Bruce Anderson: The hubris of a tragic hero who fell for the Enlightenment myth

The illusion that it's possible to reshape human nature seduces too many intellectuals

Monday 01 February 2010 01:00 GMT

Tony Blair has an almost Shakespearian ability to capture a great world on a small stage. But it was not just good theatre. Mr Blair set out to transcend narrow legalities. He invited us to interpret his actions in the broadest of contexts: to stop taking a magnifying glass to the small print and to judge his good faith by his global ambitions. Yet even if we were to accept his invitation, this would not turn him into Henry V or Prospero. It would be the Tragedy of Tony Blair, part of a sequence which begins with the Tragedy of the West in the Middle East, and which could end with the Tragedy of the Human Race.

It was once suggested to Stephen Hawking that there could be no intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, for if there had been, it would have found a way to communicate with us. The Professor disagreed. He said that by the time any intelligent beings might have been able to reach across the interstellar vastnesses, they would already have used their power to destroy themselves. In the course of this century, the human race could well provide evidence in support of the Hawking thesis. The forces of destruction may prove greater than the resources of civilisation.

Large modern states can command immense military power; imagine Napoleon's envy. But the growth in war-fighting capability has not been accompanied by an improvement in war-planning wisdom. It is easy to start wars. As Napoleon's example could teach us, it is far harder to bring them to a satisfactory conclusion. When you are as strong as the West, it is possible to alter the destiny of other nations and continents. Before doing so, it is vital to think through the consequences. The failure to do so was the real failure in Iraq.

Yet anyone who had studied Twentieth Century history ought to have known better. The First World War killed off the Turkish Empire, creating a strategic vacuum in the Middle East. At the time, however, this was not apparent; most of the region was caught up in the final act of European imperialism. The Second World War finished that off. But no-one worked out a new dispensation. There was a widespread assumption that we could continue to run the Middle East through a network of friendly regimes. If only a Western statesman of genius had come to a radically different conclusion and realigned our diplomacy in support of apparently less friendly forces. Nasserites, Ba'athists, Arab nationalists of various kinds: although most of them were instinctively anti-Western, none of their plans for their own countries were fundamentally irreconcilable with sensible Western interests. It was much less important to try to hold on to the Suez Canal than to promote stability among the oil-producers. Anyway, given his chance, Nasser might have evolved into an Egyptian Ataturk.

Wherever Arabs wanted to modernise, we should have engaged in a dialogue to encourage the right sort of modernisation. This would not have been easy. Israel would have been a constant complication. But not inevitably an insuperable one: in private, Arabs are often much more realistic about Israel than their public statements would suggest. Peaceful co-existence would have been hard to negotiate. It would have been necessary to compensate the Palestinians: difficult to find a compensation which they could have accepted. That is what brains are for: to address difficult problems.

That is also where democratic politicians often fail. Because their agendas are so overcharged with urgency, there is a temptation to ignore all problems that do not require an immediate response. Even in a pre-democratic era, Walpole's maxim was "let sleeping dogs lie" – and even then, he ultimately fell foul of an agitated public. In our age of globalised threats, sleeping dogs need regular veterinary scrutiny, to ensure that they are not turning rabid. That did not happen in the Middle East. Instead, there was sentimentality and complacency. Arabs were divided into two groups. There were the noble creatures who lived in the desert and who could safely be left to their traditional rulers. Then there were the clamorous urban mobs, who were impossible to deal with, so why try? Thus the ghosts of T.E.Lawrence and Lord Kitchener continued to exercise far too much influence. There was no sustained attempt to arrive at a modus vivendi with modernising – and secularising – Arab nationalists.

Their failure created another vacuum. It also discredited secularism. So the fundamentalists emerged, to accuse all other Arab politicians of failure, appeasement and decadence. Then came 9/11, leading to the widespread belief that we were indeed in a clash of civilisations. George Bush asked the basic question: why do they hate us? The neo-cons provided the answer: because so many of them live in failing states, with lives constrained by oppression. Offer them democracy and freedom and all will be well. There followed a tragic misuse of idealism.

Since the Enlightenment, intellectuals have often been seduced by the illusion that it is possible to reshape human nature and that the political sciences can solve problems with the same mathematical accuracy as the natural sciences offer. Marxism was the most persistent fantasy, though fascism and apartheid also deserve a dishonourable mention. Only one Enlightenment project worked: the United States of America. But it had an advantage. From the outset, its theoreticians were never six thousand feet above space and time. Like Antaeus, they drew their strength from the earth. The men who wrote the Constitution and the Federalist Papers also had to wrestle with the realities of governing.

In Iraq, those realities were ignored. It was a good idea to bring about regime change in the hope that a new dispensation in Iraq would act as an exemplar for the region. For this to work, it was necessary to install a new government as rapidly as possible, before ethnic rivalries became uncontrollable. Though the Sunnis would have to lose their predominance, it would not be wise to humiliate them. It was also crucial to avoid weakening the central structures of the Iraqi state, so that Iraq could continue to act as a counterweight to Iran.

Finally, if we were prepared to impose regime change in the name of human rights and democracy, we had to insist that the same values should apply in Palestine. George Bush did talk about a Palestinian state: that was not enough. It would not have been easy to achieve one. Israel is not a glove puppet just waiting for a firm American hand.

As President Obama is now discovering, the Israelis are masters of procrastination, who can play Congress as if it were a musical instrument. There would have been no simple solution – but who ever thought that there was a simple route to the moral reconstruction of the Middle East?

Answer: Tony Blair, a tragic hero, in that he was brought down by his good qualities. He was drawn to Iraq by idealism and grandeur. Convinced by the greater moral truth, he felt justified in ignoring trifling questions of linguistic accuracy. Above all, he felt entitled to run the war from his sofa; to avoid speaking to anyone who might have suggested a bit of worst-case analysis. Having convinced himself, he kept clear of anything that would have threatened his certitudes.

Iraq may work, but much more slowly than it should have done, and not fast enough to cut off the supply of angry young males from the Islamic street – for whom Palestine is a sore tooth – or of menacing regimes. The threat is growing, just as Western confidence is weakening. Saddam may not have had weapons of mass destruction; how long will it be before terrorists acquire them? Just when we need strong government, Tony Blair has undermined public trust. Let us hope that he does not have to defend himself in front of the admirably diverse Gabriel Commission – other members Bismarck, Kissinger, Saladin, Talleyrand and Lady Thatcher – examining the misjudgements which led to the Third World War.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in