GARY YOUNGE, THE GUARDIAN, LONDON, MAY 15, 2006
THE INTERNET WEEKLY
If democracy is supposed to represent the will of the people, then there is either something wrong with the democracies or something wrong with the people on both sides of the Atlantic. Less than two years ago George Bush was re-elected president of the United States. His pitch: “Stick with me, I have not done a thing wrong.” His promise: “I will do more of the same.” Six months later Tony Blair went to the polls with a similar message.
Both were elected. Both have since been as good their word. With the exception of Dick Cheney’s poor marksmanship and John Prescott’s priapism there have been no real surprises since then.
Yet both now find themselves wallowing at dismal levels of public support. Blair has the lowest approval rating of any Labour premier on record – dipping below Harold Wilson in 1968 during the post-devaluation crisis. Bush similarly keeps plumbing new depths – currently standing at just over half the level Clinton enjoyed in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal. If there were an election tomorrow, both would struggle.
On the domestic front, the route by which they got to this point and the time they have to recover differ. Blair has strayed too far from the core interests of the party he represents. Bush has stuck too closely to his. Bush must stay and face the music until January 2009, and no one knows who will replace him; Blair could go at any moment, and his heir apparent lives next door and is champing at the bit.
But both move into the twilight of their political careers with colleagues and commentators looking over their shoulders at potential successors, like social climbers at a cocktail party. From now on they are not fighting for their political lives – their days on that score are literally numbered, even if in Blair’s case we are not sure quite what the number is – but for their political obituaries. In the time that remains, they are focused not on legislation but legacy.
The trouble is that the issue on which those legacies will be judged is the one where they have given themselves the least room for political manoeuvre and over which they now have the least day-to-day control: Iraq.
STEVE BELL, THE GUARDIAN, LONDON
According to a morgue report, last month sectarian fighting claimed 1,100 Iraqi lives in Baghdad alone. Meanwhile, the death toll of US soldiers has risen to roughly three a day – back to the higher levels of last year. According to a Pew poll in March, half of Americans favour immediate troop withdrawal and less than a third approve of the way Bush is handling the war. In the UK, a Newsnight poll showed 60% believed that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake.
Both Bush and Blair staked their reputations on this war. They made their pledges to tough it out the hallmark of their leadership style. Yet the premises on which they entered it were false and the conduct of it remains flawed. Militarily, they are unable to move forward; politically, they are incapable of turning back. They are desperate for everyone to change the subject and yet are stuck with the subject they themselves chose.
“The diplomatic historian traces foreign affairs as if domestic affairs were offstage disturbances,” writes Walter Karp in The Politics of War. “The historian of domestic politics treats the explosions of war as if they were offstage disturbances. Were that true, we would have to believe that presidents who faced a mounting sea of troubles at home have none the less conducted their foreign policy without the slightest regard for those troubles – that individual presidents were divided into watertight compartments, one labelled ‘domestic’ and the other ‘foreign’.”
The relationship between this foreign misadventure and these domestic mishaps is contextual rather than causal. Iraq has become a signifier for leaders who do not listen, politicians who mislead, and political priorities that are out of kilter with the public need. These are sentiments that transfer easily to gas prices and Hurricane Katrina in the US as much as to school reform and ID cards in Britain. The war “is like a fog that just envelops the entire political atmosphere”, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report told the Los Angeles Times. According to a CBS poll in April, almost two-thirds of Americans think Bush describes things in Iraq as better than they are. In the Newsnight poll, 52% of Britons said their opinion of Blair has gone down as a result of the war. More Americans rank the war as the most important issue facing the country than those who prioritise the economy, immigration and terrorism put together. But that is still only 27%.
STEVE BELL, THE GUARDIAN, LONDON
These statistics are not coming from the same place. These two leaders sold different wars to different electorates. The Bush administration used the terrorist attacks in New York as the pretext for this war; terrorists used this war as the pretext for attacking London. The Bush administration responded to the attacks with a policy of pre-emptive strikes and regime change in which WMD were central but not crucial. In his post-9/11 speech, Blair promised to “reorder this world around us” but evoked Congo and Kyoto, not Iraq or Iran. Finally, most Americans supported the war until last year; bar a brief period at the outset, most Britons never did.
But, for all these differences, what the war exposed both in the UK and the US were democratic deficits that failed to check or balance the bellicose machismo of either man. In Britain the dislocation between public will and foreign policy was blatant. Somehow an issue of war and peace that raged through the country was marginalised in parliament and erased from the cabinet. In the US the public barely got a look in. A supine press and spineless Democrats ensured that no alternative arguments or strategies would emerge until it was too late. The people are not fickle but their democracies are dysfunctional.
As a result, both leaders got precisely what they wanted. Unchecked by political opposition at home, unfettered by international law abroad, unpersuaded by argument at home and abroad, like Sinatra they did it their way. And so, since they have no one else to blame and find themselves out of credit at the goodwill bank of public opinion, they reach for the arbiter of last resort: history.
Not the history that has passed. Not the history of Kenya or Vietnam which taught us that the suppression of a colonised people can only be sustained through barbarism. Certainly not the history in which Winston Churchill advocated gassing the Kurds and the US continued to support Saddam Hussein as an ally after the Halabja massacres.
THE HOLLYWOOD LIBERAL
In their desire for legacy, they seek not the history that records the past but a history of the future: an abstract verdict that we cannot argue with for the simple reason that it hasn’t been made yet.
“History will prove the decision we made to be the right decision,” said Bush in 2003.
“If we are wrong,” argued Blair, “we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive.”
Rebutted by the past and rejected in the present, their only hope is the future imperfect. Only when we are all dead will the genius of this war finally become clear.