By Marina Hyde (THE GUARDIAN,24/02/07):
If one is to endure a prime ministerial discourse on Iraq for any length of time these days, it is necessary – in the name of sanity – to cultivate strategies of detachment. Destroying another radio solves nothing, and there may be health risks associated with beginning one’s waking day shouting dementedly at the glottal-stopped voice drifting over the airwaves. And so it was, listening to Tony Blair sing the praises of his Iraq adventure on the Today programme on Thursday, that my mind began to wander. If it wasn’t all such a bleeding mess, I thought vaguely, the prime minister’s delusions of success would be almost comical. Comical … comical … the word triggered some neural connection. But what? Gradually but inexorably, the memory of another charismatic proselytiser for Iraq’s rude health began to resolve itself.
Cast your mind back to the Iraq war as it was originally billed – the one where we won in three weeks – and which revisionist historians may just come to classify as a kind of phoney war curtain-raiser to the prolonged horror that succeeded it. Quite the most entertaining cameo of the day – even counting Clare Short’s hilarious insistence on staying in the cabinet so she could oversee the reconstruction effort – was that played by Saddam’s information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who we came to know as Comical Ali.
Not for him the relentless negativity that so exasperates Tony Blair where critics of his mission’s success are concerned. “There are only two American tanks in the city,” the information minister would beam beatifically during one of his must-watch daily briefings in early 2003, surrounded by reporters who would have been to able to count at least three if they stood on a low chair. Or recall his declaration as news channels screened footage of coalition troops patrolling Saddam international airport: “They are not in control of any airport.”
Listening again to Blair’s Today interview, it is easy to imagine his declarations as simply one melody in a discordant symphony, a series of those beloved soundbites that could be spliced with contrapuntal news of actual events. “We should be immensely proud.” Crash! A six-hour firefight in Ramadi leaves 12 dead. “What we had to do was rebuild an Iraqi army and police – we did that.” Bang! A US soldier dies and three are injured by a roadside bomb in Diwaniya. “It is better now that [Saddam] has gone.” Wallop! A car bomb factory is discovered in Baghdad. Just as it was with his apparent inspiration, Comical Ali, it becomes ever more difficult to avoid the suspicion that the prime minister is living in a parallel universe, where success and failure are merely states of mind.
Of course, as mentioned, the information minister’s input in this historic saga was limited to a cameo. After being captured by coalition forces, he was almost instantly released, evidently deemed to have known so little as to be useless. Unlike Mr Blair, al-Sahaf seems to have become swiftly aware of the limits of his appeal, and after a few TV appearances, he now lives an unassuming existence in the United Arab Emirates.
His prime ministerial imitator, however, is assumed to have far loftier plans, with the North American lecture tour a seeming inevitability. Enthralled audiences can no doubt expect more insights such as we gained on Thursday, when the PM appeared to justify Iraq’s sprightly journey in the direction of civil war with the observation: “You can’t absolutely predict every set of circumstances that comes about.” Well quite. You can, however, have a vague punt on possible outcomes, and if you are over the age of 15, not involved in a still-unfathomed platonic infatuation with the US president, and willing to listen to intelligence you didn’t pilfer off the internet, you might hazard the road ahead was slightly more pitfall-ridden than seems to have been judged.
But will the time ever come, one wonders idly, when our revisionist historians reconsider the ravings of Comical Ali? The idiocy of most of his statements will, admittedly, endure. Footwear-based supremacy has not been achieved, despite the much-vaunted boast that the Iraqis would be waiting for the coalition forces “with shoes”. But the smile fades when recalling other pronouncements. “Do not be hasty because your disappointment will be huge,” the old crazy warned. “You will reap nothing from this aggressive war, which you launched on Iraq, except for disgrace and defeat.” “We will embroil them, confuse them, and keep them in the quagmire,” he said later, adding that “they cannot just enter a country of 26 million people and lay besiege to them! They are the ones who will find themselves under siege.”
There are, of course, rather fewer than 26 million people in Iraq these days, but even those who dispute the precise extent of the population depletion might agree that it comes to something when, in hindsight, several statements by this preposterous character seem more prophetic than anything spouted by the British government at the time. Fortunately for Mr Blair, this kind of cynicism is not voguish in the hotel ballrooms of North America. There he may expect to be permanently cossetted against any unwelcome intrusions of reality, and we can only wish him the speediest of journeys.