1. Staggering to the Exit

It may look and feel like a farce
right now, but one day some future Shakespeare might write it as a
tragedy: the fall of a powerful, popular leader broken on the wheel of

For make no mistake: if not for the
criminal folly of the Iraq invasion, British Prime Minister Tony Blair
would not have been unceremoniously shoved toward the exit last week by
his own party, including some of his fiercest loyalists. The man who
once commanded one of the largest majorities in the history of the
ancient British Parliament, who won three successive national elections
and appeared to have sealed his party’s hold on power for decades to
come, has seen his stature and authority eaten away by the hubris that
led him to join George W. Bush’s duplicitous, disastrous Babylonian

With the Labour Party sinking in
the polls – now almost 10 points behind the once-decimated and still
despised Conservatives – several Labour MPs broke into open revolt last
week, resigning from the government and forcing Blair to announce that
he will definitely leave office in the next few months, probably May at
the latest, more than three years before the next national election.
But after a few days on the back foot, the prime minister’s remaining
partisans then launched a rearguard maneuver to savage Blair’s obvious
successor, his longtime political partner – and deadly rival – Gordon
Brown, the UK Chancellor. Brown has been accused of everything from
“traitorous disloyalty” to “psychological problems” by Blairites
flocking to the national press. As the unseemly sniping rages on, it
seems that Blair is seeking, consciously or unconsciously, to perform
one last act of tragic hubris: bringing the party down with him as he

Of course, Blair had promised long
ago not to serve out a full third term; indeed, that was how he won a
third term in the first place. His promise before the May 2005 election
to step down afterwards convinced enough distrustful voters to “hold
your nose and vote Labour” – as the famous campaign theme voiced by the
Guardian’s Polly Toynbee put it – and keep out the dread Tories one
more time. (Another popular, if unofficial, theme was: “Vote Blair, Get
Brown.”) But once safely back in 10 Downing Street – albeit with a
greatly reduced parliamentary majority, having shed millions of voters
and more than 200,000 dues-paying party members from the pre-Iraq days
– Blair showed little inclination to leave. He spoke of long-term
projects and reforms that he “had to see through” – including that
pesky business of “establishing democracy” in Iraq. It was obvious that
he intended to stick around for years, mostly likely until just before
the next election.

But month by month, Blair’s support
continued to bleed away. Not even the July 2005 terrorist bombings in
London or this year’s Heathrow bomb plot scare gave him one of those
“rally around the leader” bounces that have served Bush so well. And
Blair’s insistence that Britain’s eager participation in the rape of
Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with the rise in Islamic extremism
struck most people as either a cynical sham or evidence of his growing
disconnection from reality.

Meanwhile, the Tories, after years
of internal strife and a series of leaders who combined the charisma of
Michael Dukakis with the savvy of Dan Quayle, finally emerged from the
wilderness with a new leader – ironically, a virtual clone of the young
Blair: David Cameron, a bland, vague, TV-friendly Eton-Cambridge toff
repackaged as a “regular guy,” a man of the people (the middle-class
people, of course). Too young to be associated with the hated Thatcher
years, and quick to steal the trappings of Blair’s own technocratic
centrism, Cameron made Conservatives seem safe – and potentially
electable – again. His emergence accelerated Labour’s long, slow slide
in the polls, until last week’s panic point was reached, triggering the
rebellion and Blair’s hastened departure.

2. The Fatal Flaw

But did it have to end this way?
Did it have to end at all?  Without Iraq, it is likely that Blair would
now be contemplating the possibility of a fourth term, or else turning
over the keys of a sleek, purring political machine to Brown in 2010
for yet another resounding Labour victory. Instead, the most successful
political leader of his generation – not just in Britain, but in the
world – now has an approval rating in Richard Nixon territory, deeply
distrusted by almost 80 percent of the electorate. Charges of sleaze,
corruption and rampant cronyism that once ricocheted harmlessly off
Blair’s designer threads now cling and fester with a growing stench.

All of this trouble stems from
Iraq. But in Blair’s case, “Iraq” covers a multitude of sins; it stands
for the whole range of complicities and humiliations that comprise his
relationship to Bush in the “War on Terror” – a stance that Blair likes
to call “standing shoulder to shoulder with America” but which might be
described more accurately as “tagging along behind on a tight leash.”
There has been virtually no action Bush has taken under the rubric of
his Terror War that Blair has not supported – either with his
full-throated assent, as in the Iraq invasion, the gutting of civil
liberties, the wild fearmongering, and the cold-blooded refusal to
intervene or even criticize Israel’s brutal pulverization of Lebanon,
or else by significant silence, as with the use of Britain’s airfields
for Bush’s gulag renditions, or the secret CIA prisons dotted around
Europe, or Bush’s embrace of torture.

So wedded is Blair to Bush’s
policies that he’s now led his country into what many say is rapidly
becoming Britain’s Vietnam – not the Iraqi quagmire, which is
increasingly regarded in the UK as irretrievable failure, but the “good war”
in Afghanistan, where Blair has hurled an underprepared, undermanned
expeditionary force into the violent chaos spawned by Bush’s callous
neglect of the broken country in favor of his Iraq adventure.

The new British force, part of a
NATO effort to make up for paucity of American troops, was told it
would be helping reconstruction efforts, winning “hearts and minds”
with the kind of practical, hands-on aid that the Americans have
largely ignored in favor of blunderbuss military strikes on suspected
terrorists and running secret CIA prisons in hunkered-down fortresses.
Instead, the Brits have run into full-blown combat – the “most
intensive fighting the UK military has seen since the Korean War,” said
one commander – with the resurgent Taliban. They have also been saddled
by the Americans with the thankless job of eradicating the opium crops
– the sole livelihood for most rural Afghans. But thanks to the lack of
American financial support – some 70 percent of which never benefits
the locals but is instead “contingent upon the recipient spending it on
American stuff, including especially American-made armaments, ” as Ann
Jones notes in a devastating report in the San Francisco Chronicle –
there is nothing to offer the Afghan farmers in exchange for giving up
the poppy, except a life of grinding poverty.

British forces have lost 27 men in
Afghanistan in the last six weeks – almost a quarter of the total 117
lost during three years in Iraq. Soldiers report a lack of ammunition,
armor and air cover. At times the Taliban has been able to keep British
outposts under siege for days. A top aide to the commander of the UK
forces in the pivotal Helmand province has resigned from the army,
citing the “pointless” and “grotesquely clumsy” policy that is “just
making things worse,” The Times reports. “We said we’d be different
from the Americans who were bombing and strafing villages, then behaved
exactly like them,” said Capt. Leo Docherty of the Scots Guards. “All
those people whose homes have been destroyed and sons killed are going
to turn against the British. It’s a pretty clear equation – if people
are losing homes and poppy fields, they will go and fight. I certainly

Docherty’s assessment was confirmed
last week in a damning report by Senlis, a thinktank funded by
international charities. “Prioritizing military-based security, the
United States’ and United Kingdom’s focus on counter terrorism
initiatives and militaristic responses to Afghanistan’s opium crisis
has undermined the local and international development community’s
ability to respond to Afghanistan’s many poverty-related challenges,”
the organization said. “”By focusing aid funds away from development
and poverty relief, failed counter-narcotics policies have hijacked the
international community’s nation-building efforts….the [US-UK} poppy
eradication policies are fuelling violence and insecurity.”

In London, controversies flare over
charges of “deliberate deception” by the Blair government over the true
nature of the mission – or else its incredible incompetence in not
realizing the true situation on the ground before going in. The echoes
of Iraq could not be clearer. And here we come back to square one.
Blair’s witting complicity in the Bush Faction’s secret campaign to
manipulate America and Britain into an unnecessary war of aggression
against Iraq – fully documented by the Downing Street Memos, the
smoking guns of the Anglo-American conspiracy for war – is at the heart
of his loss of credibility and authority in Britain. These lies – and
most Britons are quicker than the majority of Americans to call the
Bush-Blair deceptions by their true name – have been the engine of his

But Blair’s tragic flaw was evident
from his first days in office. He has always been eager for Britain to
retain a leading role in world affairs, despite the shrivelling of its
empire. “Punching above our weight,” he likes to call it: an apt
phrase, for to Blair, national greatness is obviously synonymous with
military action – one of the traits he shares with Bush, along with an
unshakeable belief in his own righteousness as a fervent Christian.
Britain’s military forces have been in action somewhere around the
world throughout Blair’s tenure: Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and,
most notably, against Serbia, in that other American-led coalition that
unilaterally attacked a nation without UN Security Council sanction.

Like Bush, Blair is a man in love
with war – or rather, with the idea of war, for he, like Bush, has
never seen combat. The idea that greatness can be measured in blood and
iron – that one can somehow prove one’s manhood and historical standing
by sending other people to kill and die – is the tragic flaw that has
drawn Blair to America’s wars like a moth to flame.

He could have been remembered as
the man who saved his nation from the brutal social ravages of Margaret
Thatcher’s soulless, hard-right extremism. Instead he will be known
forever as the lying lapdog of George W. Bush. Tragedy is a harsh
taskmaster indeed.

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