Tony Blair's 1812 Reasons, Plus One

How to solve the riddle of why the British Prime Minister is so keen to stand on President Bush’s side?

September 24, 2002

How to solve the riddle of why the British Prime Minister is so keen to stand on President Bush's side?

In his speech at Ellis Island to commemorate the tragic events of September 11, 2001, President Bush opened with the words, “A long year has passed since enemies attacked our country.” How true that is.

What was missing in the air was the fact that a similarly stinging attack against the political and financial heart of the country — and ultimately the entire continent — had not been felt in almost 200 years.

Yes, there is always the comparison to the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor in 1941. As stunning as that attack was, it did not occur on the U.S. mainland.

After all, at that time, Hawaii was a rather recent territorial expansion in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The island had quite a way to go before it would be considered a real part of the United States.

As a result, Pearl Harbor hit the U.S. prestige and self-perception more than its innate sense of peace and integrity.

But over a century before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the feeling in Washington and New York was quite different. In a side show of the Napoleonic Wars, British troops attacked their erstwhile colonial possession — in the War of 1812.

That incident marked the first and last time — until September 11, 2001 — that Washington literally burned at the hands of a foreign enemy. U.S. ships had allegedly violated a British blockade of Europe. British troops resolved to burn the White House and much of the U.S. capital in retaliation.

That escapade — and the memory of a burning White House — gives Tony Blair at least 1812 symbolic reasons to support the United States in its currently planned venture in Iraq.

In quiet, Mr. Blair may also be concerned that Britain’s culpability, in American eyes, does not end with its early 19th century attack on the sovereign United States.

One just has to ask which nation established Iraq — which is the chief source of U.S. worries — in its present borders? Well, Iraq was created by Winston Churchill's famous "stroke of the pen" at the Cairo Conference.

He was also busy painting watercolors of the pyramids at the time, so his attention might well have been wandering.

On to another contemporary preoccupation of the United States today — Afghanistan. Ask yourself which nation — in the years of the “Great Game” — sought to occupy Afghanistan? Once again, Great Britain was closely involved.

The British had been competing with Russia for control of Kabul. Eventually, both powers agreed on Afghanistan as a buffer zone between their respective spheres of interest.

Looking at that sequence of events, strategic minds in London must feel understandably queasy. After all, what if their American brethren were to wake up and realize that — directly or indirectly — the real source of many of their present woes are related to the active machinations of the British empire?

Admittedly, this may seem quite a stretch. For starters, Americans are not by and large very interested in world history outside the United States. Plus, it would hardly be fair to lay the blame for all those disaster areas, especially Iraq and Afghanistan, on the British.

But it could become worse. With all that the United Kingdom has done to trigger present and past U.S. suffering, Mr. Blair must imagine a true nightmare scenario: That his country would be seen as the ultimate root of all present evil that is befalling the United States.

If that ever happened, the eternal evil-doers — aka the Germans — might be absolved of their long-time claim to American fame as the super-culprits. Who knows but with its fine sense for emerging trends, Hollywood might notice the shift in the winds. Move over “Hogan’s Heroes” — and welcome “British Marauders”?

In short, a potent combination of reopening historical wounds, paired with a dose of folklore, trivia — and drama, puts the United Kingdom in an uncomfortable spot.

So much for the 1812 reasons. Now to the additional one. As is well known, back in 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went to incredible lengths to appease the German dictator Adolf Hitler.

In opting for appeasement, he destroyed his political legacy, at least in all the books on modern history — and this is still very much present today. In fact, it is a stain on the otherweise often proud record of British foreign policy.

All of that goes to show why it would be wrong to believe that it is just George Bush and Dick Cheney who have some unfinished business with Saddam Hussein. The same is very much true for Tony Blair as well.

As he made plain during his speech to the British parliament on September 24, 2002, he is trying to do everything to avoid Mr. Chamberlain’s mistake:

"We know from our own history that diplomacy not backed by the threat of force, has never worked with dictators — and never will work."

Mr. Blair is trying nothing less than to undo a grave error of judgment by one of his predecessors which has left a dark shadow on British history in the minds of many people.

Yet, this time, the British Prime Minister is overshooting his target, just as Mr. Bush and his team are currently doing.

But Tony Blair, at least, very much feels that he has history on his side in pushing the Iraq conflict toward a rather immediate conclusion.

With all of that historical burden, it is no wonder that Tony Blair is keen to position himself so firmly on Mr. Bush’s side.