1. Staggering to the Exit
It may look and feel like a farce right now, but one day some future Shakespeare might write it as a tragedy: the fall of a powerful, popular leader broken on the wheel of war.
For make no mistake: if not for the criminal folly of the Iraq invasion, British Prime Minister Tony Blair would not have been unceremoniously shoved toward the exit last week by his own party, including some of his fiercest loyalists. The man who once commanded one of the largest majorities in the history of the ancient British Parliament, who won three successive national elections and appeared to have sealed his party’s hold on power for decades to come, has seen his stature and authority eaten away by the hubris that led him to join George W. Bush’s duplicitous, disastrous Babylonian Conquest.
With the Labour Party sinking in the polls — now almost 10 points behind the once-decimated and still despised Conservatives — several Labour MPs broke into open revolt last week, resigning from the government and forcing Blair to announce that he will definitely leave office in the next few months, probably May at the latest, more than three years before the next national election. But after a few days on the back foot, the prime minister’s remaining partisans then launched a rearguard maneuver to savage Blair’s obvious successor, his longtime political partner — and deadly rival — Gordon Brown, the UK Chancellor. Brown has been accused of everything from "traitorous disloyalty" to "psychological problems" by Blairites flocking to the national press. As the unseemly sniping rages on, it seems that Blair is seeking, consciously or unconsciously, to perform one last act of tragic hubris: bringing the party down with him as he falls.
Of course, Blair had promised long ago not to serve out a full third term; indeed, that was how he won a third term in the first place. His promise before the May 2005 election to step down afterwards convinced enough distrustful voters to "hold your nose and vote Labour" — as the famous campaign theme voiced by the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee put it — and keep out the dread Tories one more time. (Another popular, if unofficial, theme was: "Vote Blair, Get Brown.") But once safely back in 10 Downing Street — albeit with a greatly reduced parliamentary majority, having shed millions of voters and more than 200,000 dues-paying party members from the pre-Iraq days — Blair showed little inclination to leave. He spoke of long-term projects and reforms that he "had to see through" — including that pesky business of "establishing democracy" in Iraq. It was obvious that he intended to stick around for years, mostly likely until just before the next election.
But month by month, Blair’s support continued to bleed away. Not even the July 2005 terrorist bombings in London or this year’s Heathrow bomb plot scare gave him one of those "rally around the leader" bounces that have served Bush so well. And Blair’s insistence that Britain’s eager participation in the rape of Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with the rise in Islamic extremism struck most people as either a cynical sham or evidence of his growing disconnection from reality.
Meanwhile, the Tories, after years of internal strife and a series of leaders who combined the charisma of Michael Dukakis with the savvy of Dan Quayle, finally emerged from the wilderness with a new leader — ironically, a virtual clone of the young Blair: David Cameron, a bland, vague, TV-friendly Eton-Cambridge toff repackaged as a "regular guy," a man of the people (the middle-class people, of course). Too young to be associated with the hated Thatcher years, and quick to steal the trappings of Blair’s own technocratic centrism, Cameron made Conservatives seem safe — and potentially electable — again. His emergence accelerated Labour’s long, slow slide in the polls, until last week’s panic point was reached, triggering the rebellion and Blair’s hastened departure.
2. The Fatal Flaw
But did it have to end this way? Did it have to end at all? Without Iraq, it is likely that Blair would now be contemplating the possibility of a fourth term, or else turning over the keys of a sleek, purring political machine to Brown in 2010 for yet another resounding Labour victory. Instead, the most successful political leader of his generation — not just in Britain, but in the world — now has an approval rating in Richard Nixon territory, deeply distrusted by almost 80 percent of the electorate. Charges of sleaze, corruption and rampant cronyism that once ricocheted harmlessly off Blair’s designer threads now cling and fester with a growing stench.
All of this trouble stems from Iraq. But in Blair’s case, "Iraq" covers a multitude of sins; it stands for the whole range of complicities and humiliations that comprise his relationship to Bush in the "War on Terror" — a stance that Blair likes to call "standing shoulder to shoulder with America" but which might be described more accurately as "tagging along behind on a tight leash." There has been virtually no action Bush has taken under the rubric of his Terror War that Blair has not supported — either with his full-throated assent, as in the Iraq invasion, the gutting of civil liberties, the wild fearmongering, and the cold-blooded refusal to intervene or even criticize Israel’s brutal pulverization of Lebanon, or else by significant silence, as with the use of Britain’s airfields for Bush’s gulag renditions, or the secret CIA prisons dotted around Europe, or Bush’s embrace of torture.
So wedded is Blair to Bush’s policies that he’s now led his country into what many say is rapidly becoming Britain’s Vietnam — not the Iraqi quagmire, which is increasingly regarded in the UK as irretrievable failure, but the "good war" in Afghanistan, where Blair has hurled an underprepared, undermanned expeditionary force into the violent chaos spawned by Bush’s callous neglect of the broken country in favor of his Iraq adventure.
The new British force, part of a NATO effort to make up for paucity of American troops, was told it would be helping reconstruction efforts, winning "hearts and minds" with the kind of practical, hands-on aid that the Americans have largely ignored in favor of blunderbuss military strikes on suspected terrorists and running secret CIA prisons in hunkered-down fortresses. Instead, the Brits have run into full-blown combat — the "most intensive fighting the UK military has seen since the Korean War," said one commander — with the resurgent Taliban. They have also been saddled by the Americans with the thankless job of eradicating the opium crops — the sole livelihood for most rural Afghans. But thanks to the lack of American financial support — some 70 percent of which never benefits the locals but is instead "contingent upon the recipient spending it on American stuff, including especially American-made armaments, " as Ann Jones notes in a devastating report in the San Francisco Chronicle — there is nothing to offer the Afghan farmers in exchange for giving up the poppy, except a life of grinding poverty.
British forces have lost 27 men in Afghanistan in the last six weeks — almost a quarter of the total 117 lost during three years in Iraq. Soldiers report a lack of ammunition, armor and air cover. At times the Taliban has been able to keep British outposts under siege for days. A top aide to the commander of the UK forces in the pivotal Helmand province has resigned from the army, citing the "pointless" and "grotesquely clumsy" policy that is "just making things worse," The Times reports. "We said we’d be different from the Americans who were bombing and strafing villages, then behaved exactly like them," said Capt. Leo Docherty of the Scots Guards. "All those people whose homes have been destroyed and sons killed are going to turn against the British. It’s a pretty clear equation — if people are losing homes and poppy fields, they will go and fight. I certainly would."
Docherty’s assessment was confirmed last week in a damning report by Senlis, a thinktank funded by international charities. "Prioritizing military-based security, the United States’ and United Kingdom’s focus on counter terrorism initiatives and militaristic responses to Afghanistan’s opium crisis has undermined the local and international development community’s ability to respond to Afghanistan’s many poverty-related challenges," the organization said. ""By focusing aid funds away from development and poverty relief, failed counter-narcotics policies have hijacked the international community’s nation-building efforts .the [US-UK] poppy eradication policies are fuelling violence and insecurity."
In London, controversies flare over charges of "deliberate deception" by the Blair government over the true nature of the mission — or else its incredible incompetence in not realizing the true situation on the ground before going in. The echoes of Iraq could not be clearer. And here we come back to square one. Blair’s witting complicity in the Bush Faction’s secret campaign to manipulate America and Britain into an unnecessary war of aggression against Iraq — fully documented by the Downing Street Memos, the smoking guns of the Anglo-American conspiracy for war — is at the heart of his loss of credibility and authority in Britain. These lies — and most Britons are quicker than the majority of Americans to call the Bush-Blair deceptions by their true name — have been the engine of his self-destruction.
But Blair’s tragic flaw was evident from his first days in office. He has always been eager for Britain to retain a leading role in world affairs, despite the shrivelling of its empire. "Punching above our weight," he likes to call it: an apt phrase, for to Blair, national greatness is obviously synonymous with military action — one of the traits he shares with Bush, along with an unshakeable belief in his own righteousness as a fervent Christian. Britain’s military forces have been in action somewhere around the world throughout Blair’s tenure: Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and, most notably, against Serbia, in that other American-led coalition that unilaterally attacked a nation without UN Security Council sanction.
Like Bush, Blair is a man in love with war — or rather, with the idea of war, for he, like Bush, has never seen combat. The idea that greatness can be measured in blood and iron — that one can somehow prove one’s manhood and historical standing by sending other people to kill and die — is the tragic flaw that has drawn Blair to America’s wars like a moth to flame.
He could have been remembered as the man who saved his nation from the brutal social ravages of Margaret Thatcher’s soulless, hard-right extremism. Instead he will be known forever as the lying lapdog of George W. Bush. Tragedy is a harsh taskmaster indeed.