Politics & Policy

Azores in History

The Azores summit.

The waiting is all but over. The summit in the Azores has concluded. President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar have presented a united front. The world knows that Monday is the last day for a diplomatic solution to Iraq. Otherwise — war.

But in a sense this second war against Saddam Hussein began in our imagination months, even years ago. To communicate how dangerous the dictator is, war hawks have drawn vivid historical connections in the public mind: that Saddam is Stalin, that his Baath party resembles the Nazi party, that French appeasers are latter-day Chamberlains, etc.

Sunday’s summit in the Azores summons other vivid connections, grist for history’s mill. For example:

1. As if to give peace marchers around the world a reality check, the summit took place on March 16 — the 15th anniversary of the Halabja massacre. Halabja is the Kurdish city that Saddam Hussein attacked with chemical weapons. More than 5,000 civilians suffered a horrific death within hours, while another 10,000 were blinded, maimed, or disfigured for life.

After the attack on Halabja, Iraqi officials donned protective gear and went into the city to observe the effects of their chemical weapons. With clinical precision they divided the city into grids, then located and tallied up the dead and wounded. The subsequent report helped the Butcher of Baghdad learn how to launch even deadlier chemical attacks. (He launched 40 in all.)

2. The Azores summit was not the first to take place in the North Atlantic. In August 1941, four months before Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met in secret on a ship off the Newfoundland coast. One result was the Atlantic Charter, in which the two leaders deemed “it right to make known certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world.” Many of the Atlantic Charter’s articles could be dusted off and reasserted by Messrs. Bush, Blair, and Aznar today. For instance:

Article One assured the world that the war would not be prosecuted to expand empire. The U.S. and U.K. sought “no aggrandizement, territorial or other.”

Article Three stated that the Allies were idealistic. Their aim was to supplant tyranny with more just, democratic institutions. The U.S. and U.K. “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.”

To secure peace, Article Six did not merely argue for, but assumed, regime change — “the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny.”

Then came the kicker — Article Eight — which foreshadowed the creation of an international body with the authority and will to disarm dangerous regimes in the future. Where “armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside of their frontiers … the disarmament of such nations is essential.”

Given the accelerating irrelevance of the U.N., one cannot help but wonder if Sunday’s summit in the North Atlantic is the last chapter of a saga whose first chapter was written 62 years earlier in that same body of water.

3. When Messrs. Bush, Blair, and Aznar met in the Azores, they could hardly have chosen a backdrop more freighted with meaning.

About 700 miles west of Portugal, the Azores in modern times have linked Spanish, British, and American history. The British used the volcanic islands as an air base to bomb the German navy in World War II (the same air base where Bush, Blair, and Aznar met Sunday). Centuries earlier, Columbus reckoned by the islands in his voyages of discovery to the Americas.

Yet even before Columbus, the Azores were identified with one of the most fascinating men of the 15th century: Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), a Portuguese prince who sponsored the voyages that discovered, mapped, and colonized the Azores.

Textbooks say that Henry was one of the first modern men; without a doubt, his passion to advance mapmaking and navigation helped open up the world to Europeans bearing Western civilization.

But Henry was also one of the last medieval men. A committed Crusader, he was determined not just to outflank the Muslims with superior ships and navigation, but to conquer them where possible.

For 40 years Henry was the leader of the Order of Christ, a religious-military offshoot of the Knights Templar whose roots went back to the Crusades. Henry served the Order diligently by seeking to spread the faith, probe the extent of Muslim power in Africa, and find Christian allies. Henry’s chronicler Azurara wrote that the Prince searched in vain for one ally in particular — Prester John, the mythic Christian ruler of a great kingdom. Henry believed that with Prester John at his side, the Mohammedan infidels didn’t stand a chance.

Henry never found Prester John, but he succeeded in conquering some Muslim territory nevertheless. He initiated four campaigns against the Moors, the first a true crusade he led when only 19 years old. To achieve knighthood — literally to win his spurs — Henry set out to conquer the Arab port of Ceuta, on the African side of the Strait of Gibraltar. His zeal was infectious. The Portuguese he recruited worked day and night to prepare for their crusade. They mortified themselves by not eating meat so that the expedition would have enough sustenance. So successful was young Henry at recruiting his countrymen that a 90-year-old knight volunteered for duty. Henry’s crusade against the Infidel succeeded and he was knighted.

On the cusp of the modern age, Henry the Navigator personified the clash of civilizations that unsettles our world to this day.

This St. Patrick’s Day is indeed “a moment of truth,” as President Bush said at his press conference on Sunday. The world is on the knife’s edge. Yesterday’s system of international security — a product of world war and cold war — is fast losing relevance; the Azores summit shoved it aside. Today a “coalition of the willing” is the nucleus of a new system of international security. Given the momentous developments coursing by us, historians in the future may look back on the island summit as a vivid marker in the first war of the 21st century. “Azores” may itself acquire the piquancy of Casablanca, Tehran, and Yalta.

Gleaves Whitney is editing a book on the wartime speeches of American presidents, to be published by Rowman & Littlefield later this year.

Recommended

The Latest