George & Tony's Not So Excellent Adventure
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.
"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, they can only hope for the future imperfect. Only when we are all dead will the genius of this war finally become clear.
In the meantime, the number of dead as a result of their actions continues to grow. According to a recent morgue report, sectarian fighting claimed 1,100 Iraqi lives in Baghdad alone in the month of April. Meanwhile, the death toll of US soldiers has returned to last year's highs--roughly three a day.
"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 nonetheless 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 particular foreign misadventure and domestic mishaps is not straightforward. In the United States the war has had an effect on gas prices, the wiretapping scandal and the indictment of Scooter Libby but has rarely emerged as the key issue itself. True, just as many Americans rank the war as the most important issue facing the country as prioritize the economy, immigration and terrorism put together. But that is still only 23 percent. For the rest, Iraq has become a signifier for leaders who do not listen, politicians who mislead and priorities that are out of kilter with the public need. When asked why Bush was getting little credit for economic growth, Karl Rove recently said, "I think it's because the war looms on all political actors."
What the war exposed in both countries was the democratic deficits that failed to check or balance the bellicose machismo of either leader. In Britain the dislocation between public will and foreign policy was blatant. In the United States the public barely got a look in. A supine press and spineless opposition insured that no alternative arguments or strategies would emerge into the mainstream until it was too late. Once they were forced into the open they found a receptive audience. The fact that these two men have fallen from grace so soon after having returned to power does not suggest that their electorates are fickle but that the democracies in which they live are deeply dysfunctional.