George’s big mistake was to listen to Tony

Practically nobody is willing to say it, so let us be as frank as possible: the decision to conduct the invasion of Iraq in consultation with the United Nations – a decision taken by President George W Bush partly to mollify his friend Tony Blair – has been utterly disastrous. Even if it proves possible to bribe Guinea and Angola and Chile into voting for a second UN resolution – even if the French, miraculously, change their minds about the whole thing tomorrow – the diplomatic events of the past week will go down in history as the most embarassing for the United States and Britain in a long time.
Despite cajoling and bribery and flattery, Colin Powell and Jack Straw have found it nearly impossible to persuade the UN Security Council of the necessity of deposing Saddam Hussein by military force. Even Mexico, a country dependent on American trade, has refused to go along easily. Even Mr Bush’s new best friend, Vladimir Putin, doesn’t seem interested in co-operating.
There are three explanations for the disaster, each propounded, to various degrees, by different factions here in Washington, and each with some merit. One of them, the “I-told-you-so” faction, argues that all of this was inevitable, and that the real mistake was to go through the UN at all.
Even last autumn, when the Security Council seemed prepared to accept the American request for a “last chance” round of weapons inspections in Iraq, some feared a trap. If the inspectors found weapons, that would prove that Saddam was co-operating. If the inspectors did not find weapons, that would prove he didn’t have weapons. In the event, the opponents of an invasion have managed to cite both the paucity of weapons and Saddam’s belated, reluctant destruction of a handful of rockets as reasons not to invade. The result: the inspections process itself became an excuse to oppose war, as many predicted it would.
Alternatively, blame can be (and is, rather loudly) laid upon Mr Bush. He is at fault, to begin with, for failing to consult America’s allies until last autumn, when preparations for war were already under way. He is also to blame for hitching the UN process to the American military’s timetable, which dictates a war in the spring and not in the summer. If it were not for that, the inspections could just continue for a few more months, until all of the members of the Security Council had been shamed into admitting that the process had degenerated into farce. There would then be no need for a second resolution, no reason for Mr Bush and Mr Blair to humiliate themselves begging the Security Council members for their support.
Finally, there is a good, and not entirely sarcastic, case for blaming the French president, Jacques Chirac. His vehement refusal to countenance any kind of war in Iraq seems to have taken even Colin Powell by surprise. Without France’s loud opposition, and without President Chirac’s claim that this is all about “American power”, not about Iraq, it is hard to see how Guinea and Mexico would have had the nerve to stand up against the United States, and hard to see how this would have evolved into the diplomatic disaster that it has become.
But that is the past. In the present, the flawed UN process, Mr Bush’s lackadaisical attitude to alliances and French obstructionism have brought us to an extremely odd moment in diplomatic history. Weirdly, the fate of Mr Bush, of Mr Blair, and possibly of the international system itself, at least the one we have known since 1945, are now dependent on the results of a war in an obscure patch of Middle Eastern desert.
If the war is a great victory, if it lasts just a few days, and if it results in a democratic Iraq, Mr Bush will get a chance of being re-elected, Mr Blair will be vindicated, France will be cowed. A new Nato will probably rise from the ashes, centred on the “new” Europe: America, Britain, Spain, eastern Europe. The UN Security Council could lose its role as a body which blesses American interventions. The ability of European states such as Britain and Spain to make their own foreign policy, outside the European Union, will be strengthened.
But the war does not have to be lost to produce quite a different result. If it lasts much longer than it is supposed to do, if it degenerates into civil war, if the fighting in Baghdad is bloody and chaotic and expensive, then the aftermath may look quite different. President Bush may be finished, along with Mr Blair and Nato. France and Germany will once again be the most important countries in the EU. The next US president will think twice before doing anything without UN approval, and the next British prime minister will think twice before involving himself in foreign adventures without the explicit permission of his European colleagues.
There is an analogy with Suez here, although it is not precise. If the lesson of Suez was that Britain can’t do anything without America, the lesson of a botched war in Iraq will be that a British prime minister can no longer make foreign policy outside the confines of the EU or act in defiance of Germany and France. The stakes are high here, much higher than the mere political futures of Mr Bush and Mr Blair. It is disturbing to think how much damage Saddam’s Iraq, even in defeat, might still be able to wreak.

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