Monday 3 February 2003

Beginning of the end

The US is ignoring an important lesson from history - that an empire cannot survive on brute force alone

Fetch Tony Fetch.... Good boy.... There are plenty of things to keep Tony Blair awake at night these days, as his grey, haggard features after last week's diplo-marathon indicated. In his nightmares of the Pentagon cooking up new hare-brained schemes and dirty bombs on the underground, a new anxiety must have begun to niggle - those domestic commentators who have started being so horribly nice to him. He's a "great statesman" now, one of the "greatest prime ministers"; it's when things are getting really bad - you're dying, for instance - that people start being this nice.

People are beginning to feel sorry for Blair - they don't buy his arguments on the necessity of war with Iraq, but they increasingly appreciate the enormous difficulty of his position. A pivotal moment in post-second world war British foreign policy has fallen to his watch. He has a fiendishly tricky hand to play in the global bid to contain two erratic, angry men, both of whom control quantities of lethal weapons and both of whom are making a mockery of the UN and any concept of international law - the one by flouting its repeated injunctions, and the other by bullying it with bribes and threats.

But even allowing for Blair having a terrible hand, is he playing it well? The fallout from Blair's high-stakes backing of Bush is apparent on every side: internationally, we've lost weight as the fully paid-up US sergeant incapable of independent action; domestically, Blair's personal ratings fall as the delicate compromises which hitched the Labour movement to the Third Way disintegrate (why are some unpopular measures, such as going to war with Iraq, undertaken in the teeth of domestic opposition, and not others, such as higher taxation, ask the Labour faithful?).

It seemed like it couldn't get worse - and then it did with last week's billet-doux to Uncle Sam. There is no fatted calf Blair won't sacrifice for Bush - not even European unity. He opted for the petty snub to France and Germany rather than the one chance of effectively containing George Bush through a strong unified Europe: that was the only hope, and Blair's blown it in the company of dodgy cronies such as Silvio Berlusconi. Now America can smugly sit back while "American Europe" and "Old Europe" bicker: what kind of achievement is that for Blair, the European? Set against these failures, all that Blair has to show for his pains is a pitiful exercise of UN window-dressing to decorate American belligerence with claimed international legitimacy.

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