Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, May 14, 2005

How Blair backed a loser

New Statesman Leader (May 16 2005)

Another day in Iraq, another five bombs, another fifty dead. No doubt many Iraqis are celebrating newfound freedoms (see page 17), but there can be no celebrations for the dead, who may now exceed 100,000. Tony Blair's argument that, whatever the truth about Saddam Hussein's threat to western countries, it was "a good thing" to overthrow him looks, given the human cost, increasingly absurd, even heartless. But there was another argument for the war that the Prime Minister never used in public - though, given what we now know about how early he agreed with President Bush on an invasion, it must have been in the forefront of his mind. This was simply that it was in Britain's national interest to continue, even into an illegal war, what has long been its foreign policy: to maintain the "special relationship" and stay onside with America.

Even that argument, based on pure realpolitik, now seems wrong. Indeed, the greatest criticism of Mr Blair's Iraq policy is that he backed the wrong horse. A hard-headed decision to support the only superpower might be defensible; unfortunately for the Prime Minister, his ally, for which he sacrificed so much, now looks like a power that has passed its peak. This may seem a perverse judgement when the US still has military resources that exceed those of the next four greatest powers combined. But there are several reasons for believing that Iraq is a greater disaster for America than even Vietnam.

First, the Vietnamese were incomparably stronger than the Iraqi insurgents. They had outside help from a superpower (the then USSR), they had heavily armoured vehicles and they had a track record of successful guerrilla warfare in an ideal natural environment. The Iraqi insurgents enjoy none of these. Moreover, the US forces are better equipped and better prepared than their 1960s and 1970s counterparts. If this great military machine cannot win in Iraq, people may ask, where can it win? Moreover, while the "domino effect" in Asia (one state after another going communist) never looked very plausible, such an effect in the Muslim world looks all too likely. The difference is that this one is entirely of America's making. The probable outcome of the Iraq imbroglio is a Shia Islamic republic, similar to that in Iran, thus creating all sorts of possibilities for the export of Islamist revolution throughout the region. President Bush may have fatally upset the Middle East balance of power.

Second, the cost of the Iraq war looks calamitous for US finances. At the time of the invasion, the current account deficit was growing at the rate of $1.5 billion a day. Much of the money to finance it comes from east Asian governments and banks, particularly Japan and China, which now hold vast dollar reserves and more than a trillion dollars of US government securities. For now, the US has little to worry about, as Japan particularly feels that its prosperity and security depend on America. But that surely cannot continue indefinitely throughout a second "American century". As any tourist knows, the dollar has fallen steeply. Claims that there will never be a capital flight from America - and, even if there were, that US investors overseas would cure it by repatriating their own holdings (see, for example, the current issue of Foreign Affairs, house journal of the Washington foreign policy establishment) - are uncomfortably reminiscent of the claims that the dotcom bubble would never burst. The US risks losing its financial as well as its military hold on the world.

Third, the US has already lost perhaps its most important asset: its legitimacy. The secret of real power is that brute force hardly ever needs to be used openly - the cold war was won without US forces firing a shot - and, even when the iron hand is seen, it commands at least tacit consent from significant allies. In Iraq, the US managed to bring France, Germany, Russia and China into joint, open opposition. In any further attempt at imposing military solutions - in Iran, for example - the "coalition of the willing" is likely to be even smaller. As Michael Meacher wrote in the New Statesman last week, the growth of US militarism is prompting the emergence of a new power bloc of China, Russia, India and Brazil. The regimes governing the first two countries are hardly beacons of moral authority. But that is beside the point: as one commentator has put it, America itself is now so "radioactive" that nobody wants to stand beside it.

The history books rarely weigh justice, humanity and morality. They tend rather to consider the long-term geopolitical effects of statesmen's actions: did they choose the right alliances at the right time, and so on. On those grounds, the hand of history is not likely to be kind to Mr Blair. Perhaps his successor's record will look better.

Copyright New Statesman 1913 - 2005

Bill Totten


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