Travel, if you let it, can broaden the mind. So from the time Bush lands, it is important that he is aware that while the British prime minister may be his ally in the war against Iraq the British people are not and, barring a short spell at the outset of the fighting, never have been. That is why the upcoming demonstrations around Bush’s visit are not only necessary but demand our full support.
Monday November 17, 2003
The US president, George Bush, looks pretty baffled at the best of times. But after an hour-long meeting with “moderates” in Bali during his whistle-stop tour of Asia last month he cut a particularly confused figure. For reasons he could not quite grasp, his self-professed vision of America as a benign superpower spreading democracy through the Middle East was received with polite scepticism, even among those nations and leaders he considered allies. “Do they really believe that we think all Muslims are terrorists?” he asked. “I’ve been saying all along that not every policy issue needs to be dealt with by force.”
The difference between how Bush and his administration perceive the world and almost everybody else experiences it would be comic if the consequences were not so tragic. It is not the product of a misunderstanding but carefully crafted, wilful ignorance. Once, when asked how he gets his information, Bush said: “The best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff.”
Nonetheless, the fact that both he and his staff have finally realised that the difference between their perception and reality actually does exist is a small breakthrough. “On a trip like this he can get a glimpse of it, but only a glimpse,” said one senior official who attended several of the meetings in Asia. “Of course, when you are moving at warp speed, there isn’t a lot of time to think about what you are hearing.”
Given that Bush’s state visit to Britain, which starts tomorrow, will be conducted at a more leisurely pace, we can only hope that the huge demonstrations that greet him will give him more than a glimpse of where this “perception gap” might have come from.
Travel, if you let it, can broaden the mind. So from the time Bush lands, it is important that he is aware that while the British prime minister may be his ally in the war against Iraq the British people are not and, barring a short spell at the outset of the fighting, never have been. That is why the upcoming demonstrations around Bush’s visit are not only necessary but demand our full support. The threat of them alone has shifted the focus of the visit from the two leaders’ proposed declaration of a quick exit from Iraq to the question of why they ever entered in the first place.
Meanwhile, America’s preparation for them shows just how much they value our special relationship and what kind of democracy they like to export on their travels. Among other things, US armed special agents have asked for diplomatic immunity in case they kill a protester; to patrol the skies with Black Hawk helicopters; and include a tank, equipped with a gun that can kill a dozen people in one go, in their presidential cavalcade. While these requests have been turned down much of central London will still be closed down to create a “sterile zone” so that Bush’s belief that he has the support of the British people will not be contaminated. If ever there was an example of a guest taking liberties this is it.
But if Bush’s visit provides the motivation for the demonstrations it would be a mistake if it also monopolised their message. For to be effective the protests should not mark a reflexive response to the arrival of an unpopular foreign dignitary, but reflect an expression of the popular will that has been forced on to the streets because our own parliament’s inability to adequately represent us.
If the leader who is coming is a problem, the leader who invited him is no less so. As the man who led the charge to war Bush is a worthy target of our ire. As the man who followed him and in so doing lent the war what little legitimacy it ever had, Blair is even more so.
We did not elect Bush (it is a moot point whether anybody did) and can do little about him but hope that the Democrats get it together to beat him next year. We did elect Blair, and if these demonstrations are going to be about anything more than ire, then it is our responsibility to get rid of him.
For if the demonstrations show our strength in numbers they also reveal a weakness in application. We have shown that we can get mad; we have yet to show that we can get even. This is a global problem, not a local one. The vast majority of humanity did not want this war to happen, and it happened anyway. Even in those countries that are prosecuting it, including America, opinion polls showed that most were opposed to military action without UN approval.
If that were not bad enough we now know that in order to gain even minority support they had to lie about weapons that do not exist, using intelligence that could not be trusted. So we have a war we did not want, led by people we can no longer believe. And yet it remains to be seen whether anyone will be held accountable or forced to pay an electoral price. So, while the problem may manifest itself on a global scale, the solution is essentially local. Leaders like Blair, who use their association with Bush to strut the world stage with hubris, must be shown the meaning of humility at home. Having found a way to demonstrate our frustration, we must now find a way to make it count.
In fact, it is a challenge more pertinent to Britain than anywhere else. For unlike Bush, Silvio Berlusconi, Jose Maria Aznar or John Howard, Blair – ostensibly – comes from the left. So, unlike the anti-war demonstrators in the US, Italy, Spain or Australia, most of those who oppose the war also supported the man who is prosecuting it. And unless they come up with an alternative they may well end up doing so again.
It is in this one crucial respect that America remains a far more hopeful place than Britain. For there is little confusion in the American anti-war movement about whom the enemy is and what needs to be done about him. Their protests are having real consequences in the Democratic race for the presidential nomination, where anti-war candidates are making all the running and lifted the level of debate to a far higher level than we are currently seeing in the Labour party.
This is what makes the charges that the demonstrations are anti-American as ridiculous as they are predictable. Americans are not the problem: Bush is. The majority of Americans disapprove of his handling of the war. As the bodybags and the bill for occupation mount, so the opposition keeps rising. If anyone is bucking the tide of US public opinion it is Blair and Bush, not the protesters.
Meanwhile, Bush comes to the same country that turned out in droves to welcome Bill Clinton, when he walked through the centre of London with a smile and a wave and not a combat vehicle in sight. Bush is not synonymous with America any more than Blair is synonymous with Britain. We can make Bush uncomfortable; it is only Blair we can make unemployed.