Bush & Blair

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  1. Adam's Apple
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    Statesmen for These Times
    By Martin Gilbert, The Observer
    December 26, 2004


    People often ask how history will remember our generation of leaders in comparison with Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Many comment that today's leaders look small compared with the giants of the past. This is, I believe, a misconception. In their day, both Churchill and Roosevelt were frequently criticised, often savagely, by their countrymen, including legislators who had little knowledge of the behind-the-scenes reality of the war.

    The passage of time both elevates and reduces reputations. Today there is a cult of Churchill, particularly in the United States, but also far greater scholarly criticism, which regards him, increasingly, as a flawed war leader. The same is true of Roosevelt: his recent biographers are constantly revealing - to their satisfaction, at least - feet of clay.

    Although it can easily be argued that George W Bush and Tony Blair face a far lesser challenge than Roosevelt and Churchill did - that the war on terror is not a third world war - they may well, with the passage of time and the opening of the archives, join the ranks of Roosevelt and Churchill. Their societies are too divided today to deliver a calm judgment, and many of their achievements may be in the future: when Iraq has a stable democracy, with al-Qaeda neutralised, and when Israel and the Palestinian Authority are independent democracies, living side by side in constructive economic cooperation.

    If they can move this latter aim, to which Bush and Blair pledged themselves on 12 November, it will be a leadership achievement of historic proportions.

    The leaderships of Churchill and Roosevelt in the Second World War were conducted in such a way that only many years after the war were their true parameters clear. This is also true of Bush and Blair: only when the secret telegrams and conversations become available will we really know who did what, who influenced whom. Before the war against Saddam Hussein, Sir David Manning, Blair's emissary, was flying almost weekly to Washington but it may be many years before we know what decisions were reached during these journeys. Any accurate assessment of Bush and Blair must wait, perhaps a decade or longer, until the record can be scrutinised.

    Yet some comparisons are already clear.

    Controversy was never absent in the Second World War, either. When Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940 he had to struggle to overcome defeatists who urged a negotiated peace with Hitler. Similarly, Blair overcame opposition from within the Labour party to the war in Iraq, prevailing over the doubters in parliamentary debate on the eve of the Iraq war.

    President Roosevelt faced a Congress resolutely opposed to going to war against Hitler. He used every means to circumvent America's neutrality legislation and to provide Britain with essential war material (some of it by the back door, across the border to Canada). Bush faced no such hurdle: Congress approved the overthrow of Hussein.

    It would be wrong to minimise the challenges facing Blair and Bush. 'Even in miniature,' Churchill once wrote, 'war is hideous and appalling.' Both men had to deploy all their persuasive skills to make the case for overthrowing Hussein, despite the obvious evil of his regime. Hitler's bombing of civilians, including in Warsaw, Rotterdam, Coven try, London and Belgrade, his submarine sinking of merchant ships, and his evil racial policies left no room for doubt as to his nature.

    Another burden Blair and Bush share with the earlier generation is that of explaining the troubled course of the war. Between 1939 and 1945, there were many setbacks that alarmed Britain and America, among them the Dunkirk evacuation, the Dieppe raid and the loss of the Philippines, then an American possession. Today, the war in Iraq continues with daily casualty lists, suicide bombings and rebel violence.

    Churchill wrote and delivered a series of now famous speeches as bombs fell on British cities (with as many as 4,000 civilian deaths each week). Those carefully crafted speeches gave people hope. Both Blair and Bush also address their people in urgent appeals. Blair conveys his sense of moral purpose in clear, articulate phrases. Bush seems less at ease with words that, in many cases, others have crafted for him.

    In 1940 Churchill made a point of ending political warfare in Britain: 'Let pre-war hatreds die,' he declared. He brought in cabinet ministers from the opposition, and gave the most demanding wartime tasks to the most capable. Today Blair and Bush conduct war in partisan terms, ensuring a vociferous opposition.

    Yet they are great supporters of one another. Bush recently said at a White House meeting with Blair: 'I am a lucky person, a lucky President, to be holding office at the same time this man holds the prime ministership.' This brings to mind Roosevelt's comment to Churchill: 'It is fun being in the same decade as you.' Behind these words are a hidden wealth of allied co-operation on the future.

    Churchill and Roosevelt worked together to shape the postwar world. The Atlantic Charter, which they both signed in August 1941, set out the parameters of self-government, free elections and democracy for all those nations that had been subjected to Nazi tyranny. In Iraq, Bush and Blair have adhered to the Atlantic Charter concept. Hussein was overthrown in order that a democratic Iraqi leader could be put in his place, and both leaders are persevering in this task. One problem echoes that faced by Churchill and Roosevelt: the opposition of a powerful ally.

    After the Second World War, Stalin opposed the return of independent, democratic states. By force of will and arms, he prevailed over Churchill and Roosevelt. He used the Red Army to impose communist systems on eight states of eastern and central Europe, leaving only Greece on the Western side. Bush and Blair confront a different opponent: Muslim extremism, a perversion of the Islamic creed. In November they faced, from the midst of their ally Saudi Arabia, an edict issued by prominent religious scholars prohibiting Muslims of Iraq from supporting military operations by American or British forces.

    A final parallel is most telling. Churchill planned a peace conference after the war at which he and Roosevelt could persuade the king of Saudi Arabia to agree to the creation of a Jewish sovereign state in Palestine. Roosevelt died and Churchill was thrown out of office before the conference could take place. Instead of a Jewish state being created with Arab approval, the United Nations proposed two states, one Jewish, one Arab, with Jerusalem under international control. The Jews accepted. The Arabs did not, and launched five armies against the Jewish state, a failure of Arab leadership that has led to six decades of conflict.

    It may be that in our time Bush and Blair will show the leadership needed to set the two-state solution back on track. Both are now firmly in the political saddle. Their leadership qualities will be put to the test in bringing the Israelis and Palestinians together in working toward an agreement. If they succeed, they will have completed what Churchill and Roosevelt inspired and will, without doubt, have sealed their place in history.
     

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