Is James Bond Responsible for the Iraq War?
How the Middle East really got shaken and stirred.
Is James Bond responsible for the Iraq war?
I ask this question in (almost) all seriousness, not in any way to promote the latest Bond movie, Casino Royale, nor the new book on Bond by Simon Winder, The Man Who Saved Britain, but merely to suggest that it was Bond—James Bond—who came to mind the night of Jan. 28, 2003, when George W. Bush, addressing the Congress, the American people, and the whole world, said those now infamous 16 words: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." By British government, he was speaking, of course, of Bond.
At the time, I did not give much thought to how Bond got this information, but I supposed it entailed a killing or two, a fast car, a gorgeous woman of situational morality, and a lethal gizmo provided by Q. Of course, I knew that it was not literally Bond who discovered that Saddam had gone shopping in Africa, but the fact that it was the British government that came up with the goods gave Bush's assertion unimpeachable authority. You need only ask yourself what the effect would have been if Bush had cited the Italian government or the Russian government or even the Israeli government, which could be seen as an interested party. "The Italian government has learned …" We'd still be laughing.
It turns out that Saddam sought nothing in Niger and that the British government was wrong. By the time that became clear, however, it was too late. We were already at war and learning not just how badly the CIA and the Pentagon could screw things up, but that British intelligence, for all its tea services, wasn't worth a damn, either.
This was truly shocking. I don't know about you, but whatever Bush said in the run-up to the war I took with a grain of salt. After all, the man could hardly speak English. But Tony Blair was a different matter. Blair spoke perfect English, full and well-rounded sentences—subject, predicate, verb. He was Bush's adult translator and when he stood in the Commons, placed his notes before him, and fulsomely Winstoned about the coming war and the dangers of appeasement, I paid attention. He sounded so awfully good, and behind him, seen but unseen, was all of British intelligence, never wrong and always well-dressed, heirs to a legacy dating back to the East India Company, Gordon in Khartoum, Lawrence in Arabia, Bell in Baghdad, and even George Orwell and Leonard Woolf, serving the empire (and taking notes) in far-off Asia: Bond. James Bond.
British intelligence. The term seemed redundant. It conjured up vast experience, levels upon levels of history, and, more than that, a cynical realism. When Americans were eschewing spying—"Gentlemen do not read each other's mail," Secretary of State Henry Stimson said in 1929—the Brits, uber-gents to a man, were steaming open envelopes galore, keeping a vast empire together with only a handful of spies, assassins, and dissolute diplomats who were not worth a damn after lunch. They did this—India and the rest—through cleverness. They were Israelis before Israel, running a goyisha Mossad that broke for tea, drank martinis, and repaired to clubs from which Mossadiks would probably have been barred.
No one fueled this fantasy better than the James Bond of the movies. You could watch any one of the 21 films and know that they were foolish, cartoonish, and just plain ridiculous, but then you know, too, that Victor Laszlo was not likely to escape a concentration camp in a Palm Beach suit and that "letters of transit" (whatever they may be) could simply be canceled. Still, Casablanca works magnificently. Movies mock reason; we see them not with our eyes but with some vestigial reptilian organ yet to be discovered, which is why we fear for the life of an actress on the screen, even though, the night before, we saw her discussing the movie with David Letterman. The Bond movies made us believe in a British secret service that had simply never existed.
In his book, Winder credits Bond with putting the stiff into Britain's postwar lip. The country had taken a bruising, losing the war (until the Yanks came along, and, oh yeah, the Russians pitched in), losing the empire, and losing its standard of living. For years after the end of the war, Britain was a nation that rationed staples and shivered in the winter. Just three years after Ian Fleming published his first Bond book (1953), Eisenhower virtually ordered Britain, France, and Israel to get the hell out of Egypt and leave the Suez Canal alone. Anthony Eden, a PM out of central casting—dashing and unbelievably erudite (he was fluent in French, German, and Persian and also spoke Russian and Arabic)—had to resign, humbled by Ike, who spoke only English and not, if you remember, all that well. Mortification. Nothing less. Britain was in the pits. Then along came Bond, and Britain, on the page and on the screen, was restored to its former glory.
In the United States, the books were only mildly popular until Jacqueline Kennedy gave her husband one of them, probably From Russia With Love. When word of the president's reading got out, Bond took off on these shores. The first movie was Dr. No. in 1962 and it, and its successors, did for Britain in America what Winder says Bond did in Britain. The face of British intelligence became Sean Connery, who Fleming himself originally thought looked like "a lorry driver." What's more, the earnest and colorless Felix Leighter, the spy from Wal-Mart, became the bland face of the CIA: No flash, no sass—and no ass, either.
In my mind, Bush was not exactly Leighter, but Blair was definitely Bond. When the British prime minister spoke, he did so with a forthrightness and authority that Bush lacked. He seemed the very voice of Newtonian, Darwinian, Shavian reason. "We do not want war," he said shortly before the war began. "No one wants war." I thought Bush did. I thought Blair didn't.
Richard Cohen is a columnist for the Washington Post.
Photograph of Sean Connery on Slate's home page from Wikipedia.