By Jonathan Freedland (THE GUARDIAN, 06/09/2006):
The Americans can’t quite believe it. Getting rid of Tony Blair? Are you Brits crazy? Like Thatcher before him, Blair finds that the acclaim abroad lingers even when there is derision at home. Maggie was a legend in the States when she was shoved aside by the Tories, and the same is true of Blair. When he does his farewell tour – part Sinatra, part royal goodbye – he’d be a fool not to make a stop in America. Here the ovations are guaranteed.
And yet here, he might also reflect, is where his troubles began. Next week marks the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks which radically altered the course of American foreign policy. Blair’s great error, the one that historians will identify as the cause of his decline and eventual downfall, was to sign up for that new programme in full – even when it led to disaster.
September 11 2001 was the turning point. It’s easy to forget now that in the election campaign of 2000, Governor George W Bush promised a more “humble” international role for America. Not for him the Balkan entanglements and reckless folly of “nation-building” of the Clinton years. Bush’s America would step back.
September 11 changed all that. The “realists” of the Bush administration, those cautious folk who believed in diplomacy and alliances, were banished in favour of the ideologues, those who sought to use US power to remake the world.
So was born the Bush doctrine. It declared that America wouldn’t wait for anybody’s permission slip to act: if it detected a threat it would strike first, alone and pre-emptively if necessary. And, believing that repressive Arab governments were to blame for driving their frustrated youth to extremism, it would use American might to spread democracy in the Middle East and beyond.
That was the new doctrine: unilateralism, pre-emption and coercive democratisation. And what has been the fate of this new faith? Judged from any and every point of view, it has proved the most spectacular failure.
Take as one measure the three powers dumbly lumped together as the “axis of evil”: Iran, Iraq and North Korea (dumb because two of them, Iran and Iraq, were enemies, not partners). Those three nations all pose a greater threat now than they did five years ago. Tehran is closer to a bomb, while Pyong Yang has 400% more fissile material than it did, along with the long-range missiles to dispatch it. Iraq, meanwhile, is a nation in chaos, where scores of civilians are killed every day and where 2,600 US soldiers have lost their lives. It is the clearest case of a self-fulfilling prophecy outside Greek mythology. Bush took a country with next to no links to al-Qaida and made it a terrorist breeding ground. He took a country that posed no threat to the US and made it a graveyard for Americans.
What’s more, it’s the catastrophe in Iraq that has heightened the danger in Iran and North Korea. Both countries have been able to advance their nuclear plans because they know that the US Gulliver, tied down in Baghdad, is powerless to stop them. With 10 of the 12 divisions of the US army either in or on their way to Iraq, the great hyperpower is reduced to impotence anywhere else. In this way, Iraq proved entirely self-defeating – making the world more safe, not less, for rogue states and nuclear proliferators. It also served as a vivid advertisement for the protective power of nukes: after all, Saddam could be invaded because he didn’t have any.
Iraq proved too to be a fatal distraction from the war that should have been declared on 9/11: the war against al-Qaida. There are former US special forces troops seething to this day that they had Osama bin Laden in their sights in Afghanistan – until they were pulled off and sent to Iraq. Strikingly, Bin Laden’s name does not even appear in the new “national strategy for combating terrorism”, which the administration published yesterday.
The White House praises itself that the US has not been hit in the last five years and that it has disrupted al-Qaida. But it also claims to have done much “to undercut the perceived legitimacy of terrorism”, and that is wildly wide of the mark. The horrific truth is that the application of the Bush doctrine has helped vindicate Bin Laden and his ilk in the eyes of the Arab and Muslim world. Five years ago al-Qaida’s claim that the west was engaged in a war against Islam ran into widespread scepticism. Yet Bush’s words and deeds – from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to the abuses at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib via the talk of a “crusade” against evil and the wilful refusal to engage in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – have done violent Islamism’s recruitment work for it. We know that all too well in Britain, where the “martyr” tapes of the July 7 bombers left no doubt that it was images of Muslim deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine that had won them over. Actions designed to put out the fire of terrorism only served to inflame it.
As for the spread of democracy, that too has been a failure. Bush’s chosen method has been force and intimidation, which only proved that when people are confronted with “democracy” imposed from the outside they don’t embrace it, but are driven to nationalism instead. Elsewhere, the lazy equation of democracy with elections alone, rather than the long, painstaking work of institution building, left Bush vulnerable to the law of unintended consequences, lending radical groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah an electoral legitimacy they previously lacked.
Genuinely spreading democracy is a noble goal, but Bush could not face the logic of his own position. Not only would it have meant allowing people to vote for parties the US does not like, it would also have seen them rid themselves of regimes the US has long backed. Rhetorically Bush swore he was ready for that, but his continued support for the dictatorships in Pakistan and Egypt, and his closeness to the House of Saud, show it was just talk. Moreover, if the peoples of the Muslim and Arab world were really allowed their say, one of their prime demands would be an end to US and western meddling in their affairs. But that would be a democratisation too far for Washington.
After five long years, the American people are slowly beginning to see the reality of Bush’s “war on terror”. An AP poll yesterday found one third of Americans believe it is a war the terrorists are winning. Where once 70% backed the Iraq adventure, now regular majorities tell pollsters it was a mistake. Democrats are billing November’s midterm elections, campaigning for which began in earnest this week, as a referendum on all this – and they reckon they can win a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years.
Accordingly, the Bushies are trying to soften their approach, resorting to diplomacy and alliances in dealing with Iran, for example. But that’s chiefly because Iraq has deprived them of military options. “There’s a change of course, but not a change of heart,” one senate Democrat told me.
Either way, it’s too late for Tony Blair. He signed up for the Bush project, even though it was doomed. His aides speak of legacy, but this is his legacy – to have glued himself to a reckless venture which has wreaked havoc the world over. Destroying the Blair premiership is the very least of it.