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 W. 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 British Prime Minister Tony Blair went to the polls with a similar message.
Both have since been as good as their word. Yet both now find themselves mired at dismal levels of public support. Blair has the lowest approval rating of any Labour premier on record. Bush similarly keeps plumbing new depths–currently standing at just over half the level Clinton enjoyed in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal. So 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 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 maneuver and over which they now have the least day-to-day control: Iraq. They sold different wars to different electorates. The Bush Administration responded to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington with a policy of pre-emptive strikes and "regime change" in which weapons of mass destruction were central but not crucial. Whereas Bush used the attacks as the pretext for this war, terrorists used this war as the pretext for attacking London. In his post-9/11 speech Blair promised to "re-order this world around us" but evoked Congo and Kyoto, not Iraq or Iran. Reflecting these differences, most Americans supported the war until last year; barring a brief period at the outset, most Britons never did.
But both got precisely what they wanted. Unchecked by opposition at home, unfettered by international law abroad, unpersuaded by argument at home and abroad, like Sinatra they did it their way. The electorates in both countries now seem to be convinced that "their way" was the wrong way. A Pew poll in March showed that half of Americans favor immediate troop withdrawal and less than a third approve of the way Bush is handling the war. In Britain a Newsnight poll revealed 60 percent consider the invasion of Iraq a mistake.
And so, since they have no one else to blame and find themselves out of credit at the Goodwill bank of public opinion, Bush and Blair 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 colonized people can be sustained only through barbarism. Certainly not the history in which Winston Churchill advocated gassing the Kurds and the US government continued to support Saddam as an ally after the Halabja massacres.
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.