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The Blair Leading the Blind in Iraq

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One consistent ace in the hole for George W. Bush as he defends his beleaguered Iraq policy has been the support of the United Kingdom -- it's one of the few good cards that the President has left in his hand. At least for now.

Aside from a few long-memoried Irish-Americans, most people in the US think of the British as like older and wiser uncles. We admire the Brits the way that the Romans admired the Greeks; they might not have an empire anymore, but by Jove, they have their erudition and sophistication. So if the leader of the Britons, in this case Prime Minister Tony Blair, endorses Operation Iraqi Freedom, that's good enough for many Yankees -- even if the mission isn't exactly accomplished, two-and-a-half years later. After all, England is home to generations of empire-builders; Albion is renowned for producing diplomats and soldiers who speak the local language and know the indigenous culture. The British know what they are doing, right? They wouldn't be on board for a fool's errand, would they?

And of course, Britain is the home of the great Winston Churchill, who stiffened the spines of English-speaking audiences on both sides of the Atlantic with his blood-sweat-and-tears orations before and during World War Two.

So on March 16, 2003, The Wall Street Journal galvanized Americans with Churchill's from-the-grave endorsement, seemingly, of the coming war with Iraq. In a piece entitled, "My Grandfather Invented Iraq/And he has lessons for us today," Winston S. Churchill assured readers that the late Sir Winston would have supported Bush and Blair. Yet remaining unanswered in the piece was an obvious question: if the grandfather had done such a great job carving Iraq out of the old Ottoman Empire back in the early 20s -- and had ordered Iraq invaded again, by the way, in 1941 -- then why was Iraq still so darn troublesome? Why was Baghdad so hostile to its benefactor and to Anglophones in general?

But such questions were not heard amidst the pounding of war drums. The younger Churchill, who seems to make a good living by cashing in on his grandfather's fame, roared in the Journal, "Together America and Britain, and those of our allies who share our sense of urgency and strength of commitment, will soon rid the world of this demented despot, liberate the Iraqi people from tyranny, and strike a further blow against the ambitions of fundamentalist terror." Sound morally clear enough, right?

For their part, American conservatives mostly clicked their heels and saluted. The influential Powerline, for example, was inspired to observe, "This essay is a moving tribute to the Churchillian grain of President Bush's statesmanship"; the Minneapolis-based blog closed with a roar of its own: "Ladies and gentlemen, we are again about to take our stand for freedom as in the olden time."

Unheard amidst this war-trumpeting was the go-slow adjuration of another of the Great Churchill's grandsons, Nicholas Soames, who was and is a Member of Parliament. Asked about the supposedly Churchillian equation of Saddam Hussein to Hitler, Soames answered, "I do not think there is any comparison." Worrying about "mass hysteria," he warned, "One thing my grandfather would have been very cautious about is that if the United States wishes its allies to come with it, it must share with its allies, with the people of both countries, the information it has that leads it to believe the situation is so serious that it requires pre-emptive action."

But while Soames went unheeded, British Lt. Col. Tim Collins was lionized. On the day the war started, March 19, 2003, Collins delivered an "impromptu" speech to the 800 men of the Royal Irish Regiment, laying out their forthcoming mission in boldly Churchillian terms: "We go to liberate, not to conquer." He added, "You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest -- for your deeds will follow you down through history." Interestingly, the TV cameras were rolling during Collins' remarks, and copies of the text were immediately available, courtesy of the Ministry of Defence. Here in the US, the speech by "Nails" Collins was compared to the great war-orations of the past, including Henry V's address at Agincourt (at least as interpreted by Shakespeare) and, of course, to Churchill's World War Two radio-uplifting. With heady endorsements such as that, it's little wonder that approval for W. and for the war soared upward.

So what about approval now? We know that support for the war in the US as well as in the UK has fallen, but things are going well in Iraq, right? After all, the new Constitution was just approved by the voters -- we think. Surely Blair and Collins and all the rest of those Brits knew what they were doing in Iraq; how could they not, with all their breeding and background?

Well, maybe not, as the body count shows. Even though the UK is tasked with policing the Shia areas of southern Iraq -- far from the Sunni Triangle -- 22 of London's soldiers have been killed this year alone, bringing the three-year death-total to nearly 100. More glaringly, according to a poll conducted by the Ministry of Defence and leaked to the The Sunday Telegraph, 45 per cent of Iraqis support attacks on Anglo-American forces, 82 percent are "strongly opposed" to the presence of Coalition troops -- and fewer than one per cent think that Western military involvement is improving security. Indeed, the most anti-Coalition province polled was Maysan, which is Shia, occupied by the British. Crikey!

Where's the sure hand and smooth tongue of Tim Collins when we need him? Surely he'd know how to handle this. Interestingly, Collins is no longer in the British Army. Within months of his war pep talk, he found himself the target of two different investigations, one concerning allegations over mistreatment of Iraqis and the other concerning the death of a British soldier, an apparent suicide. Collins was cleared in both inquiries, but he was soon retired from service. And in fact, lately Collins has been critical of his onetime commander-in-chief; last month he accused Blair of presiding over a "right rollicking cock-up."

In truth, the entire history of British colonialism has been one long rollicking cock-up. Remember 1776, when the Declaration of Independence accused King George of "absolute Despotism"? Remember the disastrous partition of India in 1947, which left millions dead? And the Iraqis, meanwhile, seem to remember Churchill's role in Iraq -- and not fondly. And two recent books, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire, by David Anderson, and Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of the End of Empire in Kenya by Caroline Elkins, remind us how the British failed to hold on to Kenya despite a brutal campaign of suppression. "How not to run an empire" was a headline in The Economist's joint review.

OK, so maybe the Brits aren't quite that great at imperialism, or neo-imperialism. But how 'bout that Tony Blair, he of Oxford, with the wit and the posh accent? Isn't he still with Bush? He is indeed, and he loves to be compared to his Downing Street predecessor, Churchill.

Yet perhaps too late comes some perspective on Blair from a new book, The Spin Doctor's Diary: Inside Number 10 with New Labour, written by ex-insider Lance Price. From Price's diary, January 19, 1999: "Tony seems almost bored with the ordinary stuff and interested only in the foreign leaders, Clinton, wars, etc." Wars, etc.? Well, Blair's got a war, a big one, that won't be forgotten.

And so do we Americans, which should prove to us that the lessons of Britain in America in the 18th century -- or of Britain in Iraq in the 20th century -- have not been sufficiently remembered.