Steve Richards: Everything's different now - and suddenly supporters of the war are anti-American

Imagine the authority that Blair would have acquired if he had dared to oppose the invasion
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair is the other loser in the US midterm elections. Labour's record election winner is in the contorted position of being undermined by the electoral recovery of the Democrats. What a contrast from his beginning to his end: In his early days, Blair was influenced greatly by the electoral success of Bill Clinton and the Democrats. As he prepares to take a bow, he is tied to a confused Republican administration, as the Democrats flex their muscles once more.

Indeed, watching the electoral humiliation of the Bush regime from a British television screen was in itself a humiliating experience. Distinguished Democrats, anguished Republicans and informed commentators popped up to rage about the war. There were the clips of noisy supporters cheering Hillary Clinton and the new Speaker Nancy Pelosi as they declared that policies in Iraq must change. They were followed by weighty comments from respected pundits analysing the implosion of Iraq.

Britain did not get a mention, but it was there pathetically in the background, the most enthusiastic ally in the venture that has brought the Bush presidency to its knees and revived what should be the natural political allies of a Labour leader.

As I watched the succession of American protestations, I recalled the way opponents of the war in Britain were dismissed as anti-American. Robin Cook wrote an article at the time listing his American heroes, in an attempt to expose the insulting emptiness of the attack. The Americans are putting the case for him now. After this week's elections, it is the supporters of the war in Britain that are anti-American.

In the immediate aftermath of the foreign policy disaster it looked as if the pro-war leaders would get away with it. Bush won a second term. Blair won a third. But in the end no leader can survive calamitous foreign policies. Blair has been a much weaker leader since Iraq and is going earlier than he would have liked. Bush will struggle to make waves on any front after the midterm elections.

Imagine what pressure Blair would be under now in slightly different circumstances, with Bush weakened and Gordon Brown breathing down his neck. Oddly, Blair is the main beneficiary of the so-called "coup" against him in September. The shapeless, but numerically threatening, insurrection forced Blair to announce he would resign before next year's Labour conference. If he had not uttered those words, parts of the Labour Party would be in meltdown now.

Even the Bush regime has presented a political sacrifice in the form of Rumsfeld. The continuing chaos in Iraq, the persistent doubts about how Britain was taken to war and the US verdict on Iraq would have combined to make Blair's position untenable. If it had not been for the September rebels, he would have been forced out even sooner against his own volition.

In contrast, consider the authority Blair would have acquired if he had dared to take the riskier path in those difficult months in 2002 and 2003 and opposed the invasion. The Conservatives would be in even more disarray over foreign policy than they already are. The newspapers, having condemned him for weakness at the time, would be accepting they were wrong and he was right. He would be in an authoritative position to deal with the newly constrained Bush. There would have been no "September coup".

The Labour government would be in a stronger position, too. Instead, the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, was in the awkward position of stating yesterday that opponents of the war should recognise that, "we are where we are". Those who opposed the conflict warned we would be where we are. They need no lectures on the subject from those who promised a safer world and a gratefully liberated Iraq. The fallout from the war continues to infect what has always been a nervy, timid and insecure administration.

Blair was unlucky to deal with an incompetent and divided US administration at a time of new dangers, an element of the nightmare that is underestimated by those who conclude simplistically that he metamorphosed suddenly into a liar and a war criminal. His successor will be more fortunate.

So far, Gordon Brown has been getting conflicting advice from the coalition of support he seeks at the next general election. From the Rupert Murdoch wing, Brown is told he must not break with the US or Blair's foreign policies. The Sun endorsed Labour at the last election because of Blair's support for the war. Brown wants that endorsement next time.

On the progressive side of Brown's potential coalition, he is advised that the best way to break with the downside of the Blair era is to mark a distance with Bush and the neoconservatives in Washington. Probably Brown has spent many a long night calculating how to keep both sides of his big tent in place. Now the US voters have waved a wand on his behalf. From a British perspective, this is the most significant development of the midterm elections.

The conflicting advice to Brown is reconciled. Bush's new defence secretary, Robert Gates, is a throwback to an era in US foreign policy marked by caution. Gates has also been part of the Baker Commission reviewing options in Iraq. Bush did not appoint a commission to hail the status quo. There will be changes in Iraq, and Baker will arrive at the job without any misty-eyed misconceptions about the scale of the task. Bush will have no choice but to work also with Democrats who were elected partly because of their calls for a new approach to Iraq. Brown will have some space to work with the newly constrained Bush and, at the same time, mark a distance from the neoconservatism that retreats in the US.

In the few months left to him, Blair will do the same, working with the prevailing mood in Washington, whatever that mood happens to be. His limited short -term future will not be determined by any changes in US foreign policy, but British public opinion polls. Next May's elections are moving into view and Labour will want to avoid a humiliation that has afflicted the Republicans this week in the US.

But the threat posed by international terrorism, made much worse by Iraq, transcends the vain ambitions of individual leaders. The first generation of leaders to face the new threat failed to meet the challenge. Can the next generation do better?

As they contemplate their own futures, that is the overwhelming question for Brown, the candidates in the forthcoming French presidential election and various candidates hoping to succeed Bush. Most immediately, they must decide what should happen in Iraq. Note that nearly everyone talks about the need for a change in policy without specifying what form that should take. For Blair's successor, the political situation in the US will be more benevolent, the international challenges will be as great.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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