At a Downing Street reception not long ago, a guest had the temerity to ask Tony Blair: "How do you sleep at night, knowing that you've been responsible for the deaths of 100,000 Iraqis?" The Prime Minister is said to have retorted: "I think you'll find it's closer to 50,000."
No British leader since Winston Churchill has dealt in war with such alacrity as the present one. Back then, it was in the cause of saving the nation from Nazism. Now, it is in the cause of putting into practice the foreign policy of the simpleton. During his nine years in power, Blair - and in this government it is he, and he alone - has managed to ensure that the UK has become both reviled and stripped of influence across vast stretches of the world. In so doing, he has increased the danger of terrorism to Britain itself.
Israel's assault on Lebanon is, in many respects, as disastrous as the war in Iraq. But at least then the pre-war hubris and deceit were played out in parliament and at the UN. This latest act of folly took place suddenly, with only the barest of attempts to justify it to global public opinion. And it stems from the core Middle East problem: the decades-old conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
I am told that the Israelis informed George W Bush in advance of their plans to "destroy" Hezbollah by bombing villages in southern Lebanon. The Americans duly informed the British. So Blair knew. This exposes as a fraud the debate of the past week about calling for a ceasefire. Indeed, one of the reasons why negotiations failed in Rome was British obduracy. This has been a case not of turning a blind eye and failing to halt the onslaught, but of providing active support.
Blair, like Bush, had no intention of urging the Israelis to slow down their bombardment, believing somehow that this struggle was winnable. Israel has a right to self-defence, but it could have responded to the seizure of its soldiers, and to the rocket attacks, by the diplomatic route. That would have ensured greater sympathy. Now, growing numbers in Israel itself realise that military action will bring no long-term solution.
Even if the guns fall silent for a while, the damage has been done. This is the score sheet so far: roughly 800 deaths; shocking images of the slaughter of children in Qana; no clear Israeli military advance. And the transformation of Hezbollah from an organisation on the periphery of Lebanese politics into an object of admiration across the Arab world. But it is even worse than that. Is the assumption that civilians are legitimate targets if they do not flee certain areas any different from the principles that underlay the US war in Vietnam? Blair and Bush have given their blessing to the forced displacement of a large population, in violation of the guiding principles of the UN Commission on Human Rights.
Lebanon will now provide a rich source of inspiration to radical Islamists in their distorted quest for martyrdom. Senior Whitehall sources involved in the fight against terrorism are gravely concerned about the consequences of the Prime Minister's failure to condemn Israel's actions. The intelligence services say it is too early to tell whether Lebanon has already contributed to radicalisation in the UK; they work from the assumption that it will, like Iraq and Afghan istan. This is not in any way to justify or suggest equivalence, but it is surely the duty of a leader to produce a risk assessment of his actions. If Blair is prepared to put Britain in greater danger, he has to persuade its citizens that he is doing so for good reason.
Blair, at his rhetorical best in front of friends in California, appears in no mood for self-doubt. "I have many opponents on the subject," he told Rupert Murdoch's elite gathering at Pebble Beach on 30 July. "But I have complete inner confidence in the analysis of the struggle we face." Either he is delusional, or he has no choice but to say what he says. One close aide recalls that when the Prime Minister was preparing a foreign-policy speech in his Sedgefield constituency in 2004, a year after the invasion of Iraq, he considered a mea culpa of sorts, but changed his mind, asking his team: "Do we want headlines of 'Blair: I was wrong' or 'Blair: I was right'?"
Whatever he may think alone at night, the Prime Minister is locked in a spiral of self-justification for his actions in Iraq, his broader Middle East policy and his unstinting support of Bush. His speech in Los Angeles on 1 August was spun as a rethink. If so, it is too little, too late. Historians reflecting on the Blair-Bush "war on terror" that followed the attacks of 11 September 2001 would be right to see it as a joint venture. Ultimately, his US policy is his foreign policy. It has, by his own admission, underpinned his every action.
But one part of the jigsaw that Blair claimed to be vital was never put in place. The "road map", drawn up in 2002 by the quartet of the US, EU, United Nations and Russia, has remained the best hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, yet it was never implemented, because Bush didn't really believe in it. If Blair felt so passionately about it, and if his public silence did win him the influence inside the White House that he claims to have, he could and should have stood up and been counted on that issue, if on no other. Instead, he meekly accepted American inaction. The horrific events of the past three weeks can be traced in large part to that failure. Blair's exhortations to his American audience at least to consider the Palestinian issue were lamentable.
Before taking office in 1997, Blair travelled light on foreign policy. Saddam Hussein's chemical gassing of 5,000 Kurds at Halabja in 1988 passed him by: unlike dozens of other MPs, he didn't bother to sign a motion condemning it. Once in power, and frustrated at the pace of reform in domestic politics, Blair seized upon the theory of "humanitarian interventionism" that grew out of anger over inaction, first in Bosnia and then Rwanda. His decision to back military action in Kosovo reflected that thinking, and led to tension with Bill Clinton over America's reluctance to commit ground forces.
Banalities of "good and evil"
Having spent a month in Rwanda in 1994, seeing attacks take place, I need no persuading that inaction can be as hideous as action. Sometimes it is right to fight, but - as Blair should know from his Chicago speech of 1999, in which he set out the principles of humanitarian intervention - the outcome is what matters. When I began work on my book Blair's Wars, I tried to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt, until I realised, on speaking to many people who worked closely with him, how simplistic and impressionable he was.
Now, as Blair hides behind banalities about "good and evil" and the familiar, crude definitions of "terrorism", his ministers look on helplessly. They talk openly to journalists - in the "you can print it, but just don't name me" deal that is the coward's life at Westminster - of Blair's "Bush problem". Shortly before MPs left for their summer break, one senior member of the cabinet accosted me in the corridors of the Commons, and asked: "How much further up their arses do you think we can go?" I suggested that this was more up to him than to me.
At least over Iraq someone resigned. This time, ministers do nothing. Their private complaints have no moral or political value, because they will not stop Blair. Under cabinet rules of collective responsibility, they are endorsing the Israeli assault.
Blair's survival in power is no longer a game of cat-and-mouse with Gordon Brown; it is no longer a question of Labour's ability to stave off the Conservatives. It is far more serious than that.
A record of conflict: the death toll from wars Britain has fought under three prime ministers
9 years in power
Iraq war (2003-)
115 UK troop deaths 30,000 Iraqi troop deaths (estimate by Gen Tommy Franks in Oct 2003) 39,460-43,927 civilian deaths (Iraq Body Count)
16 UK troop deaths (as of 1 August 2006)
1,300-8,000 direct civilian deaths (Guardian estimate). Unknown Taliban deaths
Sierra Leone (2000-2002)
1 UK troop death 25 foreign troop deaths (at least)
Nato bombing of Serbia (1999)
No UK troop deaths. Unknown Serbian troop deaths 500-1,500 civilian deaths (according to Human Rights Watch/Nato estimates)
Operation Desert Fox (1998)
200-300 Iraqi deaths (based on UN estimate)
7 years in power
Gulf war (1991)
16 UK troop deaths 20,000-22,000 Iraqi troop deaths 2,300 civilian deaths (according to the Iraqi government)
11 years in power
US bombing of Libya from UK bases (1986)
100 Libyan deaths
Falklands war (1982)
255 UK troop deaths 655 Argentinian troop deaths 3 Civilian deaths
The figures do not take into account the estimated 350,000 Iraqis who died as a result of sanctions between 1991 and 2003 - under John Major and Tony Blair.
Blair's body count is probably underestimated here because there are no figures for Taliban and Serbian military deaths.
Estimates for Iraqi deaths range between 30,000 and 300,000. The official Bush estimate is 30,000 deaths. Iraq Body Count estimates between 39,460 and 43,927, although it admits this is far below the real total, as the database counts only reported deaths. A Lancet report in 2004 estimated 100,000 deaths, although one of the authors says the total could be 300,000.
Research: Daniel Trilling