It was remarked of Gladstone that "he could convince most people of most things, and himself of almost anything". Does that remind you of anyone ? I have no doubt that Tony Blair believes what he is saying. He could not carry the burden of Iraq and other foreign policy failures if he did not. For conviction politicians there has to be an ability to shut out that which does not conform to the ideology or the goals that one has laid down.
But in a mature democracy, the Prime Minister's self-belief and conviction are not enough. I could not help thinking that as I watched him deliver his major foreign policy speech in California on Tuesday. There was the usual brilliant rhetoric' the motherhood and apple pie remarks dressed up as wisdom and insight' and the impassioned commitment to a new strategy without a single new or original policy to achieve it. There was also the continuing evidence that Blair remains in denial. Iraq is combined, by him, with Afghanistan and 9/11 as fundamental to the war on Islamic terrorism. Blair won't or can't accept it was his and Bush's invasion of Iraq that has destroyed that state and made it fertile ground for al-Qa'-ida and other Islamic terrorists.
Likewise, he lumps together all terrorism in Muslim states as if they can all be explained as a single worldwide plot masterminded by Osama bin Laden. The reality is very different. Chechnya is not a battle between the forces of darkness and of light' it is a war between Russian nationalists and Chechen nationalists. Kashmir is not part of a single worldwide war on terror, but a conflict between India and Pakistan that has been going on since the 1940s.
These are not just debating points. They go to the heart of why Blair and Bush have presided over a foreign policy that has been the most disastrous of modern times, Vietnam and Suez included. These matters are directly relevant to the current agony of Lebanon and where we should go from here.
At long last, and as a result of the Lebanon crisis, the British Cabinet is awakening from its torpor and considering whether it should assert itself. Everyone knows that Britain's involvement in the Iraq war would not have happened but for Blair's total determination. The rest of the Cabinet were lukewarm at best, and most were appalled. But, with the exception of Robin Cook, they acquiesced with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Look at the contrast today. Jack Straw publicly disassociates himself with the policy. David Miliband and Hilary Benn allow their reservations to become known. Even Margaret Beckett, appointed to be Blair's echo, presses for a commitment to an immediate ceasefire and rebukes the Americans for the use of Prestwick to transit bombs to Israel. Such a cabinet revolt is much more important in Britain than in the US. America has a Presidential system where the Cabinet, except for the Vice-President, are appointed, not elected, officials. Bush can be outnumbered 10-1, but is constitutionally entitled to reject what is no more than the advice of his colleagues, including Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice.
Britain, however, remains a cabinet system despite regular appearances to the contrary. If Blair does not have the support of his Cabinet colleagues he is not entitled to pursue the policy. I can recall several occasions when Margaret Thatcher bowed to the views of her colleagues.
She sulked, she fumed, but she was a stickler for constitutional propriety. …