We pay prime ministers to get the big issues right. Dexterity with the small change of politics does not excuse failure on the great questions that determine the fate of the nation. If politicians fail on these, they must, as Churchill once put it, be "pole-axed". Three spectacular examples of pole- axed 20th-century prime ministers stand out: Anthony Eden after Suez, Neville Chamberlain (much more belatedly) after Munich, and Lloyd George over the Chanak affair. Their previous achievements and personal qualities counted for nothing. Harold Wilson's survival after devaluation is a sobering counter-example. Because there was no generally acceptable successor in sight, he escaped the executioner. The result was misery for him and eventual electoral failure for his party.
By any reckoning, Tony Blair's Iraq adventure was a misjudgement on the scale of Eden's at Suez and Chamberlain's at Munich. Everything that has come out since - Robin Cook's diaries, the report of the Commons security and intelligence committee and the evidence submitted to the Hutton inquiry - shows that the misjudgement was even more catastrophic than it seemed at the time. Far more importantly, so do events on the ground in Iraq, and so does the remorseless downward spiral in Palestine. As Kenneth Clarke predicted in his Commons speech in February, the Iraq war has given an immense boost to Islamic fundamentalism and hugely augmented the terrorist threat. It also gave spurious legitimacy to the blank negations of Ariel Sharon's regime in Israel. Eden's misjudgement of Suez did great damage to Britain, but comparatively little to anyone else. The costs of Blair's misjudgement are borne, not only or even mainly by his own country, but by war-ravaged Iraqis, oppressed Palestinians and the western-leaning Muslims at the top of al-Qaeda's hit list.
Blair's motives were not disreputable, and his leadership was impressive, even brilliant. He showed extraordinary courage, determination and flair, and argued his case with a fervour unequalled by any prime minister since Gladstone. At least in theory, a good case could be made for what appears to have been his fundamental assumption: that the cause of multilateral global governance would suffer more if the US acted alone than if it could be prevailed upon to lead a coalition, to which it would necessarily have to make some concessions, as it did in the first Gulf war. It could also be argued that, once that premise was accepted, Britain had no alternative but to commit itself to fight alongside the Americans, come what might. Without such a commitment, Blair must have calculated, he would have no influence in Washington and therefore no chance to forestall the blood-curdling display of US unilateralism that he hoped to avert.
But he hopelessly misjudged the attitudes of the Bush administration, of the other permanent members of the Security Council, of the rest of the international community and (not least) of the core countries of the European Union. Despite the spin-doctors' attempts to pretend otherwise, the Americans did not muster a coalition. For all practical purposes, they had only one ally. And, as James Rubin (assistant secretary of state under Bill Clinton) showed in a devastating article for a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, that ally had little influence. British participation in the adventure did not make it multilateral. What the world saw in Iraq was unilateralism with a fig leaf. The Americans attracted as much odium as they would have done had they gone to war alone, and some of it spilled over on to their British adjutant.
Yet all this, once Gerhard Schroder had won the German elections on a ticket of resistance to Bushite adventurism, was predictable. So why didn't Blair see it coming? According to Cook's diaries, Blair, against all reason, first convinced himself that France and Germany would come on board, and then that there would be a second UN resolution. He was so convinced of his case that he could not bring himself to believe that other countries could disagree.
Even if we accept the assumption that he had to commit himself to go to war alongside the Americans, his tactics and strategy were hopelessly flawed. As Cook has pointed out, media excitement over the David Kelly affair, Alastair Campbell's frenetic battle with the BBC and the "over-egged" (or, conceivably, correctly egged) intelligence dossier of September 2002 missed the point. The real question is not whether Downing Street did or did not give the public an exaggerated impression of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's weaponry. It is why Blair led his country into war on the basis of intelligence we now know was wrong. If Cook smelled a rat, why didn't Blair? It was, after all, a pretty noisome rat.
Even more pertinent a question is why Blair went to war without planning for the peace. Why did he share the fatuous optimism of the neo-cons around George Bush? The British Foreign Office has many faults, but ignorance about the Middle East is not one of them. It is stuffed with Arabists. No Arabist worth his salt could possibly have imagined that it would be roses all the way for the occupying forces in a defeated and bomb-ravaged Iraq, or that the deep ethnic and religious fissures in that artificial creation of British imperialism would miraculously disappear. True, a strategy for the peace would have had to be a largely Ameri-can product. But if Blair had so little influence in Washington that he could not persuade Bush and his circle of the truism that it was senseless to invade Iraq without knowing what to do afterwards, the case for supporting them crumbles into dust.
The conclusion, I am afraid, is that Blair was as much to blame for these costly and blood-soaked errors as Bush and his entourage. He is now a potentially tragic figure, a sleeker, 21st-century Macbeth waiting for his Macduff.
As with all truly tragic heroes, his strengths became weaknesses. He was betrayed by the vaulting ambition that took him to the top, and by the dazzling mixture of charisma, energy and self-belief that kept him there. As he showed in the Commons debate on the eve of war, there is a mesmeric quality to his combination of moral earnestness and inflexible will on the issues he cares about; and his ability to mesmerise others stems from his matchless ability to mesmerise himself.
To overcome the rebels among Labour MPs, to retain his hold on the party rank and file, to win a seven-minute ovation at the party conference, he had to speak from the heart or at least appear to do so. His trump card was sincerity. As befitted the great actor he might have been had he made his career on the stage, he had to live the part he was playing. He had to feel, and not just to think, that he was right and his opponents wrong. Once he had taken the basic decision - and that obviously happened well before publication of the September dossier - he had to banish doubt. And doubt could not be allowed to creep back. The result was a fatal unwillingness to subject intelligence to sceptical scrutiny and a chasm of mutual incomprehension between Britain and the three leading powers in Continental Europe, as well as a blow to the authority of the UN and a deep fissure in the European Union.
If this were the whole story, the executioner would by now be sharpening his axe. But it isn't. The zeal with which Blair clings to Nurse in the White House is matched only by the zeal with which the Labour Party clings to him. His dominance stems, in part, from his extraordinary electoral achievements. Judged by the harsh test of the ballot box, he is the most successful leader Labour has ever had - indeed, the most successful centre-left leader since the modern party system emerged. Yet he does not belong on the centre left, emotionally or intellectually. There are leftish elements in his government's record, but they have nothing to do with him. Virtually without exception, they are the work of Gordon Brown. Subtract Brown from new Labour and it would have no claim on the centre-left label.
However, there is a paradox here that needs more exploration than it has so far received. It is often said that Blair is a stranger to the Labour tribe and Labour culture. That is obviously true. But his exoticism, far from making it harder for him to lead his party successfully, is an asset not only in his wooing of Middle England, but in his relations with his followers.
The Labour tribe has become so confused about its identity and purpose that it is more comfortable with a history-free, ideology-light leader than it would be with a fellow tribesman, covered in familiar warpaint. Blair's ideological restlessness and rootlessness - exemplified by his feverish flirtations, first with Will Hutton's notion of "stakeholder capitalism" and then with Clinton's "Third Way", and more recently by his willingness to snuggle up to Silvio Berlusconi, coupled with his patent indifference to the ideological chasm dividing Bush from Clinton - mirror the ideological confusion and loss of intellectual self-confidence that are the hallmarks of the post-Smith Labour Party.
This helps to explain what is, in parochial British terms, the single most extraordinary feature of the Iraq fiasco: that only two cabinet ministers resigned. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that nobody wanted to kill Blair in order to make Brown king. But that is not the whole story. On a much deeper level, the cabinet's acquiescence sprang from a profound failure of political imagination and ideological creativity. It showed that, on the central issue of 21st-century geopolitics, new Labour was still mired in the assumptions of the Second World War and the cold war - that, like the Whitehall establishment, it was still trapped in the mindset bequeathed by Winston Churchill and Ernest Bevin. It saw the "war against terrorism" (itself a phrase redolent of a world that has passed) as a replay of the Second World War or the Berlin blockade. It saw Saddam as a second Stalin or Hitler, and Bush as a second Eisenhower or Roosevelt. It was enslaved by the myth of what Andrew Gamble calls "Anglo-America" - an imagined community of spirit, girdling the globe from the Antipodes, by way of North America, to the white cliffs of Dover.
This is an old myth, which dates back to the first British empire, before the American revolution. However, it did not become a major influence on British policy-makers until the Second World War. At that time, it had a foundation in fact. During the war, there really was a special relationship between Britain and the US. It wasn't as special as British politicians pretended. The Americans stayed out of the war for its first two years. Even after they had entered it, their aid to Britain came with onerous strings attached. As Robert Skidelsky showed in the third volume of his life of Keynes, a crucial theme of US wartime diplomacy was a determination to undermine the protective barriers that sustained Britain's capacity for independent economic action, to penetrate our export markets and to ensure that the postwar economic order was shaped by US interests. Yet, given that we were fighting the war at all, we had no alternative but to cling to Washington and pretend, through gritted teeth, that all was well with the Anglo-American alliance.
Much the same was true of the postwar period. At first, Bevin hoped that Britain would hold the balance between Soviet communism and American capitalism. That was why the Labour government burdened the war-crippled British economy with inflated military commitments. After a couple of years, however, these hopes collapsed. After our withdrawal from India and Palestine, the empire was a busted flush. Continental Europe was too debilitated economically and too feeble militarily to count. Only the American alliance was left.
But what was rational in the 1940s and early 1950s was manifestly irrational by the 1990s, and is patently absurd today. The central question for the post-cold war world is how to respond to the destabilising combination of US-led globalisation and US hyperpower. To look at that question through the prism of postwar assumptions and the myths born of even earlier experiences is to invite disaster. Bush is not Roosevelt or Eisenhower, or even Reagan. Saddam was not Hitler or Stalin, or even Nasser. Blair is not Churchill or Attlee, or even Thatcher. Islamic fundamentalism is not Soviet communism; al-Qaeda is not the Comintern. Above all, the rich, largely stable, largely democratic, progressively integrating Europe of 2003 is not the enfeebled, frightened Europe of 1953 or even the still-divided Europe of 1973. Before the fall of communism, Soviet power dominated eastern Europe while US power protected western Europe. The dissolution of the Soviet Union removed Soviet power from the east and made US protection unnecessary in the west. If Europeans want to live as part of an American imperium, so be it. The point is that there is no longer any need for them to do so.
In these circumstances, Blair's repeated insistence that there is no need to choose between America and Europe, that those who think we face such a choice are foolish and wicked, and that it would be a disaster for the world if Europe tried to become an alternative pole of power to the US, is misleading at best and plain wrong at worst. The crucial dividing line in intra-European politics is between those who wish to be part of an American imperium and those who don't. It is simply not possible to be on both sides of that line at the same time. Third Wayist attempts to split the difference are spitting in the wind. And although most European political leaders are loath to draw this conclusion, not being part of an American imperium must imply building up a European pole of power.
The case for doing so is overwhelming. China is already on the way to becoming an alternative power centre, and India seems certain to follow suit. The choice for Europe is not between living in a multipolar world or a unipolar one. It is between living in a multipolar world whose destinies are determined by the US, China and India, and living in one in which Europe has an independent voice as well. The challenge to Blair is to redeem his Iraqi follies by opting wholeheartedly, and with the passionate brio that no other British politician can emulate, for the Euro-pean alternative. If he can do that, he will not only escape the executioner; he will deserve to.
David Marquand is former principal of Mansfield College, Oxford. His latest book, Decline of the Public: the hollowing out of citizenship, will be published by Polity Press in January