On 1 April, the Guardian admonished the Prime Minister to remember the importance of living up to his good intentions:
Putting Iraq to rights, in Mr Blair's view, should be the whole world's business. The more that all nations make common cause to do this, the better. The less this happens, the more vital it is to balance any absence of common cause with a sense of equitable and humanitarian initiatives - on the Middle East and on reconstruction in particular - which can help establish what Disraeli, seeking to justify the British invasion of Abyssinia in 1867, called 'the purity of our purpose'.
Disraeli is perhaps not the most obvious of Tony Blair's predecessors for the Guardian to summon in aid of its own, consistently high-minded opposition to creeping American imperialism. It is true, nevertheless, that the British invasion of Abyssinia, which began in 1867 but concluded only in the spring of 1868, offers some striking parallels with this spring's conflict in Iraq. Disraeli's Abyssinian adventure was, as its architect conceded in the House of Commons on 2 July 1868, 'a most costly and perilous expedition', the announcement of which was 'received in more than one quarter with something like mocking incredulity'. Indeed, 'when the invasion of Abyssinia was first mooted, it was denounced as a rash enterprise, pregnant with certain peril and probable disaster.' The risks were diminished, however, by the massive technological imbalance between the combatants, and in the end it was no surprise that, as Disraeli put it, 'the manly qualities of the Abyssinians sank before the resources of our warlike science.' The decisive battle of the war - the Battle of Arogi - lasted for an hour and a half, at the end of which the British forces had suffered 29 casualties. Of the Abyssinian force of three thousand at least five hundred were killed; many more were wounded. So the nay-sayers and doom-mongers at home were also routed, and Disraeli was able to tell the Commons that 'we have asserted the purity of our purpose.' 'In an age accused, and perhaps not unjustly, of selfishness, and too great a regard for material interests,' he continued, 'it is something, in so striking and significant a manner, for a great nation to have vindicated the higher principles of humanity.' The Leader of the Opposition, William Gladstone, seconding Disraeli's vote of thanks to the troops who had pulled off this masterly campaign, could only acquiesce.
LRB 8 May 2003 | PDF Download