It is time for all these leaders to go

The entire company of supporters of the war in Iraq could be out of power within the next year
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The Independent Online

Looking along the list of western leaders assembling for the celebration - or should one call it "appropriation" - of the 60th anniversary of D-Day, two nagging thoughts occur. One is that no generation of western leaders has done so much to damage the transatlantic alliance since the war as this group. And the other is that the entire company of supporters of the war in Iraq which has brought those fractures about could be out of power within the next year.

Looking along the list of western leaders assembling for the celebration - or should one call it "appropriation" - of the 60th anniversary of D-Day, two nagging thoughts occur. One is that no generation of western leaders has done so much to damage the transatlantic alliance since the war as this group. And the other is that the entire company of supporters of the war in Iraq which has brought those fractures about could be out of power within the next year.

José Maria Aznar has already gone, of course. But not one of the rest has any longer a majority in the opinion polls. President Bush's ratings have slipped well below 50 per cent. So have Tony Blair's. Australia's John Howard, who is expected to go to the country in October or November, has been trailing in most of the recent opinion surveys. Silvio Berlusconi, who has the longest to go, has been fast losing support in the country. Even the Polish premier is in none too good a shape. Come this time next year we could be facing an entirely different line-up.

Iraq isn't the sole reason for this shift in sentiment, of course. Economic and social issues are cited as often, if not more often, in the polls and on the hustings. President Bush has suffered from persistent unemployment and rising budget deficits. The Australian opposition leader, Mark Latham, has concentrated on social issues as the main point of his attack. Aznar fell because of a gross error of judgement in responding to the Madrid bombings. Without that error he might well still be in power.

But nonetheless the war could be said to be the one common factor, and the most damaging one, in the decline in the political fortunes of all these men. The importance of events, as everyone who covers the markets knows, lies in the timing. It's not the terrorism in Saudi Arabia itself that has caused the oil market to shudder; it is that it comes at a period when the system is already over-strained as a resulting of soaring import demand. Saudi Arabia's violence shows up the inherent market weaknesses; it didn't create them.

In the same way, Iraq can be said to have illuminated the concerns voters already had about the competence or effectiveness of their governments. And its effect has been made all the sharper by the fact that the Iraq invasion, almost uniquely in modern times, is seen almost everywhere as the personal decision of the premiers concerned.

Of course there have been those - and a substantial body, numbering as much as 30 per cent or more of the electorate in most countries of Europe - who opposed the war from the start and who cannot forgive the leaders who took them to it. For them it was an outrage to all the rules of international behaviour and morality, and it is a failing of both George Bush and Tony Blair to misunderstand the depth and anger of the opposition they have aroused. It cannot be subject to a calming appeal of "let's agree our differences and move on top other matters". It was too great, too unpalatable, an act for that.

But for others, and those in the all-important middle ground, it has been the year since the invasion which has steadily undermined their belief in the judgement of their leaders, largely because it has shown up their inherent weaknesses. President Bush's limitations were always seen as an ignorance of the world at large, an excessive reliance on Dick Cheney, his Vice-President, and the neo-cons for his policy parameters, and a strong religious belief for his decision-making. Iraq has exposed all three. He didn't understand Iraq in its own terms. He gave too much freedom for action to the Defence Department and the neo-cons. And he followed an instinct that saw life too simplistically in terms of black and white.

Tony Blair's weaknesses have been different. He has shared Bush's sense of righteousness, but his chief failing has been a tendency to believe that the enunciation of ideals is sufficient unto itself. He makes decisions on the day, but without a sense of the consequences. So it has proved in Iraq, leaving the public feeling not just misled, but made partners in an enterprise whose commander didn't actually know what he was getting into.

As for José Maria Aznar, John Howard and Silvio Berlusconi, these have always been the bantam cocks of politics, politicians eager to strut on the stage of world affairs and to achieve an influence above the natural standing of their countries. As with so much of politics, they confused profile with power. And in that sense Iraq can be seen as a judgement on the folly of their pretensions.

But Iraq has also acted to intensify a political trend that has becoming increasingly apparent in the last decade: the tendency for electorates to move en masse to remove governments or leaders whom they regard as tired, or past their best. One saw it in the Indian elections. The Congress Party won the overall vote, but in the states where they had been in power for some time they lost seats. The same has been true of a succession of recent European elections in France, Scandinavia and elsewhere. The old analysis in terms of swings to the left or right has been replaced by a new order of "remove the incumbent".

The problem for the present line-up of leaders is that all of them look as if they have been in their jobs too long, and none of them look as if they have anything to offer for the future. And that, in a way, applies as much to those who opposed the war as to those who supported it. Both Chirac and Schröder used the war for their own purposes: Chirac to set up France as an alternative power to America, Schröder as a vote-winner amongst his domestic audience. But neither has been able to elaborate the kind of alternative vision of international relations which the demonstrators against the war have so desperately wanted.

That does not mean all of them will lose power in the coming year or so. Any self-respecting journalist should know better than to predict the results of elections these days. But it is to say that, of the present generation of political leaders, none have the support of their electorates in the ratings.

And it is to say something more than this. It is time for them to go. Not as punishment for past misdeeds. But because the world cannot move on so long as they are in power. Iraq has not just corroded their standing but also made it impossible for them ever to come clean with their electorates. Whatever happens in the Middle East they are condemned to keep justifying judgements which their public no longer have faith in.

Over the past decade there has been a growing assumption that the public were no longer interested in politics because it didn't make any difference which side took office; it has been really refreshing to see polling results that have made a real difference. Well look at Spain, or India for that matter, to see just how wrong that is. Spain has now got its troops out of Iraq, and what is more has revolutionised the discussions on the European constitution. India's election results were a complete surprise to the pollsters and to the political establishment in Delhi. Even with the confusions of whether Sonia Gandhi would take office or not, the sense of new beginnings is palpable.

Some of those attending Saturday's celebrations in Normandy may manage to survive. But the world would be a better place if they didn't.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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