Of all the post-Victorian prime ministers of Britain, no one has been more decried by both history and historians than Chamberlain. Others may have been guilty of other misdeeds — Arthur Balfour for shameless cronyism, David Lloyd George for ethical promiscuity, Winston Churchill for adventurism and Margaret Thatcher for uprooting consensus for ideology — but Chamberlain’s desperate desire to avert another European war in 1938 has been equated with the most heinous of all moral failings: cowardice.
It is interesting to view history’s rounded denunciation of Chamberlain with an emerging judgment of the American president, George W. Bush, and his close ally, the British prime minister, Tony Blair. Chamberlain was anxious to avert a direct conflict with European fascism for two reasons: British public opinion was fiercely against another long-drawn war; and the economy was not strong enough to withstand a conflict. Even those venerable patricians who loathed Hitler, and everything Nazism stood for, were candid enough to admit that Britain would not be able to hold on to the Empire in the aftermath of a long war. Post-war developments quite clearly showed that the fear was entirely legitimate.
Nor should the weight of public opinion be discounted. The deaths and suffering after four years of inconclusive trench warfare scarred all sections of British society. By the conventional wisdom of the times, another European conflict was something that had to be averted at all costs. This was the reason why Chamberlain’s “peace with honour” was so enthusiastically endorsed by the British people in 1938. Indeed, till the end of the phoney war in 1940, the anti-appeasement brigade led by Churchill and sundry Communist intellectuals were labelled adventurers by sensible people. Having burnt its fingers over Belgium 25 years ago, ordinary Britons had no real desire of playing crusaders in Czechoslovakia and Poland. When war became inevitable in 1939, Britain joined in grudgingly and without the jingoistic exuberance which greeted the beginning of hostilities against the Kaiser.
The awkward run-up to World War II has, predictably, evaporated from public memory. Yet, there is bitter irony in the fact that whereas the ignominy attached to Chamberlain persists, there is growing disquiet on both sides of the Atlantic at the Anglo-American war on terror. The Iraq war was always contentious and Britain’s involvement was never fully endorsed by its people. But grudging acquiescence has today yielded way to fierce opposition.
The symptoms of a strategic impasse are there for everyone to see. The neo-conservative project of force-feeding west Asia with democracy is in a shambles. With the death toll in Iraq rising each day, there is horror when “experts” claim that more than half-million people have died in the conflict which began with the search for Saddam Hussein’s elusive weapons of mass destruction. Public opinion polls in the run-up to November’s mid-term elections suggest that Bush’s Republicans will lose control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Intrepid journalists such as Bob Woodward have documented the disarray within the Bush administration and argued that the people at the top are in a state of denial over a war that has come to be acknowledged as unwinnable. In Britain, where the conflict has forced Labour’s most adroit leader to announce his premature retirement, the chief of general staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, has publicly called for Britain to get the hell out of Iraq — an unprecedented step for a military man.
The Iraq effect is being felt all over the world. In Afghanistan, a resurgent taliban has clearly smelt the possibility of overturning the Hamid Karzai regime. Nato had one hell of a time trying to replenish its forces in Afghanistan with another 2,500 trained soldiers — it had to finally settle for Estonian participation. Pakistan, which was forced into the war on terror at gunpoint five years ago, has again begun dreaming of recovering its strategic depth in Afghanistan. Accurately gauging the fierce anti-Americanism in the Islamic world, it is quietly extending a helping hand to taliban and nurturing those Islamists who see future opportunities in India.
So debilitating has been the Iraq effect on Anglo-American morale that a crazy North Korean dictator has chosen the moment to make his country a nuclear-weapons state. Pyongyang is fully aware that the bleeding in Iraq has made it impossible for Bush to even consider another regime-change expedition against the demented Kim Jong-Il.
There is no consistency in the way people react to situations. If Chamberlain was pilloried by the “court of history” for doing too little and leaving the war against fascism for too late, Bush and Blair stand accused of trying to do too much and too soon.
Ironically, the very same arguments which were used to justify appeasement in the Thirties have re-appeared in calls for a retreat from the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan. If the iniquity of the Treaty of Versailles was used to press for a more sympathetic understanding of Hitler’s territorial designs, Zionism is being held out as the explanation for Islamist anger. And, just as one Tory back-bencher blamed the cultural deficiency of the Nazis on the absence of fox-hunting, Islamofascism is being attributed to veiled women traipsing through the Midlands.
The war on terror has weighed the multicultural man’s burden and found it deceptively lightweight.
It’s the endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan. The departure from Baghdad and Kabul will be highly spin-doctored but it will still not be Dunkirk. In all likelihood it will be another last plane out of Saigon. In time, the West will get its homeland security by coming down hard on the potential fifth-columnists in Bradford, Leeds and Tower Hamlets. Sheer expediency will force radicals of Pakistani origin to re- establish the “covenant of security” which was broken by al Qaida.
The implications are obvious: India will soon have to fight its own war against a force oozing with confidence, having worsted two superpowers in rapid succession.