Don't sneer at the simplicities of Bush and Blair - in the end they may be proved right

Blair is right that this is not Vietnam. Iraqis want elections and accept the US presence as a price for democracy
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Simple? Certainly. But wrong? That's much harder to answer. The Bush-Blair exposition of GCSE global politics last week was embarrassing enough. Particularly squirm-inducing was the President's explanation of how democracy works. "The great thing about democracy is you actually go out and ask the people for a vote, as you might have noticed recently."

Simple? Certainly. But wrong? That's much harder to answer. The Bush-Blair exposition of GCSE global politics last week was embarrassing enough. Particularly squirm-inducing was the President's explanation of how democracy works. "The great thing about democracy is you actually go out and ask the people for a vote, as you might have noticed recently."

More disturbing was George Bush's unwillingness to engage with the question of what would happen if the Palestinians choose someone as Yasser Arafat's successor who says that suicide bombers, if not a good idea, are at least a justifiable one. Tony Blair then got himself into a losing argument with Adam Boulton when he told Sky's political editor that Arafat's was "not a proper election" - as if Arafat would not have won any vote of Palestinians under almost any conditions.

Last night, the Prime Minister rephrased the Bush-Blair argument in language more suitable for a sophisticated audience in the City of London, but the essence of it remains embarrassingly simple. "Democracies don't go to war with each other," said President Bush at the White House. This truism of conflict analysis has been turned into a justification of muscular interventionism as the foreign policy of the United States.

As Blair said last week, only we thought he was just spinning, "the President said something here that is very, very important". He went on to marvel at how "a Republican President and a progressive politician from across the water" should be able to come together, and we sophisticates cringed when he explained that it was "because democracy is something that should unite us". But behind the platitudinous phrases, something quite profound is happening here.

I would argue that Blair is not merely engaged in opportunistic justification of his close relationship with Bush - although he certainly calculates that he cannot "go wobbly" on it now, to borrow Margaret Thatcher's famous (and unnecessary) injunction to Bush's father. He realises that Bush is a vote loser at home, yet clings ever more tightly to him, so that he at least wins grudging respect for his resolution (as Thatcher did for hers).

As Blair often says with a slightly wary smile, "it's worse than that - I actually believe in it". When he set out in his speech in Chicago in April 1999 the detailed case for military action against Slobodan Milosevic's regime to liberate Kosovo, without UN authority, no one accused him of parroting his support for a right-wing Republican doctrine. We British had hardly heard of neoconservatives then. Our main fear on Bush's election the following year was that the new US President would be a short-sighted isolationist.

Yet the Chicago speech did not bring forth an answering echo of idealism from the British left. Many Conservatives, embarrassed by their government's record of passivity in the face of ethnic cleansing in the Bal- kans, rose metaphorically to their feet. The Labour Party, on the whole, examined its shoelaces carefully, deeply conflicted by its pacific and humanitarian instincts.

As for Sierra Leone, we just did not get it at all. There was a long and confusing media turbulence over British mercenaries breaking UN sanctions with official connivance, which mostly ignored the fact that the British government was trying to restore the elected president against a bunch of murderous gangsters.

Then, out of the blue, literally, came the hijacked passenger jets heading for symbolic targets in the US. Suddenly, the neoconservatives, who argued that it was in America's interest, as well as right in principle, for the world's superpower to use its military and economic might to spread democracy around the world, had their chance. What is surprising, in retrospect, is that no one realised quite how much the views now in the ascendant in the White House had in common with what Blair had been arguing all along. But, in retrospect, we can now see that this confluence had two dramatic effects. One was to ensure that Britain would join the invasion of Iraq when it came. This was not because Blair did some kind of deal in a moment of madness at the President's ranch in Crawford in spring 2002. It was because the US, jolted by the shock of 11 September 2001, was suddenly wanting to do what Blair had wanted all along. The other effect was to ensure that Blair's support for the Iraq war would be intensely unpopular. I think Blair simply did not foresee how Bush would become such a hate figure, or how "neocon" would become a term of abuse, a substitute for engaging with the underlying argument.

The other thing which took Blair, and Bush, by surprise, as he admitted publicly last week, "is the degree to which these outside terrorists have come in and formed a coalition with the former Saddam people". Again, the Bush-Blair attempt to blame the chaos on "forn terrists" is irritating. It is true that when the anti-war crowd were wittering on about US forces having to fight for Baghdad street by street, a new Stalingrad, no one foresaw that, once successful, the occupiers would face this kind of insurgency. But that does not absolve Bush and Blair of responsibility for that mistake, or of the duty to be more honest now about the insurgency. It is scarcely credible that it is simply Sunni supremacists, or "Saddam hold-outs" plus al-Qa'ida sympathisers from other countries. It must surely contain a large element of radicalised Iraqi nationalism. Blair cites opinion polls carried out by the coalition but never published to support his assertion that the insurgents do not have popular support. But the opinion polls carried out for independent media companies show that they do have the support of a significant minority. More telling, an early poll found that Iraqis were evenly divided over whether the invasion was a national humiliation or a liberation. That is where the post-war problems lay and Bush is to blame for not ensuring that enough troops were sent to do the job.

Fundamentally, however, Blair is right that Iraq is not Vietnam. The people of Iraq want elections and most accept the US presence as a difficult price to pay for democracy. This is a post-Cold War war. Yet so many attitudes to it are stuck in old assumptions.

That is why it is wrong to sneer at Bush's simplicities, when he cited Japan and Germany after the Second World War as cases where some people thought it unrealistic to expect democracy to take hold. And that is why it is wrong to carp at Blair, when he cited the examples of the central European countries that have joined the European Union. Of course they are not like Iraq, but are Bush and Blair therefore wrong in principle? No. It is simply too easy to say that in an ideal world we would have gone straight from Afghanistan to Darfur, and left Iraq under the stable misery of Saddam Hussein.

Bush and Blair may be simplistic, but they are right.

j.rentoul@independent.co.uk

The writer is chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday'. Steve Richards is away

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