The Battle of Britain, 2006

It’s pretty clear (to me anyway) that the war in Iraq has not mutated into a civil war, as some say, but into the first major U.S. engagement with Islamism, a complicated battlefield in which we and the civil authorities of Iraq are fighting on multiple fronts against an array of different insurgent terrorist groups that, once we leave, would proceed to killing each other.  The goal is to foment a real civil war, which it’s my belief most Iraqis do not seek.  It is unclear if we can prevent this.

But Iraq is just one front in what to me is rapidly becoming World War III.  Another major front is the United Kingdom.  You have probably already heard this news:

British intelligence and law enforcement officials have passed on a grim assessment to their U.S. counterparts, “It will be a miracle if there isn’t a terror attack over the holidays in London,” a senior American law enforcement official tells

British police have been quietly carrying out a series of key arrests as they continue to track at least six active “plots” tied to what they call “al Qaeda of England.”

Officials said they could not cite any specific date or target but said al Qaeda had planned previous operations during the Christmas holidays that had been disrupted.

“It is not a matter of if there will be an attack, but how bad the attack will be,” an intelligence official told

Authorities say they are seeking at least 18 suspected suicide bombers.

The British government’s awareness of this unending threat probably explains why Prime Minister Tony Blair declines the many engraved invitations to turn against George W. Bush.  I’m sure he knows he would be better off politically if he could cut the cord that attaches him to our widely-derided president.  But Blair sees a bigger picture for his country, and knows he can’t casually discard his nation’s most important ally for short-term political advantage.  Here’s part of what Blair said to Parliament a few days ago:

The basic point I come back to, again and again and which I have made many times here – is that whether in Iraq, or Afghanistan or indeed combating terrorism here, these battles are inextricably bound together. It is a global issue.  It needs a global response.

Which brings me to the principal consideration of Britain’s foreign policy over the past 10 years.  Global challenges can only be met by global alliances.  A nation like Britain has no prospect – none – in the world as it is developing today, of pursuing its national interest except in close concert with others.  That is why, no matter how tough the test, and these past years since 9/11 have shown how tough it can be – the alliances Britain has with America and within Europe, must remain the cornerstones of our policy. 

Do not misunderstand me.  I support the US willingly.  I believe in the EU for reasons of principle.  I supported the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq because I believed them right.  I have put Britain at the centre of Europe because I am proud that we are part of the largest political union and biggest economic market in the world.  For me these alliances have never been a struggle between individual conscience and duty to my country.  It is a happy marriage of conviction and realpolitik. 

But just for a moment, leave aside the obvious and deep-rooted ties of history with America.  Leave aside the fact that only, together, when the US finally entered WWII, were we able to succeed.  Leave aside the prospect of Britain facing the Cold War for half a century without the transatlantic alliance, an absurd thought.  Leave it all aside and focus on today and the future.

Take any problem Britain wants solving:  global terrorism – (assuming you don’t believe that but for George Bush it wouldn’t exist); climate change; Israel/Palestine; Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programme; world trade; Africa in general, right now Sudan in particular; global poverty.  We may agree or disagree with the US position on some or all of these issues.  But none of these vital British concerns can be addressed, let alone solved, without America.  Without America, Kosovo could not have been attempted.  Without Kosovo, Milosevic might still be running Serbia; and the Balkans rather than stabilising with a potential future in Europe, would have remained the destabilising force it was for most of the 20th Century.   We need America.  That is a fact.

All that, in a sense, is obvious.  But – runs the more sophisticated argument -:  America we like, this American President we don’t.  This is a comforting argument.  It separates anti-America from anti-Bush.  However it is also a cop-out.  Let us not kid ourselves.  9/11 would have changed any American President’s foreign policy.  3000 innocent people dead in the streets of New York; the Al Qaida operatives who did it, trained out of Afghanistan.  Following 9/11, American policy was going to shift.  It was going to get out after the terrorists with all America’s might and any President who didn’t do it, wasn’t going to be President for long.

When I said, after 9/11 that we should stand shoulder to shoulder with America, I said it because I believed it.  But I also thought it was profoundly in Britain’s interests.  I knew this attack wasn’t aimed at America per se; but at America as the leading representative of our values.  Look round the world today; look even just within Europe.  Britain is not the only country that faces a terrorist threat.  We all do, allies and non-allies, anyone in fact that isn’t “them”.  I thought then and I think now that defeating this threat – whose roots are deep and have been a long time growing – was going to take a generation; and I knew then and know now that defeating it, was never going to be done without an America prepared to lead as America, to its credit, has.

And the truth is, for Britain, it is always right for us to keep our partnership with America strong. 

Post 9/11, there were no half-hearted allies of America.  There were allies and others.  We were allies then and that’s how we should stay; and the test of any alliance, I’m afraid, is not when it’s easy but when it’s tough.

I rooted for a Democratic victory in 2006 and, depending on who’s nominated, will root for a Democratic victory in 2008 in part because, for a variety of reasons, a huge and important faction within our own nation — the left — does not recognize or will not acknowledge the threat Blair articulates so clearly (and Bush in-articulates so unclearly).  Perhaps as more of their own people assume positions of responsibility, the acknowledgement will come, and our nation can unite for this long struggle.

There is simply no getting around it, because every value the left holds dear — not to mention the broader American values — will be ground into dust everywhere the Islamists gain control.  To recall a long-forgotten political slogan of Richard Gephardt’s, “It’s Your Fight, Too.”  And that means you: environmentalists, labor organizers, gay activists, fighters for economic equality, multilateralist proponents of the UN, church-and-state separatists, extreme civil libertarians, “living and breathing” constitutionalists, TV and movie producers, sexually frank pop singers — all of you.  All of us.


9 thoughts on “The Battle of Britain, 2006

  1. I agree that it is “my fight too” but I don’t necessarily agree with who is leading the charge. I admire the support the United States has gotten from Tony Blair (and Great Britain). Without them, there is no “coalition”.

    The source of the admiration I have for Tony Blair is that he believes in the cause. That being said, it is no excuse for ineptitude at the “helm of the cause”.

    I also admire him because of his candor, intelligence and demeanor when taking questions from Parliament (see Questions with Tony Blair on CSPAN for those of you who have not discovered one of my favorite shows on TV). He seems to have a depth of knowledge on affairs inside and outisde of Great Britain that our fearless leader could only wish to have. And when he doesn’t know the answer, he doesn’t become “the great decider” but promises an answer to the member of Parliament asking the question.

    The questions are usually tough but there is a respect between the Ton Blair and Parliament that is in little evidence between Mr. Bush and the opposition (Democrats and Republicans – are you listening????). In addition, I admire the British political system because there are more than 2 viable parties in the House of Commons. We could learn something from Great Britain 200+ years after our independence. I know the House of Lords is not something we need here but, the thought of more than 2 viable politcal parities. certainly appeals to me.

  2. Chris, I am with you. Bush might be a bad president, but he’s the president we’ve got during a time of war. As it has turned out, he’s no Lincoln, no FDR, no Woodrow Wilson. But it’s his constitutional responsibility to lead our forces in this war, and in his execution of that duty, we need to support him.

    It’s kind of amazing to me that this even has to be articulated. But it has to because a)Bush has been an inadequate leader, and very poorly served by the leaders of his Administration and b)The left has consistently acted as if this is all Bush’s war, and not America’s.

    2009 can’t come soon enough.

  3. The theory that Democrats will become more responsible if given power reminds me of the Domino Theory, that the War in Iraq would set off a democratic realignment of the ME. It’s a nice idea, and I hope it works, but haven’t ever put much stock in it.

    What if nobody is any good at nation building? Like nobody is really good at soccer (just relatively better than other people). The UN has, by my count, a grand total of zero success stories. The current alies, such as they are, are at least better at not running child sex slavery rings than the blue helmets (and they don’t run away from a fight), but Iraq is Iraq, and Afghanistan, while better than it was, isn’t good, right? So, if it just doesn’t work, then what? It’s why I don’t have a lot of use for the debate over competence. Will’s line is about there not being a moral duty to do the impossible. The debate over competence, to my mind, steals first base in assuming that there’s such a thing as competence in this field.

    My hope is that when we all decide we’d rather be seen to have lost than keep trying, in Iraq, we at least bring down the rest of the neighborhood, on the way out (I expect I wouldn’t think this, if I thought Democrats really would get serious). Iraq would have a better chance, post occupation, if Syria and Iran had more immediate concerns. If those fights are coming, anyway, as I expect they will, in what way will they be better, five or ten years from now?

    I can’t tell which side I’ll be rooting for in ’08, as both seem painfully likely to run on protectionist nonsense, and make believe foreign policy. I guess I’ll end up voting for the candidate I’d most like to get a beer with, or whatever.

  4. Andrew: Good answer, if a little gloomy. But you and the rest of us have earned our cynicism. And your point about “stealing first base” as the equivalent to achieving success in Iraq is tempting. But actually, I think it is untested, because Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld botched what might conceivably have worked by allowing utter boobs like Paul Bremer and Gen. Franks free reign, and by forcing all their subordinates to submit to Rumsfeld’s “see no insurgency, hear no insurgency, speak no insurgency” diktat. (I hear he even slapped Bush when the prez let the word slip.) I think the extremists, while powerful, aren’t inevitably the leaders of the Middle East. But more importantly, I’d rather try, even against stiff odds, to ensure pluralistic and peace-minded governments in the Middle East, rather than just succumbing to Islamist rule, and seeing them use both oil and nuclear blackmail to impose God know what kind of regime on the world. That might be our inevitable fate, but we have to fight it, don’t we?

  5. After reading the comments posted, I feel the need to clarify my position on my agreement that “this is my fight too”. “My fight too” would not include invading Iraq for dubious, at best, reasons. “My fight too” would include the invasion (but not the subsequent abandonment) of Afghanistan. “My fight too” would also include relentless pursuit of Osama Bin Laden. As I have posted here before, this is a war on terrorism and we are fighting it on the wrong front. While I agree that a stable Middle East with peaceminded governments is in the U.S. best intersets, I have no confidence that it will happen in my lifetime or the next generation. The Middle East’s religions and/or sects of religions have been combustible and intolerant of opposing sects or religions for so long that it is a way of life, passed on from generation to generation (i.e. racism). Our only realistic goal there is to sow the seeds of change as MLK did here. And we still have a long way to go on that front at home, some 40 years later.

  6. Serbia was pre-Bush. I don’t know enough about it, any more, to know if it’s anything to be proud of. The genocide is over, so, I’m not arguing the intervention wasn’t worth it (it was, clearly to my mind, worth doing much sooner), but it’s not like the E.U. is beating down their door to join up. That’s seven, eight years ago.

    Are the Serbians not suicide-bombing Kosovar buses because the NATO response to the war was so effective, or because that’s just not what they do? I’m inclined to believe the latter, but I don’t know why. It’s not like the rapist/prison guards of Serbia were better people than the Iraq-based terrorists. But the Serbs went home and did something else, after the war. So, what’s the breaking point, over there? What needs to happen to convince the head choppers to call it a day? Bremer wasn’t it, no doubt about it. Maybe somebody could have been, maybe it really is all about competence. But I’m not sure of that. You go to war with the enemy you have, not the one you might like to have, to borrow a phrase.

  7. What drives me nuts is the obsession with Iraq as Vietnam all over again. During Bush’s recent press conference, the number of prominent questions that were almost begging Bush to “play his role” in this endless historical loop was maddening. I almost wanted to go back to some of Nixon’s press conferences to see if these journalists and TV personalities were literally trying to provoke Bush to say the exact same things Nixon said.

    This “story line” is tired. I don’t know if it’s WWIII, but we need to open our eyes to the real, current state of things in the greater Middle East and stop pretending this is all a replay of Southeast Asia 30 plus years ago.

    Perhaps the only true link is that — well, my belief is that the Administration has totally lost its confidence about Iraq, and is therefore susceptible to such psychologically comforting rubbish about “fate” and has fallen into the trap. It hears the siren song; it wants to pretend that this is was all a dream.

    Fortunately, the only guy not falling for it so far seems to be Bush himself.

  8. I guess my view is this: We’ve wasted four years arguing about whether or not we should or shouldn’t have gone into Iraq. Both sides present, to me, extremely limited arguments mostly designed for domestic political advantage, so I’ve stopped listening. The fact is, this country’s dealings with the Middle East and the Muslim world have been primarily dictated by the ignorance of this nation’s elites about the history, culture and language of the region. That expression that “some ideas are stupid, only an intellectual could believe them” seems to apply equally to the upper reaches of the Bush Administration and the Democratic Party, as well as to the permanent government of State Department, CIA and Pentagon bureaucrats, and the various think-tanks and lobbying organizations where they hide out after leaving public service. Go back and read the transcripts of the Bush/Kerry debates of 2004. Such appalling ignorance on display from both candidates, who I assume had access to the top experts in their respective parties. God help us.

    What’s going on now is what matters. Pulling out of Iraq now would represent a massive concession to the Islamists, handing over a large, wealthy country from which they could pose a frightening challenge to much of the world.

    Pulling out of Vietnam had horrible consequences for Southeast Asia, but the relative strategic position of the U.S. was only harmed symbolically. That’s why it was stupid to go into Vietnam in the first place. It wasn’t a fight worth winning.

    I tend to think the invasion of Iraq was probably not the optimal way to insert US power into the deteriorating situation in the Middle East, but our military entry there was inevitable; and we are now fighting the kind of war that was also inevitable. We need to adjust our thinking to focus on this reality and what it means for the future. And we desperately need to take this war out of partisan politics.

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