The sickening hypocrisy of Bush, Blair and the war on terror

Published by The i paper (9th August, 2021)

Twenty years after lethal attacks turned aircraft into weapons and sparked the so-called war on terror, the US has slunk out of Afghanistan and will end combat missions in Iraq. Those proclaimed plans to remake the world in its image, turning the planet into a democratic nirvana while ensuring safe supplies of oil, have been dashed against hard reality. 

Billions of dollars have been spent, millions of lives wrecked, many thousands of people killed. Yet those foolish misadventures have left the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan, Iran strengthened in the Middle East, jihadism rampant in many more countries and the West weakened against threats from dictators in Beijing and Moscow.

In his speech to Congress following the 9/11 attacks, President George W Bush was joined by Tony Blair when he talked about defeating “every terrorist group of global reach”. Then he asked a rhetorical question: “Why do they hate us?”

His answer was simple: the West’s enemies despised democracy and freedom. “The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war and we know that God is not neutral between them. Fellow citizens, we’ll meet violence with justice, assured of the rightness of our cause and confident of the victories to come.”

How naive such words seem now after two decades of carnage, chaos and conflict, culminating in the world’s most powerful nation being repelled by ragtag insurgents. 

Last week, I met a man who symbolises the sickening hypocrisy of politicians such as Blair and Bush, spewing out hollow words about freedom and democracy while unleashing an onslaught of state-sanctioned terror. 

His name is Mohamedou Ould Slahi and – in the name of that “patient justice” – he spent 14 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay camp after secret rendition through Jordan and Afghanistan. You may have seen his story in a searing and superb film called The Mauritanian, or perhaps read it in Guantanamo Diary, his first-hand account.

Mohamedou was buzzing around a small party in north London hosted by Kevin Macdonald, the film’s director. He was affable, charming and smiling, although dark rings around his eyes hinted at the inner turmoil of a man plagued by nightmares about his past horrors. 

We spoke again a couple of days later. This was his first visit to a Western nation since incarceration and he admitted he was terrified on landing, fearing he might be victim of a dastardly trick to send him back into hell. “I almost didn’t dare to come,” he said. “After two weeks, I am beginning to relax.”

This is a man who, in the name of our democracy, suffered unimaginable cruelty including kidnap, torture and the theft of 14 years of his life. Here is a snapshot of how those people preaching freedom treated him: at one point in Guantanamo he was head-butted, covered in icy water, put in a freezing cell, blasted with heavy metal music, dazzled with strobe lights, starved and then forced to drink water until sick. 

The walls of his cells were plastered with images of genitalia, male guards beat him so badly they broke several ribs, women played weird sexual games to humiliate him. One memo suggested dressing him in a burqa and forcing him to bark like a dog. They even threatened to gang-rape his mother in Mauritania.

This torture was to extract confession of ties that did not exist to the 9/11 atrocities. He fought briefly with al-Qaeda and the Mujahedin as a young man in the Afghan conflict almost a decade before 9/11  – on the same side as US interests against a Communist government. US intelligence services – those agencies that pushed a false notion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction to justify a disastrous invasion – saw him as a top al-Qaeda operative. 

Yet Mohamedou – the son of a camel herder who won a scholarship to Germany and speaks four languages fluently – would debate with his guards and seems to have remarkable capacity for forgiveness. He told me he nearly lost his mind in the Jordanian secret prison and Guantanamo, struggles with depression and a sense of hopelessness, yet sees no point in bitterness or revenge.

But while President Joe Biden may be withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq, that wretched camp in Cuba soiling the concept of justice remains operational. Almost 800 people have been sent there and 39 remain, most held for years without being charged, tried or convicted. One man has been force-fed daily for eight years after going on hunger strike in protest at his imprisonment. 

Barack Obama promised to shut Guantanamo but failed, although drastically reducing the number of detainees. In the last year of his administration Mohamedou was finally freed – six years after a federal judge first ordered his release.

Mohamedou told me a story of one man beaten to death inside Bagram, the US base in Afghanistan – a victim of mistaken identity who failed to confess to crimes about which he knew nothing. That routine use of torture, those secretive renditions of shackled suspects and the events hidden inside Guantanamo were an outrage. Yet as that former prisoner rightly said, there are many more similar dark hellholes around the world filled with people “suffering in compete silence and unknown to others”. So this is why he talks about his own trauma and relives the terrible events.

President George W Bush, in that eloquent address nine days after 9/11, said that “freedom and fear are at war” as he pledged “an age of liberty across the world”, promising “no one should be singled out for unfair treatment”. Instead, backed by Britain under Tony Blair, his nation trashed the cause of democracy, tarnished the concept of Western justice and devastated global support for our claimed values.

The US may be ending its longest war, but the battle to win hearts and minds has a very long way to go. Why do they hate us, asked Bush? Look at Guantanamo for the answer.

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