Thursday, February 04, 2010

Daniel Finkelstein, Blair, Churchill, and please a gold coin donation to the Churchill's Law swear jar ...

(Above: and if the Nazis always show up sooner or later, can Winston Churchill, Tony Blair and Saddam Hussein be far behind?)

Back in 1939, Hitler started the serious business of World War 11 by rolling into Poland and quickly producing a submission hold.

But before then he'd been busy annexing minor turf like the Sudetenland, making sure the Spanish Civil War would turn out the right way, and presiding over the the 'unification' of Germany via the Anschluss with Austria. Italy was off having fun in Ethiopia, and the rest of Africa was a hotly contested bed of European colonialism, while the Japanese had long been entrenched in China.

In short, the thirties was a time of turmoil. Fresh from the first world war and a world depression, and ready for a wide ranging rumble in the jungle.

By way of contrast, Saddam Hussein had managed an eight year long, ultimately futile war with Iran, in which he'd been helped out by the United States and other western governments, and an inept invasion of Kuwait, for which, after a seven month occupation, he was quickly and soundly spanked.

In short, the parallels between Britain in the thirties and the insanity of Adolf Hitler, and the preening coxcomb psychopathery of Saddam Hussein are marginal at best, and desperate and irrelevant in the main.

Could that be why Daniel Finkelstein scribbles Churchill's war a way to judge Blair on Iraq?

Must all uses of history be reduced to meretricious claptrap and ideological posturing?

It is of course a standard ploy, to revert to Churchill when intent on denouncing appeasement. Poor Neville Chamberlain has been the whipping boy of armchair military strategists for generations.

Never mind that the fight with Hitler inevitably quickly evolved into a world war, in which many parties became involved, and in which things looked grim, until Russia took on the main losses of life, and the United States offered industrial might - as opposed to a regional scrap involving a tinpot dictator, who was easily thrashed on a military level ... and never mind that in the regional bout with Iraq, the victors took a long time to understand that a military thrashing wasn't the only, or even the main part of the game.

Here's Finkelstein on appeasement:

At the time there were many who thought that victory at all costs was a silly policy. One of those people was Lord Halifax, Edward Wood, the foreign secretary.

At intense meetings of the war cabinet at the end of May, Halifax pressed for a negotiated peace, using the Italians as intermediaries. Churchill only narrowly avoided being overruled on this question. His position appears heroic now. But it is worth asking these questions: was Churchill actually wrong in 1940 and Halifax correct? And if not, why not?

Churchill strongly suspected defeat would come. Disaster followed disaster and by the end of May the position was almost hopeless.

As the war cabinet met, the fate of the Dunkirk evacuation remained unknown. Fighting on seemed to offer, well, only blood, toil, tears and sweat. And defeat. The chance of preserving something of the British way of life might be better with Halifax's scheme.

Well it always helps, when doing a retrospective job, to build up the role of the 'narrowly defeated' Halifax, while marvelling at how the heroic Churchill snatched his victory from the jaws of defeat. The black dog Churchill himself managed to do a splendid job in his own writings.

But what relevance does this kind of tract have to the conduct of Blair in the bringing about of the Iraq war, since Saddam Hussein is in no way comparable to Hitler - if only because Hitler actually had a more than fair sampling of what passed for WMD in his day, despite attempts at containment, and had already deployed them in various locales to considerable effect?

And what real chance the British would have settled for the lifestyle of Vichy France, and curled up in peace while Hitler strode the continent? In a way they'd never managed in their previous four centuries of military engagements in Europe?

Well if you work hard at teasing out a possible connection, you can end up with this:

You cannot judge whether Churchill was right simply by noting that, to use a George Formby phrase, things "turned out nice again". Victory might have come through dumb luck after pursuing a course of reckless irresponsibility. Using hindsight doesn't help. Without it you are left with two things. First, what was the probability of a good outcome or, conversely, a bad one if Churchill's policy was followed? Second, what were the consequences of good or bad outcomes?

Note the use of ukulele player George Formby for an authentic period establisher? What next? A chorus of underneath the arches?

Churchill's genius was that, at a very early stage and unlike almost anyone else, he knew the answer to not just one, but both these questions. He realised not simply that the probability of victory was tiny, but also that the consequences of defeat or even a negotiated peace were horrendous. That combination made a policy of "victory at all costs" the correct one.

Yep, you've guessed it. Forget hindsight, in the heat of impending battle as valiant Tony Blair tackles Saddam Hussein, in just the same way as Churchill took on Hitler, as victory at all costs must become the only cry, or else, who knows, Saddam Hussein might well end up encamped across the English channel in quisling France, while launching WMD at regular 45 minute intervals. All that would be needed to reduce Britain to a quivering mess of rubble.

But hang on, even Hitler didn't manage to invade or defeat Britain. What chance Saddam?

Never mind.

I write all this not as a historical rumination, but because, like many others, I have been riveted by the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. And I think the experience of May 1940 is directly relevant.

Directly relevant? Well thank the lord it's not a historical rumination, so much as a pathetic metaphorical justification for Blair, because otherwise Finkelstein would stand revealed as a dill.

This is not because Saddam Hussein should be seen as Hitler or because the threat from Iraq was remotely comparable to that from Nazi Germany or because the conflict we are now embroiled in is similar in scale or importance to World War II. It is simply that devising a way of judging Churchill helps to judge the actions of former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Well bugger me dead, if that isn't the caveat of all caveats. Sure it's not remotely comparable, or in any way to scale, or for that matter in any way relevant or useful, unless you want to think of Tony Blair as some kind of Churchillian bulldog (a comparison so comical that even the bulldog would have a good laugh), but don't worry about any of that, let's press on in the ineffable style of that Churchillian bulldog:

The inquiry will try to establish if Blair's government accurately and honestly assessed the probability of their actions leading to a good outcome (preventing use of WMD, securing a stable and prosperous Iraq). It will doubtless assess the consequences of what we did - the terrible deaths, the continuing instability, the fact that we found no WMD.

Yet I worry that it will not establish the one thing that was central to Churchill's judgment.

Hang on, hang on. There's conflation and then there's inflationary pressures that can reduce a reader to tears. Central to Churchill's judgement? As in Blair's judgement?

As my grandfather used to say, "Egad sir, you're talking complete tosh".

It won't ask or establish what would have happened if we had not acted. It won't do this partly because it is hard to do. You end up speculating. But also because human beings are prone to what is known as omission bias. We tend to judge things that happen because we made them happen more harshly than things that happen because we knowingly let them do so. We prefer sins of omission to those of commission.

Well actually the sin I most hate involves the pressing of historical figures into justification for the present behaviour of politicians, not because they can be relevant or valid, but because it can be done.

What next? George Bush as Theodore Roosevelt? Never mind that Roosevelt actually headed off to Cuba with the Rough Riders and earned himself a nomination for the Medal of Honor.

But back to Tony Blair:

The best case for our action - made, for example, by Bill Clinton's adviser Kenneth Pollack - was based on a speculation about what might happen if we did not act. Pollack argued that sanctions were breaking down and that every time in the past that he was free of such constraints Saddam had launched an aggressive war. If his sons took over they would be worse. The status quo would not hold, so we had to invade.

Yes, just like Hitler. Who, if you will remember, always had plenty of specious reasons to explain why the status quo would not hold, so he just had to invade. And invade he did.

Sorry, I'll put a dollar in the Godwin Law swear jar for useless and irrelevant historical comparisons, if Finkelstein puts a hundred in the Winston Churchill bulldog jar for wretched historical metaphors.

And where would we be if this didn't lead on to a proposal in relation to Iran?

It is not only understanding Iraq that depends upon the Chilcot inquiry assessing the consequences of inaction. It is also our policy on Iran. Last week Blair linked these two, and he was correct to do so.

Well as I recollect, one of the axes in axis of weevils was North Korea, certainly one of the vilest, if not the most vile, regimes on the planet. Dangerous and nutty. What are the consequences of inaction there? Why is there no talk of action by bold visionaries?

Could it be because it's too hard for the Churchillian bulldogs, too far away, and now Hong Kong has gone, no longer part of the British playground, and anyhow, it's easier for bullies to pick on countries they know they can demolish?

Could the Korean war have scarred their psyches?

No, no, no, always blame it on Vietnam, where the lefties ruined the west with their devious opposition:

Just as the outcome of the Vietnam War scarred a generation, so now our experience in Iraq shapes our attitudes. It becomes impossible to consider any action against Iran without thinking about what has happened and is happening in Iraq. Even the assertion that Iran's nuclear ambitions are dangerous reminds people of exactly the same claims about Saddam's weaponry.

Sob, you mean we won't be able to bomb bomb bomb Iran because Iraq turned out so well, and was such a jolly good job, as overseen by that fine descendant of Churchill's bulldog?

It is impossible to have a sensible Iranian policy unless we contemplate not only the potential consequences of acting - hard diplomacy, sanctions, even a military strike - but also the potential consequences of not acting. Can we sleep at night when a regime that executes dissidents is building a nuclear bomb? We have to measure the sin of omission as well as that of commission.

Sleep soundly at night Finkelstein, and dream often about North Korea. Which already has nuclear bombs, and no longer has any apparent signs of dissident life. Let's hope the sin of omission haunts your dreams.

And keep urging on the British bulldogs to do what damage they can to the middle east. They did such a fine job in the twentieth century, no reason to stop in the twenty first.

And is it wrong of me to think of Tony Blair as more like a carbuncle on Churchill's behind than bearing any actual resemblance to Churchill himself?

In the old days, such a traducing of history might have resulted in the perpetrator being taken out and shot. Or at least found with an ice pick to the back of the neck.

Fortunately Finkelstein is clearly no Trotsky. Better to think of him as a poodle or lap dog to the preening ponce Blair, who might in delusional moments imagine himself to be Churchill.

So history is reduced to a metaphorical mirror offering vain reflections to the vainglorious.

(Below: is that the bulldog Churchill in the mirror behind me?)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments older than two days are moderated and there will be a delay in publishing them.