Washington, D.C.–While the House of Commons is not what it once was, it is still a bear pit compared to the somnolent rectitude of the United States Senate. That much became clear when the British MP George Galloway appeared at a Senate subcommittee hearing on the abuse of the United Nations Oil-for-Food program on Tuesday.
It was hard to know quite what Senators Norm Coleman and Carl Levin expected from the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow; it was impossible not to suspect they got more than they bargained for. As a rule senators are not, I think, accustomed to being accused by their witnesses of committing “schoolboy howlers.”
Coleman in particular seemed bemused by Galloway’s characteristically defiant and even ebullient performance. He suggested Galloway was not a “credible witness” but failed to advance the claims that the Scot profited from the manipulation and corruption of the U.N. program.
“You have nothing on me,” crowed Galloway, who claimed the attention paid to his activities was “mother of all smoke screens” designed to divert attention away from the “crimes” committed by the United States and Britain in Iraq. “You want to talk about illegalities? You launched an illegal war.”
Evidence from senior Iraqi officials–including former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, who have told investigators that Galloway was rewarded on account of “his opinions on Iraq”–was dismissed by Galloway. “Knowing what the world knows about how you treat prisoners,” he ranted, “I’m not sure how much credibility anyone would put on evidence from prisoners in those circumstances.”
Furthermore, “What counts is not the names on the paper. What counts is where’s the money, senator? Who paid me money, senator? Who paid me hundreds of thousands of dollars? The answer to that is nobody and if you had anybody who paid me a penny you would have produced them here today.”
For the British journalists present it was a wearily familiar experience. For years they (we) have been trying to trap Galloway; for years, the man known as the MP for “Baghdad Central” has found ways (helped by the libel laws) of slipping away just when he was thought to have been cornered.
Galloway, who has been accused of profiting from illegal commissions paid on as many as 20 million barrels of Iraqi oil, demanded his day in Washington last week after Coleman’s committee published a report showing Galloway’s name repeatedly appearing on contract agreements from the Iraqi oil ministry.
A Global Celebrity
His spokesman indicated that he was coming to Washington to give the committee “both barrels–that’s guns, not oil,” and Galloway himself suggested that he was planning to take the “lickspittle” Republicans on the committee out to the woodshed there to administer a mightily merited thrashing. “You won’t want to miss this,” he promised.
Indeed we didn’t. This was vintage Galloway. Truculent, bombastic, eloquent, and willfully disingenuous. A performance of some power, hampered only by equal measures of self-importance, self-righteousness, and self-pity.
Galloway thinks himself a victim. He likes to make out that he was expelled from the Labor party for his opposition to the war (a claim repeated today, erroneously, by the New York Times and the Washington Post). In fact he was thrown out for supporting and inciting the jihadists in their work of murdering American and, in particular, British troops.
“Gorgeous George”–the nickname refers to the sharpness of his suits and the shine of his self-regard–was in his element on Tuesday, however. Nothing pleases Galloway so much as the opportunity for demagogic posing. Senator Coleman blundered in letting him appear.
Nothing was achieved at Tuesday’s hearing beyond pumping more air into Galloway’s ballooning sense of self-worth. No fresh information concerning his relationship with Saddam’s regime was revealed, no progress made in unraveling the tortuously tangled threads of the Oil-for-Food scandal.
As one friend from Scotland, and thus in the unfortunate position of being a long-time Galloway observer, lamented to me: “The guy is on his way to becoming a global celebrity thanks to the stupidity of his enemies in taking him seriously in the first place.”
A Certain Style
Even detractors, such as Christopher Hitchens, were compelled to admit that Galloway’s performance had a certain something, even a kind of style about it. It was preposterous of course, but strangely compelling.
Hitchens in fact, had a cameo role in the whole ghastly circus. As Galloway made his way forward, he passed Hitchens and could be heard to mutter “booze-addled Trotskyite.” Later, Hitchens reminded Galloway that “you lied under oath Mr. Galloway. You lied when you said never supported Saddam Hussein. We have your quotes.”
And so we do. Galloway, a man for whom the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest catastrophe” of his lifetime, famously kissed up to Saddam when he met the dictator in 1994. “Sir: I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability. And I want you to know that we are with you hatta al-nasr, hatta al-nasr, hatta al-Quds [until victory, until victory, until Jerusalem].” Galloway claimed his remarks were aimed at the Iraqi people, a reading unsupported by any fair-minded interpretation of his words.
So it was no surprise that on Tuesday he refused to answer the senators’ questions regarding his relationship with Fawaz Zureiqat, a Jordanian businessman who was Galloway’s representative in Baghdad and the chief patron and chairman of his charity, Mariam’s Appeal, designed to raise money to pay for the treatment of four-year-old Iraqi girl suffering from Leukemia. Zureiqat’s companies are also alleged to have profited from the Oil-for-Food scam, acting as conduits for payments to Galloway. “I can assure you Mr. Zureiqat never gave me a penny from an oil deal, a cake deal, a bread deal, or from any other deal” said Galloway, although the Iraqis themselves seem to dispute this.
In one sense it would be preferable if Galloway has indeed received money from the corruption of the Oil-for-Food program, and not just because that would sweetly vindicate his many enemies. Mere illegality would be preferable to the shabby (to be kind) morality Galloway’s unctuous support for Saddam displayed.
It’s perhaps too easy to think of Galloway as a bug-eyed buffoon, an eccentric on the fringes of political debate. But his striking election victory in London for his anti-war Respect party, in which he overturned a safe Labor majority, demonstrated that, in the right hands and in the right places, populist demagoguery of the kind once favored in the East End of London by another moustache-sporting former Labor MP, Oswald Moseley, can have an impact.
Galloway is smart enough to realize that the current investigations, too murky for many readers and too complicated for the television news bulletins, work in his favor. They give him a reason to continue the war against the war by other means, chipping away at the war’s legitimacy and sapping the willingness of the American and British peoples to see their troops sent into action again, should that ever prove necessary. (The real damage done by the failure to find WMDs is the impact it will have on the public’s trust in intelligence and political leadership in the event of future emergencies.)
Since it is all but impossible to imagine Galloway or his fellow-travellers supporting any military action led by the U.S. and U.K., it should be clear that Iraq is but one element and one front in this long struggle to hamstring Washington and London.
And Galloway is winning beyond Bethnal Green. “Why oh why are our Democratic leaders not capable of straight talking like Galloway? There is nothing he said that is wrong or false and the impact will be immense. I accuse our democratic leadership of being pathetic wimps who would do well to emulate this superb performance” was one all too typical comment at the liberal blog Daily Kos. Many other posts saluted, to coin a phrase, Galloway’s courage, strength, and indefatigability.
This is, it is becoming clear, Galloway’s real importance. Galloway and his ilk in this country are slowly corrupting the Democratic party just as much as the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food program was eaten away by kickbacks and bribery.
That may be useful for Republicans in electoral terms but it is an unhealthy development for a country still burdened with great responsibilities (and opportunities) by virtue of its time and place in history.
–Alex Massie writes for the Scotman.