Outside of the Arlington Theatre on Monday evening, a small group of protesters gathered to speak out against former British prime minister Tony Blair, who was speaking at the venue. “War criminal!” a voice echoed through the cavernous entrance hall of the Arlington, followed by a few catcalls by other protesters. Holding signs calling for accountability regarding the retired PM’s role as a key player in the early days of the Iraq War, the approximately 20 protesters were well outnumbered by the enthusiastic patrons who had come to hear Blair speak about interfaith solutions to global problems. “Blair’s theme is reconciliation, but accountability goes hand-in-hand with that,” said Lane Anderson, a member of Veterans for Peace and a regular organizer of peace rallies in Santa Barbara.
Organized by Andrew Hankin, a Briton who has been a Santa Barbara resident for the past 18 years, the protest was centered around a call for a war crimes tribunal to be aimed at President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and other members of the previous administration who were instrumental in initiating the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “He needs to be either prosecuted for war crimes for attacking Iraq, or become lead witness in testifying against Bush and Cheney,” said Hankin of Blair, who, at 12 years, served the longest stint as Britain’s Prime Minister. “We need high-level prosecutions to stop future presidents from committing crimes,” Hankin said. “Without prosecutions, it is not yet time for faith-based reconciliation,” said an email from the group inviting others to join the protest.
Later on, during the speech, Blair defended his actions regarding the Iraq War as what he believed was the right thing to do. “We’ve got to get away from this idea that backing a regime that is brutal and oppressive because of a tactical advantage is smart strategy. It isn’t,” he said of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, which was toppled by Coalition Forces shortly after the war began in 2003. “You can agree with what we did or you can disagree. The freedom that the average Muslim has in America or Britain is greater than in any Muslim country.”
Blair, who took on an assignment as the envoy for the “Quartet for the Middle East” - composed of the UN, U.S., EU, and Russia - when he resigned as PM in 2007, has been engaged in a project aimed at promoting interfaith cooperation in solving global problems. “Personally, I don’t think there’s anything more important than solving the conflict between Islam and the West,” he said. Having worked on the peace process in Northern Ireland earlier in his career, Blair said that it had looked hopeless at first, but interfaith cooperation had worked. He expressed hope for similar results in Israel and Palestine - where he has spent much of his time lately - a place he said the rest of the world will look to as an example.