LONDON — U.S. President George W. Bush must have drawn some comfort from having British Prime Minister Tony Blair stand beside him at the White House in Washington the other day. At least there was one friend left who was prepared to stick by him as the Iraq situation worsened.
But should he have felt so reassured this way? Blair is now in the departure lounge as prime minister, with his handover, almost certainly to his colleague Gordon Brown, penciled in for next June — although it might be even earlier.
This means, as is always the way with departing leaders, that his authority is ebbing and his supporters are drifting away or jockeying for positions under the new man. On top of that, as the chief architect of Britain’s policy of total commitment to the Bush strategy for the Middle East, Blair sees his credit draining even faster as that strategy unravels.
The Bush-Blair alliance has disaster on its hands and both leaders now face a severe credibility problem. Blair himself may stand by the beleaguered president, but the mood in Britain has swung away from the Bush administration, which is widely regarded as incompetent and out of touch. Neither Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, nor Conservative opposition leader David Cameron are going to be the kind of compliant and faithful accomplice that Blair has been.
In short the United States may be about to lose its key ally in the whole Iraq adventure. Could the situation be saved by a marginal change of direction, as advocated in the long-awaited Iraq Study Group report presented with a fanfare in Washington last week?
High hopes were pinned on this report and it is certainly very blunt about what is going wrong. The situation in Iraq, it says, is “grave and deteriorating” — a very different story from the Bush-Blair line until recently that improvement and success were on the way.
The report goes on to recommend a number of changes in the deployment and status of American troops (and therefore by implication British troops) and to urge the rather obvious importance of somehow involving Iraq’s neighbors in trying to stop its total disintegration.
But even this distinguished group, led by the wily and experienced former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, has struggled to find a third way between the quagmire of unending commitment and the humiliation of withdrawal and defeat. The report suffers from the same fundamental error of vision that bedevils the Bush administration: quite simply that America is still in the driving seat in world affairs and has the power to transform the Middle East region.
Thus, whether one is listening to Bush himself, or to the Iraq Study Group members, or to all the critical commentators and columnists in Washington, New York or indeed London, there is the same underlying and false assumption: that America may have gotten things wrong, but it is America that must now take the lead in putting them right.
What none of these leaders or politicians or experts has grasped is that size and sheer military weight and spending no longer equate with power and influence in the world. The conclusions the policymakers reach in Washington, whether to “stay the course” or change direction, will no longer shape events in the Middle East, and no Americans, whether in the White House or in Congress or anywhere else, are in a position to control the pattern of events.
Thus there is something almost tragic about the persistent belief that the U.S. can convene a conference of nearby powers, such as Iran and Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey, as if it was the victor in some great battle and was grandly ready to settle on peace terms all round.
Of course, there has been no victory, nor is there going to be one.
Any conference America tries to convene will be looked on with pity and possible amusement by other key countries, who might well not even wish to attend. The only motive for doing so might be that it is in no state’s interest to see Iraq implode and in very few states’ interests to see America totally humiliated. The lead will have to come from the region itself or from the new powers in the network world — with China, Russia and India prominent among them — although even their powers are limited, as they are aware.
The missing piece of understanding in all views coming out of Washington, in the Bush-Blair press conference, in the media and in all the comment from the pundits in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic is that the age of the microchip has changed everything. It has dispersed power massively — away from the American giant and into the hands of the smallest and most lethal unit, into the most vicious cell and into the most malign clique.
Outside Baghdad vast American military bases hum with every conceivable piece of modern equipment, with almost unlimited firepower, with every state-of-the-art electronic device and every tracking system ever devised. Yet American soldiers cannot walk down a Baghdad street without fear of pinpoint rocket and sniper attacks, and guerrilla assaults organized with deadly efficiency. And Baghdad itself is virtually inaccessible without the lowest flying helicopter skimming over the rooftops in the hopes of dodging the most modern and smartest missiles.
The era of ultra-asymmetrical warfare has arrived with a terrible vengeance. Great armies, even when armed to the teeth, are no longer in command. And this means that great nations like the U.S. even when prepared to spend to the limit, are no longer in control. Their chief allies, the British, are beginning to see that.
For a check on the bloodshed and chaos of Iraq and the Middle East today, the world is going to have to look elsewhere.
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