In a hotly contested field, the most dismal awakening of my life took place yesterday morning, alone, hungover, in a hotel bedroom in Tel Aviv, when I found that the television was still burbling from the night before and that Don King, the infamous boxing promoter with the conviction for assault and the Van der Graaf Generator hair was on screen announcing to an appalled planet that the American people had awarded a second term of office to the cross-eyed Texan warmonger George Dubya Bush.
If ever there was a moment for burying your head in the many superfluous hotel pillows, and issuing a groan of self-pity, this was it.
Not four more years of a man so serially incompetent that he only narrowly escaped selfassassination by pretzel, and also managed to introduce American torturers to Iraqi jails. Who on earth, I moaned, can conceivably have supported this maniac with his monochrome Manichaean rhetoric that has done so much to encourage the nasty strain of anti-Americanism that now afflicts so much of the world?
Who did it? Who were the idiots who backed him, I whimpered, in that weak pre-breakfast state.
And then I remembered. I backed him, come to think of it. In fact, not only did I want Bush to win, but we threw the entire weight of The Spectator behind him. We wrote a magnificent leading article in which we recounted these well-known weaknesses of Dubya, and then set them beside the weaknesses of John Kerry: his air of Herman Munster gloom, his flip-floppiness over Iraq, his greater hostility to free trade, his love of higher taxes. We then closed our eyes and, in a tumultuous final paragraph, we exhorted the people of America to vote for Bush, as marginally the less undistinguished of two undistinguished alternatives.
It is well known that Spectator editorials can have an explosive effect, even among populations not normally thought of as avid readers. It may even be that we tipped the scales in Ohio, and there will always be part of my heart that suspects it was the Spec wot won it for Dubya.
But not all readers will be satisfied by this account, and will be wondering what other factors saved the President. A certain amount of mild tosh will be written this morning about the “lessons” for the Tories from the Republican victory, and the way British Conservatives need to become more like their hot-dang Bible-bashing church-going American cousins, and how we need to emulate the family values of the vast suburban flyover country that voted for Bush.
I am not certain that these qualities, however admirable, can be easily implanted into the brains of suburban Brits; but in any case, the championing of such attitudes was not the most important cause of the Bush triumph.
As Karl Rove predicted, in a speech I heard him make at the Republican convention, Bush won because of the war. He won not because he’d handled it well (he hadn’t), but because he was a president at war, and because in the end an anxious population – especially, I think, women – wanted his certainties rather than the ghastly nuances and tergiversations of Kerry.
And in presenting himself as a half-successful war leader, and a man in whom his country could place confidence, he had one invaluable testimonial. Perhaps even more important than the support of a British weekly, he had the support of Tony Blair. Time after time, on the stump, he invoked the name of our Prime Minister in token of his international approval.
He did not bother with the leaders of Spain, South Korea, Australia, Afghanistan and other such coalition members. Blair was the name that resonated with Americans; Blair is big in America, and now Bush owes Blair big, and for all our sakes Blair must now make sure that Bush delivers.
I have spent all day charging around Israel and the West Bank, the high stony landscape of Judaea and Samaria, where the feeling of injustice is the proximate or anteproximate cause of so much Muslim hatred of America. I can see the limitations of what any American president might accomplish. There is no way he can instantly stop the Israelis building their tragic and disastrous wall; there is no way he can stop Hamas from luring poor confused young men to blow themselves up in crowded markets.
But there is one thing Bush can do in his second term. He can use all his influence – the influence that comes with more than $3 billion of support for Israel – to speed Ariel Sharon in his plan for disengagement from Gaza and, we must hope, from almost all of the rest of the occupied territories. Too few people in Britain understand the immensity of what Sharon is planning to do next year.
He is planning to winkle 6,000 settlers out of Gaza, a territory they consider to be theirs by act of God. He faces the kind of psychotic reprisals the settlers visited on Rabin. Bush needs to help Sharon, to encourage him, and to insist that he stop the evil of building new settlements – an act that is cruel to the settlers themselves, since their houses will one day have to be abandoned. And if Bush won’t act, then Blair must insist, publicly, that he does.
One other thing. Some of us voted for the Iraq war. We gave Bush and Blair a vote of confidence, and do not feel, to put it mildly, that it has been repaid. Britain went along with an operation without being consulted on the practicalities, and it might, in retrospect, have been better to have had a closer discussion of the Pentagon’s plans. If Bush is about to unleash violence against Fallujah, then we deserve, as coalition members, to be consulted.
Bush has a chance to be a great second-term president. If Arafat vanishes, there is a fantastic chance to push for peace in Palestine. If Bush fails to push, it will be Blair’s failure, too.