Politicians with God on their side

A WEEK in the United States, such as I have just spent, is enough to make anybody feel a trifle fed up with God, or rather with the relentless invocation of the deity by American politicians, led by their President. No public occasion would be complete without the blessing of the Almighty being besought for whatever endeavour tops the agenda, most prominently the war in Iraq. There is an attractive rationalist case for insisting that candidates for election anywhere in the world are required to sign a declaration forswearing religious affiliation. Had this been done in Ireland a couple of generations ago, think what we would have been spared.

Few modern political careers are compatible with religious principle. Government by atheists would relieve us of the irksome moral conceit that impels George W. Bush and Tony Blair to do deplorable things while remaining convinced that slots are kept open for them in heaven.

I am not in the least anti-religious. If pressed I would describe myself as a social Anglican. Yet I find myself increasingly eager to be governed by politicians who profess no pretensions to a hot line to a higher power.

The West may find that the struggle against militant Islam is an inescapable challenge of the 21st century, extending far more widely than the present engagement with a few thousand fanatics. Most of us wish to explore every avenue of accommodation before reconciling ourselves to armed conflict. Yet we now face another four years at the mercy of a U.S. President who perceives his own God as foremost among White House advisers and regards the contest with Islam as already begun.

The last British Prime Minister before Mr. Blair to perceive himself in a special relationship with the Almighty was Gladstone. Yet oddly enough, Gladstone strongly resisted General Charles Gordon's attempts to force Christian Britain into military confrontation with Islam, in the Sudan in 1884.

British foes of the Mahdi used many of the same arguments for deposing him as were deployed by Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair against Saddam Hussein: shocking tyrant; unspeakably brutal to his own people; threat to the stability of the region. Yet Gladstone rejected calls for intervention until Gordon, by calculated self-immolation in Khartoum, excited British public opinion to such a pitch that the Prime Minister felt compelled to act.

A relief force was belatedly dispatched up the Nile, which failed to reach Gordon in time, and withdrew amid much public anger at home. This might be described as Gladstone's first Gulf war.

The Mahdi died, of course, leaving his Sudanese empire in the hands of a successor, the Khalifa. The British launched their second Gulf war against Sudan in 1898, in a spirit of unfinished business not dissimilar from that which prevailed in the 2003 White House. Kitchener duly disposed of the Khalifa and his Dervish followers at the battle of Omdurman, with an application of firepower ruthless enough to delight Donald Rumsfeld.

Interestingly, while the British felt pleased with themselves for having squashed Mahdism, they did not represent Omdurman as a triumph for Christianity. It was perceived simply as a victory for the Union flag (to use the British flag's official name).

Some of us would feel more comfortable today if American and allied foreign policy could be discussed solely in temporal terms, without bringing God into the deal at all. One of the more grotesque landmarks of the Bush presidency was established this time last year, when the Los Angeles Times revealed that a top general was touring Christian fundamentalist churches assuring congregations that he knew "our side" would prevail in the struggle with Muslim extremism "because our God is a real God" and the other side's is a phoney.

The world waited in vain for Mr. Rumsfeld to sack this grotesque Strangelovian, whose words seemed to undermine every possibility of constructive engagement with Islam. In Washington an academic said to me sardonically: "This administration will never sack a general for saying things that every senior figure in the cabinet believes," and so it proved.

Bob Woodward vividly records in his book, Plan of Attack, an exchange with Mr. Bush, in which he asked whether the President had discussed the Iraq invasion with his father before making the decision to act. No, said Mr. Bush. He preferred to consult his "higher father."

Many of us at the mercy of America's President, which means most of the world, tremble in the face of this sort of thing. Even in the darkest days of 1940, Churchill never seriously invoked the deity, though he had vastly better reason to do so than either Mr. Bush or Mr. Blair. Nor did Margaret Thatcher.

Yet no prominent Western statesman dares publicly to question the role that God's American hijackers play in making the world more dangerous.

I am not making a case for the appeasement of the West's Islamic critics and enemies, but merely for policies likely to diminish the fertility of terrorist recruiting prairies, based upon treating their religion with common respect.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

(Max Hastings is a former editor of the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard.)

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