In arguing for war, Blair enlists history as his ally

In a poll this week, just 31 percent of Britons said they were happy with Blair's leadership.

Before a possible war with Iraq has even started, Britain is wondering how it will go down in history.

A rerun of the triumphant 1991 Gulf War? The 1930s all over again? A short, victorious conflict like the 1982 Falklands affair? Or one of those disastrous foreign adventures that cut a prime-ministerial career short, like the Suez crisis of 1956?

This is no idle debate. It's of considerable importance in particular to Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose popularity is plummeting here because of his ardent support for using force to topple Saddam Hussein.

In a poll this week, just 31 percent of those questioned said they were happy with Blair's performance as prime minister, as antiwar feelings continue to mount here. With his approval ratings at risk as never before, Blair has sought recently to enlist the support of a powerful ally: the past.

That is why Blair's arguments increasingly sound like a crash course in history and why recent speeches have been littered with references from the annals of the 20th century.

Perhaps the most eye-catching reference came last week, when Blair drew comparisons with the 1930s, and said appeasing Saddam Hussein now makes no more sense than appeasing Hitler did.

"We look back now and with the wonderful benefit of hindsight we think it all obvious; obvious fascism was a threat, obvious we had to fight it; obvious the opponents of fighting it were wrong," Blair told a Labour Party rally. "But none of it was obvious," he said, noting that former prime minister Neville Chamberlain was considered a hero for his 1938 Munich peace pact with Hitler. "He did it for the best of motives. He strove for peace, not because he was a bad man. He was a good man. But he was a good man who made the wrong decision."

The problem for Blair is that historians don't buy it. They say the comparisons are glib. The events that led to the start of World War II were different from today's Iraq situation. Hitler, with his formidable hardware, fascist ideology, and designs of territorial aggrandizement, posed a very different threat than that of Saddam Hussein.

"Munich is no parallel - the circumstances are very different," says Robin Clifton of Warwick University. "Hussein is no Hitler, he has not behaved in the same way and does not have the same ideology."

Clifton said a more obvious parallel was the first Gulf War, but there, too, incontrovertible differences this time around make comparison a redundant exercise.

"The more immediate parallel is the 1991 war which the US won at a canter, and they are banking on doing so again," says Mr. Clifton. "But this time, they'll be using paratroopers to get close to Baghdad to precipitate a collapse, so it will actually be nothing like the old Gulf War.

"The downside risks are protracted fighting in Baghdad, and that they don't catch Saddam Hussein, and that there are considerable repercussions in the Arab world," he adds.

Politicians love to use history as a tool to justify policy. Not only does it provide robust, compelling arguments in favor of a course of action, but it makes them look profound and well-read at the same time.

The tendency drives historians mad, however. They argue that such a shallow use of the past is selective, tendentious, and sometimes just factually incorrect.

"One should be careful of the way politicians use history for easy comparisons," says HewStrachan, professor of the history of war at Oxford University. "That is not to say there isn't a value in history, because we learn from experience.

"When it becomes crass is when we take history and put it on top of the existing crisis and use it as a template," Professor Strachan adds.

There is, after all, a certain selectivity at play here. No one hears Blair mention the historical lessons of Vietnam or Northern Ireland. Nor has he mentioned the 1956 Suez crisis, which is arguably a more appropriate comparison. (An Arab dictator threatening to destabilize the Middle East; Western commercial interests at stake; a coalition to 'fight the good fight'). That is because the war with Egypt resulted in a fiasco that ousted the prime minister of the day, Anthony Eden.

Instead, Blair dwells on his own forays into warfare. With four interventions in six years - the 1998 Baghdad bombing, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan - Blair has launched more military offensives than any British leader since the end of the empire.

In particular, he recalls the 1999 Kosovo campaign and its similarities to the Iraq crisis: an ugly dictator, oppressed victims, a divided international community - and a war won in 75 days.

But historians are wary of facile comparisons. Strachan says history is about looking for the variations in situation, not the similarities.

"As [the Prussian military strategist Karl von] Clausewitz said, there is a value in studying history of war, but it shouldn't accompany the general onto the battlefield," Strachan says. "I really don't think history does repeat itself."

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