The harsh truth about spreading freedom

How is it that the pursuit of an unpopular war should have become a marginal issue in an upcoming election
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One can't help feeling that the Conservative Party may be peaking a little early. Last week, it was a promise of slashed taxes (in actual fact, a piddling £4bn). This week, it's a crackdown on asylum-seekers (or the promise, at least, that given the chance they'll bring this matter up, politely, with the international powers-that-be).

One can't help feeling that the Conservative Party may be peaking a little early. Last week, it was a promise of slashed taxes (in actual fact, a piddling £4bn). This week, it's a crackdown on asylum-seekers (or the promise, at least, that given the chance they'll bring this matter up, politely, with the international powers-that-be).

There are about 14 weeks still to go until the next election (we assume, since nobody's bothered to confirm 5 May for us), and already the Tories have fired off their biggest guns. What weapons will next be deployed in their mighty battle against social justice? And do they realise how monumentally tired and elderly their campaign is already sounding?

Or is this Conservative strategy? Are the Tories contriving to appear such a gnat-like non-threat to the Labour hegemony that come election day, heartland Labour voters will feel relaxed about registering a protest vote? Already Labour knows that the only thing between them and another landslide is a possible feeling among voters that they can afford to teach Tony Blair a lesson by voting Lib Dem, Green, socialist ... Do the Tories understand, too, that only by encouraging this notion can they hope to erode Labour"s majority?

Of course they don't. If they could make that strategy work, they wouldn't have to, since they would be able to muster enough intellectual capacity to knock together a credible alternative for real. Instead, by parading the same old rhetoric that Labour nicked off them years ago, the Conservatives are simply confirming that they remain lost in the political wilderness.

Especially as no protest-voter is going to plump for the Tories. Not a single aspect of Blair's domestic governance has so far had consequences that inspire a widespread desire to end his experiment. The prisons are overflowing, the schools and the health service are still in a fairly parlous state, public-private finance is a ticking time-bomb, the economy still creates and increases inequality, state pensions are in a mess, public transport goes from bad to worse and the housing market is a nightmare.

Yet people continue to be willing to accept that sorting out the chaos made by two decades of Thatcherism can only be done slowly, and that domestic progress towards social justice is being made. It is Blair's international terror policy, his wilful and arrogant pursuit of his "shoulder-to-shoulder" support of Bush, the consequences it has so far had for the British judicial system, and his failure to face his mistakes honestly, that ignites the resentment of the Labour-voting classes (especially, according to one poll, the middle-class ones).

There was a point at which Blair believed that his premiership was threatened by his prosecution of the war. But since Bush won his won re-election, Blair has become visibly less worried by the effect the war might have on his securing a third term. The Tories, anyway, can't make any capital out of it, since they supported him all the way to inconclusive, gut-wrenching, stalemate. Blair again has decided, it is plain, to take his lead from Bush, and stick with grand and non-specific statements of utopian idealism in tacit explanation of the war.

"The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world," announced Bush in his inauguration speech. Who in their right minds would disagree with that? The trouble is that many people believed from the start that attacking Iraq was not the best way of prosecuting that ambition. Since Bush didn't actually mention Iraq in his speech at all, one can only assume that he no longer considers the invasion to be an example of best practice himself.

There are other signs that lessons may have been learned, if not acknowledged, primarily Condoleezza Rice's promise that the US will be setting greater store by diplomacy in future. Certainly, if there was any hope at all that Iraq could still be turned into a propaganda coup, then US and British politicians wouldn't be so unwilling to attract attention eastwards right now.

As Iraq itself faces the final days before its first election in 40 years, one can only hope against hope that the act of taking part in a mass vote proves a catalyst for some kind of decisive and positive paradigm shift. About 60 per cent of Iraqis say they intend to vote on Sunday, even though terrorists are threatening all kinds of mayhem to be directed against those who support what Abu Musab al-Zarqawi calls "this evil principle of democracy".

It's such an alien concept to Westerners, this one of al-Zarqawi's, which suggests that democracy is an "evil principle" (even though it is not such a while since Voltaire himself was describing it as "the rule of the rat"), that it is hard to know how to begin to refute it. Yet suggesting that the war itself has inflamed this sort of nihilistic rhetoric is an invitation for the supporters of the war to start yelling again about "appeasing theocratic fascism".

What's sad, I think, is that there is so little political will to examine the invasion of Iraq and try to learn from it. Parliamentary debate around the subject has been minimal, which itself is hardly a vote of confidence for the democratic process that Blair says he wants to spread around the world. Journalistic debate continues to be entrenched, with pro- and anti-war types remaining as intractably opposed to each other as Shia and Sunni Muslims. Ultimately, though, this debate is simply about whether to do something or whether to do nothing, rather than whether to do something or something else.

One great regret now, surely as far as the Middle East is concerned, is that such a stirring of ill-will has been fomented just at a time when there is an opportunity for a new beginning in Palestine, the Arab country which has already embraced democracy more sincerely and overwhelmingly than anywhere else.

It is a certainty that without his slavish devotion to Bush and his agenda, Blair's own instinct would have been to attempt to push for an Israeli-Palestine settlement. This, after all, was what his insistence that once Iraq had been liberated the road map would be pursued was all about.

But another great regret is that already, in the recent wake of the 11 September atrocities, Western interest in foreign affairs is so firmly on the wane. How is it that in just two years, the pursuit of an unpopular war justified on a false prospectus should have become a marginal issue in an upcoming election?

The answer is because our own tired democratic process has allowed it to. The Tories have been a pathetic opposition in all sorts of ways. But their ability to offer a critical challenge to the war has been appalling. Likewise, the Lib Dems have made a poor fist of the debate, failing themselves to come up with an alternative vision of what a post-11 September policy in the Middle East might be.

But most of all, Blair himself seems to have tired of his foreign adventures. Perhaps the immediate, heroic results he was seeking have not been forthcoming. Perhaps he has wised-up, and realised that exporting freedom is harder than he thought. Perhaps, belatedly, he has realised that his chancellor has better ideas about it than the US president. It would be splendid to discover that, instead of broken promises and thwarted ambition, the rift between the two men - which would be so damaging were Labour not so unassailable - was over something that actually mattered. Why does that sound like such a fantasy?