LONDONThe last time I turned out for a U.S. president was in 1961 when John F. Kennedy came to town. He drove through London with Jackie in an open limo. I caught the show in Victoria Street and ran cheering after the motorcade. Maybe I wept. I was only 18 and, like most Englishmen, I loved Jack Kennedy. The Cold War was at its height. The Soviet Union had weapons of mass destruction, and they were aimed at us. The United States and Great Britain faced a common enemy, andor so we thought at the timeUncle Sam was all that stood between us and the Red Army and its firing squads, death camps, and ban on rock and roll. Of course we can all now see that the road from Kennedy’s inaugural addressindeed, from the Gettysburg Addressleads straight to Baghdad, but back then the Great Pretender seemed a warrior prince. The assassination of Jack Kennedy shocked me more than any other event in my lifetime.
The state visit of President George W. Bushthe first since the meddlesome Woodrow Wilson was put up by George V in 1918seemed very different. Few Englishmen love this American president. Two days before he arrived (with his 250 security men, three 747s, four cooks, two helicopters, 15 sniffer dogs, andor is this an urban myth?one Korean food-taster), the Sunday Times carried a poll showing that 60 percent of Britons regarded him as a threat to peace (though on the plus side 7 per cent said he was a good world leader). That’s why, unlike Nicolae Ceausescu on his state visit, Bush did not drive down the Mall in a carriage with the queen.
It was American security, not the royal household, that insisted on dispensing with that hallowed tradition and keeping the president in a bombproof bubble. But there are limits. The queen refused to have the Palace restructured to strengthen it against airborne attack. Her not unreasonable view seems to have been that if terrorists hijacked a plane and flew it into Buck House, they’d all be goners, so why mess with the pelmeting? On the other hand, sheor an aideagreed to the faux medieval awning in red, white, and blue that was erected at the entrance to the Palace. It looked like the Fourth of July in Muncie, Indiana.
What humiliating times we live in. The royal family is in almost as much trouble as Michael Jackson. Having made the mistake of hiring gay staffapparently on a whim of the late Queen Motherthe Palace is now reaping a whirlwind of spite from disaffected pantry boys and the like. In the days immediately before George and Laura arrived, the tabloids were encouraging speculation about unmentionable acts involving a member of the queen’s immediate family. There was shameful sniggering at dinner parties. The term “blow job” seemed to be everywhere. Maybe, therefore, the state visit was a welcome relief to the queen. At least it changed the agenda.
It was not a welcome relief to anyone in government, however. A week before the visit the prime minister said, “This is exactly the right time for [Bush] to come.” Before he left Washington for London the president said that he was looking forward to a “fun experience.” As far as Whitehall was concerned, however, this was a trip from hell. One Downing Street insider said, “That man seems to cause us no end of trouble, doesn’t he?” What really vexed the political establishment was not so much the fury of the mob as the scorn of upper-middle-class Tories in the home counties. There is a snob thing going on here, and, yes, it is disgusting, but this is England, or la perfide Albion, as our French friends call it.
The unique Anglo-American alliance the so-called special relationshipis almost certainly in terminal decline. On the surface, of course, it seems stronger than ever. No prime minister since the Second World War has given an American president as blank a check as the one Blair handed to Bush after 9/11. But the special relationship has always been a British conceit, and it exists today almost entirely in Blair’s head. A measure of the emptiness of the relationshipand of Blair’s headis that Great Britain has staged the largest antiwar rallies of any nation in the world. Though most Britons blame Blair, and Blair alone, for taking us into Iraq, they resent the Bush administration for what they see as its corn, its hubris, and its refusal to cut us any slack. The feeling is growing that America can rely on us, but we can’t rely on America. During his visit, Bush refused to reach an accommodation with Blair over steel tariffs, farm subsidies, andmost pressing of allGuantanamo Bay, where Her Majesty’s subjects are being illegally held.
Facile observations of that sort sadden David Frum, who was shipped in by the Daily Telegraph, the Osservatore Romano of neoconservatism, to dump on the protesters. He tackled the job with the sort of sanctimonious zeal one associates with Michael Moore. Though the big march attracted more than 100,000 peoplea larger turnout than the organizers had expectedFrum described it (in his National Review Online blog) as “relatively small and comparatively listless.” I must have been at another demo.
All the usual noisy and noisome suspects were there: international socialists, gentleman farmers, patriotic American mothers, Islamofascists, regular fascists, algebraic geometers, enemy aliens, charity workers, pacifists, daughters of baronets, nuns. It was pretty good-natured, and not at all anti-American, unless you think it anti-American to burn Old Glory, chant “Fk Bush,” and smoke grass in public. I admit that the toppling of the president’s statue in Trafalgar Square was not exactly cricketBush is no more to be equated with Saddam than Saddam is with Hitlerbut it had a significance that was lost on most observers. There were 20,000 cheering, stomping, whistling people in the square when Bush bit the dust. When the statue of Saddam came down in Baghdad’s Fardus Square on April 9the Berlin Wall moment there were at most 200 people present, plus a couple of relatively small and comparatively listless camels. They would not have been able to register their spontaneous joy at being liberated had it not been for the spontaneous arrival of a Marine tank crew and the spontaneous discovery of a tow-chain.
The Trafalgar Square stunt made Frum shake his head in virtuous sorrow and stunned disbelief. At least, however, he avoided the usual trick of the War Party, which is to observe that it is ironic, isn’t it, that the marchers enjoy the very freedomfreedom of abusethat they would deny the Iraqis. If you are against the war, so the argument goes, you are for torture and murder. Here’s another version of the same argument: if you opposed a nuclear strike against Moscow in 1956, you were for the murder and torture in Hungary.
Instead of focusing on irony, Frum decided to berate the protesters for not showing the correct sort of anger about the bomb attacks in Istanbul. “I asked everyone to whom I talked in Trafalgar Square to express for the record an unqualified condemnation of the murder of their fellow Britons in Istanbul,” he wrote. “None of them could do it. ‘Of course, I condemn it,’ they would say, and then, with a pause of barely a comma, they quickly added some words to the effect of: ‘But you have to understand how we have driven the bombers to do such things.’” No nuance is allowed in the world of the Manichee. Everything is absolute. I am reminded of something author Bill Kauffman said to me shortly after 9/11: “The word ‘but’ has been banned in America.” Of course, the bombers alone are responsible for killing 27 people and injuring a further 450, they alone are guilty, butbutwhat happened in Istanbul did not take place in a moral and historical vacuum. British targets were hit because of Blair’s close ties with Bush. More British targets will be hit.
As the world becomes daily more dangerous, Bush’s “bring ’em on” rhetoric has lost some of its strength and conviction. The line now is: “Oh, be nice! All we want to do is bring you freedom’n’democracy.” The coalition is losing in Iraq. One week it looks as though Bush is going to cut and run, since he doesn’t want American boys being blown to pieces on the eve of a presidential election. The next week, it looks as though he will appoint an insta-government in Baghdad and hand over security and the daily dribble of death to the Iraqis, among them, no doubt, unreconstructed Ba’athists. That would leave his boys to do the iron-hammer stuff: bomb empty warehouses and build ten-pin bowling alleys.
The bigger the military, the harder the fall. America may be the most powerful nation in the history of the worldshe can obliterate whole countries, whole continentsbut when it comes to defeating men on the ground she finds herself wrong-footed and outwitted, not so much eagle as elephant. For all her firepower, she is helpless against a resistance fighter with a donkey cart and a homemade rocket-launcher. Size is not always the same as strength. In America’s case, sizeaccompanied by a reliance on fabulously expensive technologyis beginning to look like obesity. America’s perceived strength, in other words, may turn out to be her weakness.
Having said that she could handle Iraq without the UN, the United States now wants the UN on board. The solution may be to send in NATO under a UN mandate. This might involve the French, which would be piquant. Though a practicing Atlanticist, Blair has taken so many hits over Iraq that it is unthinkable that he will join another U.S. action against a rogue state. Is Blair about to apostatize? He is committed not only to the European line on Iran, Syria, and Palestine, but also, in spite of some foot-stamping the end of November, to the European constitution, a European military force, and the euro. These are all federalist projects that will make the European Union increasingly independent of the United States. That does not mean that it will be hostile. Nonetheless, the idea of a truly united Europe scares the neocons. Think of a France the size of the United States, only richer and smarter.
And yet … we live in a time of accelerating history. The European dream may prove to be the flop that Eurosceptics and neocons pray it will be. At the same time, however, the United States may, as some in Old Europe hope, drown in a pool of grease and become the Brazil of the Northern Hemisphere. If the USE and the USA were both to fail, the meek might at last inherit the Earth. Or the Chinese.
Stuart Reid is deputy editor of the Spectator.