Betrayed

 

The British Playwright David Hare used to have an instinctive sympathy for

politicians, particularly Labour politicians. The war on Iraq changed that. Now

it is impossible to imagine any US policy that Britain would not support - and

so the government has become irrelevant to the people

 

Monday June 23, 2003

The Guardian

 

"When I try to understand what's going on every morning, I tell myself there's

been a military coup." - American diplomat

 

One of my favourite literary jokes of the past 20 years was made when a

well-known novelist, hitherto apolitical, announced that the recent birth of his

first baby had convinced him that he could not tolerate living in a world that

contained nuclear weapons. The critic Adam Mars-Jones responded by noting that

he had heard many powerful and convincing arguments both for and against the

bomb, but that his final judgment on the question was unlikely to be swayed by

the fact that Martin Amis had recently become a father.

 

The same potential for epic self-importance attends all those of us who have

found the last period of international conflict among the most seriously

disillusioning of our lives. We risk making fools of ourselves. Frankly, you may

ask, who cares? It would, after all, be a rare idiot who had followed the

direction of our last two governments and imagined that their leaders gave a

hoot, private or public, for the thoughts and feelings of those who had argued

or even campaigned for their election.

 

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown claim, in their rhetoric, not to be victims of the

traditional deformities of the left. But, curiously, for all their talk of

breaking the bonds of the past, they have both inherited one of the left's most

disabling characteristics. They continue to show much more vigour when finding

fault with their friends than they do when giving stick to their enemies. Any

plain citizen - anyone, in fact, ruled rather than ruling - would have to be

blind with conceit not to notice that the Blair-Brown project has motored

forwards on a powerful fuel made up of two-parts admiration for the opposition

mixed with three-parts contempt for their own supporters.

 

What does it matter, then, if those of us who have always believed in social

democracy now find ourselves seized by a unique, impotent sense of shame at the

collusion of a British government in a manifestly cooked-up invasion of a

foreign country? When, 10 weeks ago, I wrote in these pages about an illegal

occupation which was predicated on at least five principal untruths - 1) That

Iraq represented a threat to the United States; 2) That it presented a current

or increased threat to its neighbours; 3) That it had developed nuclear weapons;

4) That it was linked in any way to al-Qaida and to the devastation of September

11; and 5) That Hans Blix was being fooled, through his own ingenuousness, in

what turned out, in reality, to be his scrupulous and thorough searches for

chemical weapons - then I was properly rebuked by correspondents asking why I

was so ready to press the case against the US, and yet had, apparently, not a

word of blame for my own government. It was a fair question. It was also hard to

reply.

 

My fault, but alongside an apparently small minority of my fellow countrymen, I

have always been instinctively sympathetic to domestic politicians. It had long

seemed to me that many of them, and most obviously those in leftwing parties,

were people willing to take on problems which most of us find easier to leave

alone. My experience in 1993 of being given access to watch Neil Kinnock at

close quarters throughout his doomed attempt to become prime minister left me

markedly intolerant of people who love to declare that anyone standing for

election must necessarily be a fool or a crook. It seemed even sillier, as Fleet

Street does, to seek first to elevate individual politicians and then, through

an inevitable cycle of attrition and fatigue - a kind of boring media war -

always to consign them to a place where they are deemed no longer worthy of the

journalistic community's high standards.

 

My own belief in the difficulty and desirability of democratic politics was

hardly based on a utopian view of what might be achieved. Just as important, I

could reluctantly see that most western societies were made up of people and

interest groups who wanted very different things. They could not all be

satisfied at the same time. Whereas most of us could airily wave a

leader-writer's hand and proclaim, "This should be done - and then this,"

without actually having to follow through the practical implications of what we

urged, politicians were the poor mugs who were allocated the job of reconciling

the irreconcilable. In our own lives, most of us habitually equivocated, elided,

jumped logic, changed our minds and generally faffed about on the margins of

conviction. But it was only politicians whose profession obliged them to be held

to account for these particular offences.

 

When I heard some stray minister being roasted in parliament for a chance remark

he had unwittingly made five years previously, I would wince in sympathy and

think how few of my own utterances would survive this kind of examination. If

politicians dodged, weaved and buckled language to a point where it screamed for

mercy ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman"), then it was, in part,

because their trade committed them to higher levels of scrupulousness than the

rest of us. They were under scrutiny. A lot of us aren't. Watching all the

hallmark sweating and wriggling of the professional pol, I was usually persuaded

of Fawn Brodie's famous pronouncement: "There's a little bit of Richard Nixon in

all of us." Only on occasions did I tend instead towards John Kenneth

Galbraith's equally memorable riposte: "I say, the hell there is."

 

It is difficult, therefore, for someone of my temperament to accept that my own

feelings about politicians have become worse than irrelevant. They have become

worthless. Why? Because local politicians are, definitively, no longer speaking

to me. The important dialogue in Britain is no longer carried on between the

governors and the governed, but is maintained in another direction entirely:

neither up nor down, but east-west, between the colony and the imperial capital.

The charge has been made - as though it were the most damning possible - that

Britain and America decided to annexe Iraq and then afterwards search for any

random justification, however implausible, which they could find to decorate

their intentions. (Paul Wolfowitz's own words plainly bear that meaning, and

Clare Short is telling us the same). But far more troubling, at least to those

of us who imagine that some sort of national conversation still goes on, is the

knowledge that it is now impossible to imagine any American foreign policy,

however irrational, however dangerous, however illegal, with which our present

prime minister would not declare himself publicly delighted and thrilled.

 

These are, it is clear, frightening times. A revolutionary doctrine of the

pre-emptive strike has been introduced into international relations, but its use

is to be the privilege of one country alone, on no other grounds than that this

particular country is so powerful as to be beyond sanction. The UN, which was

established, in Samantha Power's words, "specifically to end the days of

military intervention dressed up as humanitarianism", has been pushed brutally

to the side. From now on, America will do what it damn well pleases, but the

messy business of explaining and justifying will be left largely to the junior

partner. Harold Wilson is held in history to be the most untrustworthy and wily

practitioner of the black arts of politics, yet even he managed the principled

feat of remaining allied to Lyndon Johnson without uselessly killing British

soldiers in a similarly doubtful venture. If, as Stanley Kubrick claimed, large

states often behave like gangsters while small states often behave like

prostitutes, then we may at least console ourselves that we have descended to a

point where we are more whore than racketeer. But the sum effect is to leave us

in a world where no one will listen to us. They know we have voluntarily

surrendered our wish for an independent voice in foreign affairs. Worse, we have

surrendered it to a country which is actively seeking to undermine international

organisations and international law. Lacking the gun, we are to be only the

mouth. The deal is this: America provides the firepower; we provide the

bullshit.

 

The easy thing, of course, in response to this fait accompli, is to hand all

discourse back to the cynics and to say that the deeply impressive massed ranks

of two million voters in February indeed represented, as the Labour government

hoped, nothing but a walk in the park. As the Americans lie back on their Roman

pillows and toy insincerely with a laughable road map for the Middle East which

is touted, among other things, as Blair's reward for his loyalty, and which, in

a world now pathologically distrustful of American intentions, has no

conceivable chance of success, the temptation is to throw our hands up and

declare that there is no alternative but for the rest of us to join our

short-sleeved cousins lolling in the bleachers. We are to watch as innocent

people spin to their deaths, whether in Gaza, on the West Bank or in Tel Aviv.

The status quo of occupation and chaos in Afghanistan and Iraq, and of savage

butchery in the Palestinian territories and Israel is already acquiring a

disturbingly permanent look. Summer is coming, the weather is changing on the

Potomac and in the home counties, and you can feel, as our rulers reach for the

barbecue forks and the Chardonnay, as they gather forgivingly again for their

frotteurs' trade union meetings in Evian - "How lovely to see you, Mr Bush";

"No, how lovely to see you" - a growing confidence that although something

utterly dishonourable happened in public life earlier this year, there is no

reason that, like all dishonourable things, it should not soon be forgotten.

 

Well, there it is. Those of us who opposed the war from the start have won the

argument and lost all influence. Even if we are unwise, as I think we are, to

focus our vindication on the fruitless 96-day search for weapons of mass

destruction - the war was wrong, it was wrong regardless, because it was outside

the authority of the United Nations - nevertheless we are left at the end of it

all in the curious position of finding no satisfaction or purpose in our own

rightness. The policies are not going to change. We are going to be ignored. In

the aftermath of an invasion which is now recognised all over the world to have

been conceived, born and carried out in mendacity, we have, it seems, only one

obligation, and it is one which may one day even provide our shivering democracy

with a useful antibiotic. It is to set out and nail the remaining lies which the

belligerent are still trying to advance for their cover.

 

Of these, the most important and insidious is the idea, given much romantic

play, particularly in Europe, that Americans are, by nature, isolated from the

rest of the world and therefore charmingly incompetent at the exercise of

diplomacy. This seems to me the exact opposite of the truth. It may well have

been useful to the pursuit of recent US policy to pretend that there is still

some element of prairie innocence at large on Capitol Hill. Implicitly, the

question is put: "How can we homespun regular folk be expected to find our way

through these damned complicated international organisations?"

 

But the disastrous mistake, on our side of the argument, has been to indulge

this American exceptionalism for even one moment. Whatever the patronising

propaganda emanating from Downing Street - "Yes, the Americans are a bit crude,

but don't worry, we'll smooth things over" - there is nothing peculiar to the

American character which exempts it from the obligations of diplomacy. On the

contrary. For an administration which is widely held to be provincially ignorant

of the world, you may notice that it is doing remarkably well at getting its way

in it.

 

It may be perfect fun to crack our sides at the witty anti-war campaigner who

claims that "God invented war to teach the Americans geography." But we should

be aware that when we do so, we play straight into the war-makers' hands. It

suits them better than they can tell. They love it when we choose to assume that

they are rough and artless, even naive. The truth is, it isn't likely. The more

plausible interpretation is that they know exactly where they're going. When

Colin Powell walks out of the General Assembly in a snit because he believes a

Frenchman has been rude to him, it is not, as he would claim, because he has

tried very hard to be reasonable, but, dammit, there is a limit. It is because

he is deliberately using diplomatic incompetence as an excuse for the US to

thenceforward be licensed to do exactly as it chooses. If it wished, America

could perfectly well do as its critics advise and "grow up". It could easily

engage with the world's arguments against it. Why not? It wouldn't be hard. It

is, oddly, a mark of our own stupidity that we seem incapable of grasping the

point that the US does not engage for the simple reason that it does not want

to - any more than Bush wants to take notice of unthinking liberals who keep

advising him to "travel more".

 

The overriding offence of all of us in Europe, on whatever side of the argument,

has been to have peddled the notion that because Bush is inarticulate, he must

therefore be stupid. It is a peculiarly English snobbery and it is damaging.

Anyone who has read the high-wire Darwinism of Stephen Pinker would know that an

inability to competently handle language does not argue a lack of coherent

purpose or intention. We can laugh as much as we wish at slogans such as "The

moron's got a war on." We can even buy Private Eye and indulge its falsely

comforting view of a man who is too dumb to know how many beans make five. We

may, like Blair himself, elevate our own importance, and parlay our world role

by managing to imply that we are acting as a restraining influence on these

hopeless barbarians. (To a friend, who said he was grateful that Blair had been

in the room when some of the recent discussions had gone on in the White House,

the prime minister replied that only those who had been in the room could have

any idea just how wild some of those discussions had been.) But when we do so,

we miss the larger facts and we mistake our analysis. Consider. At the end of

the war, Bush has rising popularity, a cowed and craven media which has

abandoned all serious pretensions to investigation or even to basic reporting,

and a Democratic opposition which has been triumphantly blackmailed into

nervous, pseudo-patriotic silence. Meanwhile, he is raising money, hand over

fist, for his own coronation. Blair has falling popularity, the media on his

neck, and may never be trusted again. The Labour party, by report, is not

expanding. Which one clever? Which one stupid?

 

 

 

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