Were politics on either side of the Atlantic burdened with such notions as shame, integrity or even results, both British prime minister Tony Blair and American president George Bush would be struggling for their political survival. Both lied to their electorates in order to prosecute an illegal war against the will of the international community. Neither has a clue how to rebuild the country they have just destroyed - other than with more force, which is resulting in greater loss of life on both sides. Both have now defended their dogged pursuit of this course on the grounds that even if they were wrong about the pretext for doing it they were right to do it anyway.
True, both have their own specific local difficulties that are related to, but deflect from the big picture. Bush has the 16 words in his state of the union address that everybody knew were untrue and almost everybody but himself will take responsibility for. "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Blair has the death of Dr David Kelly on his conscience and Kelly's ghost to haunt him in the form of the Hutton inquiry.
But they both went into this guns blazing, flying around the world like Top Gun on E, telling anyone who would listen that they were in charge and there would be hell to pay. Now their case has been shot down in flames. They were both in it together. But at present, while one is clearly wounded, the other is fighting for his political life.
The fact that Blair, who was elected with one of the largest parliamentary majorities in British history, is in such deep trouble while Bush, who was selected by judges with a minority of the popular vote, has emerged little more than scathed, is sadly not a measure of the higher standards of honesty and probity to which we hold our politicians in Britain. It is rather a testament to Blair's political and personal follies and Bush's relative acuity.
This is not to say that Bush does not have problems and that those problems could not grow into something substantial. Most recent polls show that his approval ratings have dropped, as has support for Republicans on handling terrorism, on the postwar situation in Iraq and on foreign policy. A recent CBS poll showed that over half believed the Bush administration overestimated Iraqi weapons, while the number who think America is not in control of the situation in Iraq has doubled since April to 41%.
Such figures might be the beginning of a trend that could easily gather pace. More than the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction, however, it is the daily news of more dead American servicemen and the prospect of eternal occupation costing enormous amounts of money that is sapping support for war. Early this month, a colonel had to be escorted from a meeting with around 800 wives of servicemen at a base in Fort Stewart, Georgia, angry at the fact that their husbands are still in Iraq. "They were crying, cussing, yelling and screaming for their men to come back," said Lucia Braxton, director of community services at the base.
But for the time being it is merely political gravity bringing Bush back from the stratosphere. The Republican party's figures on terrorism and foreign policy may have fallen. But they are still higher than the Democrats'. Two-thirds of the nation still think bombing Iraq was the right thing to do - and the key priority has already switched back to the economy.
One reason Bush has disappointed so few is because he promised so little. Bombing Iraq did fit into the doctrine of the pre-emptive strike and regime change which he had already embraced. Without weapons of mass destruction it is more difficult to explain precisely how Saddam was a threat. But by its nature pre-emption does not demand proof, only supposition and strength. Bush said he would be happy to go to war without the UN if necessary, and security council negotiations served a purpose so long as they fit in with his military timetable. He never claimed he wanted to re-order the world but said his priority was to protect American interests.
Moreover, when it comes to foreign policy, Bush embodies a pervasive American mindset. Like much of the rest of the country, before September 11, he was a mixture of ignorant and indifferent to the rest of the world. Now, like many here, he is afraid of it and prepared to lash out at those he perceives as his enemy.
Blair on the other hand literally promised the earth. There was no mention of Iraq, let alone North Korea and Iran, when he pledged to "re-order this world around us" shortly after September 11, but Congo and Kyoto featured prominently. Having been elected on a modernizing agenda to improve public services, he retreated to the imperialist, global aspirations of Victorian Britain. He claimed he would act as a bridge between Europe and America, but in fact he was simply a conduit for war. His refusal to back unilateral action might have made some difference to Americans; his decision to participate anyway made none. Finding weapons of mass destruction, not regime change, was his stated aim. Without them he is as exposed as any naked emperor possibly could be.
Everything Blair has needed to make this military adventure palatable to his own political constituency, from United Nations assent to cheering crowds of liberated Iraqis, never materialized. In short he sold a completely different conflict than Bush to a completely different audience. With the project an absolute failure he is left calling on history to judge him. History will judge. But unlike the millions who took to the streets in February in opposition to the war, it will never vote.
On its own this might have been an unfortunate state of affairs from which he might recover, albeit damaged. But Blair's conduct during the war has not been aberrant, but consistent. His alienation of natural allies, his reliance on spin from Downing Street and rhetoric from Wapping, his attacks on the liberal media and his distance from the Labour party in whose name he governs, have all been hallmarks of his premiership.
As such, Dr Kelly's suicide was the tipping point - the apparently arbitrary moment when the national political mood shifts irrevocably to slam the door on the benefit of the doubt. It is not some abstract notion of shame or integrity that has blighted Blair, but the accumulation of slights, blunders, indiscretions and insensitivities. Before Dr Kelly's death, Blair's shortcomings were tolerated either as a price to pay for his promised achievements, the inevitable rough and tumble of his position or the lack of a viable alternative. From now on, he is not so much exercising power as simply holding on to it.
Sadly this may be enough for him. Saturday will mark the longest period of continuous Labour government ever. This is Blair's achievement. Being in office. What he has done with it, whose interests he has served and whether he feels any connection to the legacy of the former record-holder, Clem Attlee, is another matter. Bush knows his audience; Blair has fatally misjudged his.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003