Magazine article The Spectator

Tony Blair Has Won in the Commons; Now His Fate Is in the Hands of the Generals

Magazine article The Spectator

Tony Blair Has Won in the Commons; Now His Fate Is in the Hands of the Generals

Article excerpt

For some reason Britain is always sunny on the outbreak of war. London basked under a heatwave in August 1914 as Asquith almost casually condemned Britain to four years of slaughter. It was the same in September 1939. This week has seen a succession of cloudless spring days. I suppose there is always the remote hope that something will intervene, but it looks all but certain that bombs will be falling on Baghdad by the time these words are read.

It is a new kind of war, corresponding to the latest manifestation of American imperialism. Old-style US conservatives, like Henry Kissinger, were pessimists. They worked with the world as they found it, merely seeking to mould intractable materials as best they could to US interests. The new generation, like Donald Rumsfeld, take a more radical approach. This involves deciding what kind of world they would like, then creating it afresh. Rumsfeld and George Bush intend - as the US President's `axis of evil' speech made clear - that war in Iraq will be followed by an attack on North Korea, then Iran, then a pause for thought.

This new strategic doctrine has smashed, in an incredibly short space of time, the structures of the postwar era. Nato is broken. The only hope for the UN, supposing that the invasion of Iraq is successful, is to convert itself into an uncomplaining instrument of the United States. The new US policy, with its disregard for international institutions, shaky legality and ostentatious exercise of naked power, amounts to a transformation in the conduct of world affairs. That is why it is being resisted by, among others, the architects of the last Gulf war: George Bush Sr, Jim Baker, John Major, Douglas Hurd and virtually all the British foreignpolicy establishment.

Paradoxically, this kind of wide-eyed, interventionist vision of US foreign policy, with its strong echoes of Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy, resonates with liberal internationalists. This is one important reason why it finds a cheerleader in Tony Blair. It helps to explain why he carries these days an air of radiant conviction: a characteristic which helped him sway his audience during Tuesday's debate in the House of Commons. During the debate the Conservative backbencher Andrew Mackay remarked that it was the most important day in his 26 years in the House of Commons. This was because it did not merely - like the Falklands - raise the curtain on war. It marked the passing of an age and ushered in a world system that is profoundly uncongenial to the great majority of Labour MPs.

This is why the key point about Tuesday night was not that Tony Blair won the vote. The essential fact was that he did so without the destruction of his hold over his party, the outcome that seemed all too likely last week. It would be wrong to diminish the importance of the fact that more than half the non-payroll vote opposed the government. Nor should the loss of one Cabinet minister, two junior ministers and a handful of parliamentary aides be too lightly dismissed. But the revolt did not come close to reaching that overwhelming point where the government's authority is fatally damaged.

Tony Blair was helped by the ineptitude of his opponents. On the Liberal Democrat benches Charles Kennedy has been given an extraordinary opportunity to lead the antiwar party: he lacks the moral weight to do so. He has been flimsy and opportunistic throughout. On Tuesday night Kennedy's foreign affairs spokesman, Menzies Campbell, who has been very ill, reappeared in the Commons, a glaring reminder that the Liberal Democrats simply cannot do without him. …

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