who had mocked up a jail for him.” The British public, just like savvy voters in many other countries, had come to accept that inquiries may embarrass and inconvenience politicians and public officials but they rarely hold them to account for their acts. However independent the hearings may be – and in Greece they are not at all, since they are carried out by sitting MPs – they exist because a prime minister or a parliament has decided that they should. Those who work with or within the political system have many faults but biting off the hand that feeds them is rarely one of them.

That’s why it was such a surprise last week that the parliamentary committee investigating the Siemens cash-for-contracts scandal should actually produce an admission of guilt from a politician. Former Transport Minister Tasos Mantelis’s admission that he accepted bribes from Siemens Hellas prompted calls for former PASOK Prime Minister Costas Simitis, who appointed and worked with Mantelis, to appear before the same parliamentary committee to answer questions about what he knew of the shady deals being done by members of his government.

This bandwagon is being driven by New Democracy, which under its new leader, Antonis Samaras, senses an opportunity to publicly haul Simitis over the coals and to establish in the public’s mind that PASOK is a deeply corrupt party. It’s a perception that could serve him well at the next general election, whenever that may be. But PASOK is not going to sit idly by and let its former leader be the one to carry the blame for years of corruption, so it has begun pushing for ex-conservative Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis to face the committee of MPs investigating the real-estate swap between the state and the Vatopedi Monastery after testimony suggested that some of his closest aides had helped set up the allegedly corrupt deal.

Simitis’s response has been a flat rejection, claiming that his appearance before the panel without evidence linking him to any wrongdoing would simply reward and fuel baseless speculation. From Karamanlis’s side there has simply been what we’ve come to expect from the former ND leader, given the pattern of his five years in office: no response at all. They both risk embarrassment if they do appear before the committees. Simitis’s premiership, perhaps the most productive of Greece’s recent history, could be reduced to nothing more than a tawdry tale of under-the-table deals and broken promises. Karamanlis, for whom the public indignation is still fresh, is in jeopardy of confirming the suspicion that he was dwarfed by the size of his task and let Greece’s hopes burn while he fiddled.

They are both aware that there is nothing more the political system could do with now than two high-profile sacrificial lambs. It would give the public an opportunity to channel their anger and the current breed of politicians of all hues to claim they are the new broom sweeping away the dirt of the past. As British historian Tristram Hunt – who himself has gone into politics as a Labour MP – put it: “Ever since the scribes of the Renaissance branded the Middle Ages as the ‘Dark Ages,’ propagandists have deployed history to codify the future. You rubbish the past as a lost opportunity of waste, indecision and stupidity. And you celebrate the present as a blessed release from such hopelessness.”

As two of the many architects of Greece’s divisive and shambolic political system, Simitis and Karamanlis know full well what awaits them. Like the builders of a rickety summer house who have been invited for a weekend stay – they know that the knob will come off in their hand as soon as they open the door and that the whole structure will collapse on them within hours.

They clearly have a strong argument for not wanting to put themselves through this ordeal but the reasons for coming forward are even more powerful. Their refusal to attend the committee hearings would mean that Greece’s institutions are a sham and the political system is at a dead-end with little hope of finding a way out. The momentum for change has to come from somewhere and with the current government struggling to cope, it seems incapable of providing this forward movement. It’s an ideal opportunity for these two men – who led Greece for 13 years in total – to be in the vanguard of those dragging the country to more fertile pastures, rather than skulking at the back. It’s a chance for them to admit the mistakes of the past so they should not repeated in the future. It’s even a moment for them to stand up and defend themselves if necessary but it’s certainly not the time to dismiss Greece’s democracy and its institutions as tired and toothless.

Rawnsley wrote of Blair’s appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry: “This was certainly not Judgment Day. Tony Blair once said that he expected to have to answer to his Maker. Assuming they ever meet, perhaps he is right.” Simitis and Karamanlis are not likely to meet their Maker soon but they will encounter a lot of people who voted for them, which may prove a much scarier prospect, given the anger that’s fermenting among disillusioned Greeks. If they ever expect to be able to look these people in the eye rather than have to turn their backs to hails of abuse, then they must appear at the committee hearings. Unlike Blair, they do not have to protect powerful international allies or colleagues still serving in government. Simitis and Karamanlis are not bound by the constraints of a system that has now catapulted them to its fringes. They should, therefore, speak up and let the people judge.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on June 5.

The ditch Blair project

Tony_blair_witch Project_a.jpg

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Tony Blair must be getting used to rejection by now. He left office in 2007 unloved and unwanted after 10 years as British prime minister. His attempt to win back some respectability as an international statesman by becoming a Middle East envoy has been a damp squib. And now his voyage to become the Europe’s first president appears to have foundered on the EU’s perennial rock of uncertainty.

In hushed tones and behind closed doors, European leaders last week seemed to reject the idea of Blair being appointed president of the European Council, a position created by the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by all 27 EU member states.

Blair has some characteristics that would make him a suitable candidate for the role (charisma, valuable political experience, good communication skills, the ability to lead and diplomatic presence) but for many these are outweighed by the baggage he would bring with him (the Iraq War, his close ties to George W. Bush, his unpopularity in his own country, a pending investigation into whether he lied to his people and parliament and a fraught relationship with the EU in the past).

The fallout from the Iraq War is the biggest elephant in the room blocking Blair’s path to the presidency. The decision to hitch his wagon to George W. Bush’s lone star is something Europeans cannot overlook easily. But given the chance, Blair would probably explain that as the British prime minister, he had to make a decision – a very wrong one as it turned out – about whether to take part in a war. Had he been the prime minister of Belgium or Luxembourg, for example, perhaps his toughest foreign policy choice would have been what color bunting to get out when dignitaries visit from abroad.

Blair might even argue that having been through such a maelstrom and suffered the political consequences of his choices, he has the ideal experience to now be a unifying rather than a divisive figure. But even this does not dispel the dark cloud of mendacity that hangs over him. The Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s participation in the Iraq War will hopefully establish beyond doubt what Blair knew and what he told MPs and the public before committing troops to that conflict. The fact he’s due to face such an investigation appears to undermine his bid to become EU president. To risk having the first person in such a high-profile role publicly exposed as a liar would damage the Union. Of course, there would be more than a hint of hypocrisy in the air if he is rejected on this basis alone: Few of the 27 leaders who decide who fills the role are paragons of virtue themselves – any group that has Silvio Berlusconi as one of its most prominent decision-makers can hardly claim the moral high ground.

Perhaps that’s why some of them decided to suddenly create new criteria for any presidential candidate: his country would have to be a member of the eurozone and part of the Schengen Agreement – Britain is neither. If the EU’s aim is to appoint the best person for the job, then this shifting of the goalposts is preposterous. Theoretically, the EU president should be someone that’s transnational, not national, federal, not feudal. If he or she subscribes to the European project, then their homeland’s policy should be irrelevant.

10_okOf course, Blair’s critics would argue that he’s always been at loggerheads with the Union, typified by his stance in 2003 in the buildup to the Iraq War, which was widely interpreted as an effort to split the bloc. However, Blair has engaged with the EU in more constructive ways as well. One of his first acts after being voted into power in 1997 was to abolish Britain’s opt-out of the Maastricht Treaty’s Social Protocol. He was also one of the proponents in 1998 of giving the EU a role in defense policy and was a champion of the bloc’s enlargement. He was the first British prime minister to put the UK’s budget rebate up for discussion in 2005, when he urged member states to reform the Common Agricultural Policy and cut the extensive waste and laziness that it leads to, as we are well aware of in Greece.

In June of that year, Blair stood before the members of the European Parliament and set out a vision for a less bureaucratic, more liberal and modern Europe. “The people of Europe are speaking to us,” he said of citizens’ waning interest in the EU. “They are posing the questions. They want our leadership. It is time we gave it to them.” More than four years on, that leadership is still absent and, as the turnout in June’s European Parliament elections indicated, interest in the EU is flimsy. These are issues that, theoretically, a European president could address.

The role has been created so that someone can preside over the European Council – the regular summits between the 27 heads of government – and coordinate its work. According to the Lisbon Treaty, the president should also “ensure the external representation of the Union on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy.”

Yet, what we have seen over the last couple of weeks is a climb down from this position. The message from Brussels last week was that it would be preferable for the president to come from one of the smaller member states, that he or she should be able to strengthen Europe from within, not necessarily give it a presence on the world stage, and be willing to play second fiddle to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and the 27 leaders.

“There is an argument that a political star as a president of the EU would lead to trouble with the president of the Commission and other leaders,” Robert Goebbels, the Luxembourg MEP who has launched a petition to stop Blair from being considered for the job, told Athens Plus.

It would be one of the EU’s more quixotic moments should it create an opening for a figurehead who could use diplomatic and communication skills to promote the Union to an increasingly apathetic public and give it a greater presence on the global stage only to then shackle him or her for fear of upsetting internal balances.

As the Dutch daily De Volkskrant put it in a recent headline: “Europe chooses: chief or messenger boy.” Given some of the names that have been mentioned as alternatives to Blair – Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, former Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Tapio Lipponen, former Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel, former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga – it seems the EU has decided there are too many indians to have a chief.

Presumably some of these politicians, if not all, are who The Economist had in mind when it referred to “the usual Europygmies.” Maybe, it’s a harsh assessment of men and women who are capable politicians in their domains, although hardly singular figures, but it underlines the challenge the EU now faces in trying to select someone to fulfill a role whose purpose remains unclear and undefined.

At least something is much clearer now: rejecting Blair was the easy part, too easy perhaps.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on November 6, 2009.