John Rentoul: Why chase Blair up to the chopper on the roof? Just be glad that Rumsfeld has gone

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The Independent Online

Can you hear the rotor blades of the last helicopter waiting on the roof? No, I know, but let us pretend, anyway. Rumble, whirr. The Republicans did badly in the midterm elections last week: there is a chopper on the roof of Saddam's palace, which houses US embassy staff in Baghdad. There is another on the roof of Downing Street, with Assistant Commissioner John Yates in the unlikely role of the Vietcong at the front door. And there is another on the roof of the White House. Donald Rumsfeld is already aboard. George Bush is climbing over the wreckage of his historical reputation, reaching out towards the undercarriage. Rumble, whirr.

Meanwhile, back in the real world. The Republicans did badly in the midterm elections last week, as the party that holds the White House often does. Nothing like as badly as the Democrats did in 1994, though, when Newt Gingrich's Republicans gained 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate, winning both houses of Congress and galvanising a torpid Bill Clinton into saving his presidency. In fact, considering the way in which the media served the Democrats' purposes by portraying last week's elections as a referendum on Iraq, the Republicans did surprisingly well.

What is more, Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House of Representatives, supported the invasion of Iraq. As did Hillary Clinton, the front runner for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. As did Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut senator re-elected as an independent after losing the Democratic nomination to Ned Lamont, who ran on an anti-war, troops-out ticket. Lamont should have known his campaign was doomed when he received a letter of support from his namesake Norman, the British former chancellor of the exchequer, who also opposed the war. Some referendum.

From the way the midterms were reported, here and in America, new readers might be forgiven for not knowing that, long after the Iraq occupation had gone badly wrong, Bush was re-elected in 2004 and Blair last year. For some opponents of the war, such as Henry Porter of The Observer, those elections produced the wrong results - in our case because of Blair's "mysterious hold over the British electorate". Hence last week's fantasy re-run. And hence the assumption that Blair ought to be punished vicariously by the voters of Virginia - and therefore was.

The other big real-world event last week was the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld as US Secretary of Defense. That was an important lurch in the right direction - for Iraq, America, the world and, on a smaller scale, for President Bush's historical reputation. As a footnote it might also, therefore, produce a tiny dividend payable into Tony Blair's account at the bank of posterity. But that does not fit the narrative. There are two great stories in modern journalism. One is Watergate. The other is the Fall of Saigon. Whenever we need a ready-made context to make sense of complex politics, we, in Britain perhaps more than in America, reach for one or the other. Last week it was Saigon.

The narrative requires Bush to be humiliated by the verdict of the American voters and forced into chaotic retreat. For the British media, some of that humiliation needs to spread across the Atlantic to force Blair upstairs towards the roof. Rumble, whirr.

This is all a rather pointless exercise, given that Blair said two years ago that he would be going. When journalists describe his pre-announced departure as a terrible mistake, what they mean is, "How dare he decide when he is going? That is our prerogative. We've seen Dustin Hoffman in All the President's Men." That is why there are still so many people so keen to hurry Blair out of office before he wants to go. There is still time to claim a futile scalp. Hence the note of desperation in the air as the conspiracists redouble their efforts to prove that Blair lied. "We think we know that Blair manipulated the situation, but we still don't have the evidence," as Porter plaintively put it, after four inquiries that produced unprecedented documentary material and a stubbornly consistent "not guilty" verdict.

Not only is this pointless, it leads to misinterpretation. In the real world, the ditching of Rumsfeld helps Blair. For six years, the Prime Minister has been chained to President Bush. He chose to do it, because he believed it was in the national interest, but it has made life difficult for him. For all that time, Bush has in turn been tied to Rumsfeld, who takes responsibility for two of the worst misjudgements in Iraq.

First, he refused to deploy enough troops to make the country secure after the invasion. For a while, Rumsfeld's vindication in his argument with Colin Powell over the numbers required to defeat the Iraqi army - a quite different matter - concealed his error. For that while, Rumsfeld used to lead his staff in ironic chants, as another New York Times editorial was brought to him, warning of Iraq becoming ... "a quag-mire!"

Secondly, he bore heavy responsibility for allowing subordinates to think torture was justified and thus helping to ensure that a culture of abuse spread from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib.

But now Rumsfeld is gone. And he will be replaced by Bob Gates, who until Wednesday was a member of James Baker's Iraq Study Group - the only serious effort anywhere to devise the alternative strategy for Iraq that everyone says they want and that nobody can describe.

If Blair is to be hated for his solidarity with the President when George Bush does the wrong things, surely he should be hated less when Bush does the right thing? Well, no, I know that is not how the media-political dialectic works. But it is possible that, in time and as the thunder of imaginary rotor blades recedes, a more balanced view of last week might emerge.

Rumble, whirr: George Bush is the "worst president ever". Well, they said that about Harry Truman. I am not saying that Bush has been a good president. Far from it. But Truman is regarded rather differently now, as the architect of the institutions (the Marshall Plan, Nato, the UN) that made eventual victory in the cold war possible.

So pay no attention to the pre-cooked verdict of last week's "referendum on Iraq" in America. What really happened is that George Bush belatedly took an important step in the direction of making the situation in the Middle East better rather than worse. Tony Blair cannot be comfortable about the verdict of history, but he is not heading for the roof.