Oh, what a ‘wobbly’ war

The New Labour establishment is so nervous that it has begun to imagine a powerful anti-war movement that exists only in its head.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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On Sunday 28 October, the UK Observer’s front-page headline announced ‘Blair rallies Britain as war nerves fray’. On Monday 29 October, The Times (London) led with ‘Don’t wobble, warns Blair’. On Tuesday 30 October, the Sun splashed with ‘Cobblers to the wobblers: Blair’s rallying cry to halt war doubts’.

All of these headlines referred to a speech Tony Blair was due to make in Wales on Tuesday 30 October – and which has made the headlines once again since the prime minister actually delivered it.

Few speeches in history can have commanded national news headlines for several days in a row. Not even Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or Winston Churchill’s epic wartime tub-thumpers were splashed all over the front pages for days before they had uttered a word. Perhaps the attention lavished on Blair’s speech reflects his outstanding oratorical powers, or the high esteem in which we all hold the Welsh Assembly where he is to deliver it. But other explanations seem more likely.

The fact that leaked excerpts from a speech can make headlines for days in advance suggests that there are few new developments to report from the front. It confirms that, as we have noted before, this entire operation is a propaganda war, in which military action is shaped by political and PR calculations.

The way that the British government has been so over-keen to spin Blair’s ‘Don’t wobble’ speech also suggests that Whitehall itself is getting increasingly nervy about where this war is going. The passage that has been most quoted from the draft of Blair’s speech – ‘Whatever faults we have, Britain is a very moral nation with a strong sense of right and wrong’ – reads like the rather defensive words of a man trying to convince himself. Three weeks into the bombing campaign, could it be that even our preachy prime minister is no longer finding it quite so easy to play the righteousness card?

Foreign secretary Jack Straw and other leading New Labour ministers have endorsed Blair’s message, inevitably blaming a media ‘wobble’ for undermining public support for the war in Afghanistan. Yet most media criticism of this aimless-looking campaign has actually been rather muted. And while there is no war fever in Britain, there is no anti-war fervour either. It is almost as if the New Labour establishment is so nervous that it has begun to imagine a powerful anti-war movement that exists only in its head. Why else would it attach such exaggerated importance to crushing the handful of Labour MPs who have criticised the conduct of the war?

In truth the problems facing the American and British governments are of their own making. They have declared a war with no clear strategic aims, primarily for domestic political purposes, and now they don’t know either how to win it, or how to withdraw. So the goalposts keep shifting in Afghanistan, along with the estimates of how long the war might last – from a few weeks, to five years, to 50 years, to ‘indefinitely’. Any advance on indefinitely?

Fearing that they lack the authority to carry off the kind of decisive action that they appeared to promise after 11 September, the mood within the Western camp has increasingly become, as we noted here two weeks ago, ‘infected with fear and defeatism’. That is why the government can easily exaggerate the strength of the opposition they face, both at home and abroad. It is why they have seriously considered stopping the bombing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a proposal that would previously have been laughed out of the West’s court. It also helps to explain why a few questioning articles in the press can have a disproportionate impact on the isolated and wobbly political elite.

Whether Blair’s speech will have the desired galvanising effect is doubtful. To date, every time our governments have sought to steady nerves by raising the stakes, it seems to have backfired.

The Pentagon’s carefully staged one-off ‘made-for-TV’ raid inside Afghanistan by US special forces was a near-disaster, and has only raised more questions about the likely timing and direction of action on the ground. The British sabre-rattlers have fared no better. On Saturday 27 October, as defence secretary Geoff Hoon visited British troops in Oman, BBC Online reported him saying that the Royal Marine commandos were ‘raring to go’. By Monday 29 October, the BBC headline read ‘Marines “not ready”’, as their commanding officer insisted that they were in no position to launch ‘hasty’ action in Afghanistan.

As the growing chaos in Afghanistan shows, the defensive and indecisive posturing of our governments does not make this war any the less dangerous. Indeed, its apparently directionless character adds a new and destabilising element to military action. Nor will the criticism now starting to emerge within America stop President Bush from bombing Afghanistan. Most influential critics are calling for more military action, not less, and governments can always live with the demand to make war more ruthlessly.

Yet it is also becoming clear that, contrary to our leader’s hopes, the ‘war against terrorism’ is not going to provide an easy ticket to renewing the damaged political authority of Western governments. Nothing that has happened since 11 September has altered the mood of atomisation and political alienation within our societies, or galvanised public support for politics and government. Indeed, as everything from the ongoing anthrax scare to empty theatres demonstrates, strong leadership has often been noticeable by its absence, and many people have become even more withdrawn and inward-looking.

The problem facing the nervous authorities now is that all their talk of wobbling support can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, drawing attention to the uncertainty surrounding the war. One public opinion poll on military action already shows a sharp rise in the number of ‘don’t knows’. But the ‘don’t knows’ who really matter are those at the top, who don’t know what to do next.

The wobbles look set to continue in Washington and Whitehall, with uncertain consequences for the world.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked, and is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

Fear and defeatism infect the West, by Mick Hume

Now it is war – but for what?, by Mick Hume

More to it than anti-war, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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