How did Blair get here?

Conor Gearty on the folly of the impending war

Tony Blair is the most successful politician of his generation. He has transformed the Labour Party from a protest coalition into Britain’s natural and (it seems these days) perpetual government, a feat achieved by neither Clement Attlee nor Harold Wilson and not even attempted by the Party’s only other postwar premier, James Callaghan. Blair has skilfully contrived his views to appeal to that section of voters which determines the outcome of British general elections; the apparent effortlessness with which he has done this is evidence of a keen political instinct. Yet he hasn’t been afraid at times to challenge those on whose support he depends: his own Party (on Clause Four), the security state (on Northern Ireland) or the British public (on Kosovo). In each of these cases, he has a claim to having been proved right. We should remember this when we ask why he is so eager to fight a war that appears to the majority of his electorate to be unnecessary, highly dangerous and potentially very bloody (including on the home front).

Let us suppose that the Prime Minister is being advised by the military that this will be a quick and relatively painless war. The Americans will bombard efficiently and with overwhelming force, Saddam Hussein will be killed or dash off into exile with his cronies, and not very long afterwards President Bush will be accepting plaudits as the liberator of Baghdad. Various Iraqis of whom we have never heard will quickly emerge as approved leaders in some regionally sensitive democratic process. Hitherto hidden weapons of mass destruction with horrifying capabilities will be laid before the world’s media. ‘Ordinary’ Iraqis will all agree on how awful Saddam Hussein was. Effective regime change will soon be copper-fastened. Let us suppose further that the Prime Minister is being told that this victory will be forthcoming whether or not Britain (or anyone else for that matter) is on the US side.

How could Blair not be part of this? Having hung in through thick and thin, guiding the White House towards the UN, helping to secure a Security Council resolution which arguably does just enough to square international law with the demands of US military power, the Prime Minister could not possibly walk away now, on the verge of the tactical triumph for which he has worked so hard. And if he did depart with war looming, how much greater would be the sense of betrayal in Washington: being let down by a friend is far worse than the predictable disappointments served up by mere allies. Britain would become the worst kind of friend: one who was loyal and true but then suffered a last-minute loss of nerve. The Prime Minister wants to play an honourable, even heroic part in Bush’s victory, not to be seen as the worst example of a fair-weather ally.

Blair also believes in this war in a way that goes beyond political calculation, and he is convinced that the British public will eventually see that he is right. His distaste for Saddam Hussein is not a recent construct. In his speech in Chicago on 22 April 1999, when preparations for the Kosovo intervention were at much the same stage as those for Iraq are now, the Prime Minister spoke of that military action as being a ‘just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values’. The Nato action then being organised marked ‘the beginnings of a new doctrine of international community’. Even then, nearly three years ago, Blair was arguing that ‘many of our problems have been caused by two dangerous and ruthless men – Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic.’ The Kosovo conflict had to be won ‘to ensure that others do not make the same mistake in the future’ as Milosevic made in the Balkans, but also as Saddam Hussein made in Iraq, his people ‘reduced to poverty, with political life stultified through fear’. If the latest Gulf War is ‘unfinished business’ for Bush Jr, it is the same in a different sense for Tony Blair.

The attacks on 11 September 2001 added a new urgency to the ‘doctrine of international community’, but they did not generate a policy out of nowhere. In Blair’s mind, they entirely vindicated his already aggressively proactive response to world crises. This is clear from his address to the TUC on 10 September 2002, the day after a debate in which strong anti-war sentiments had been voiced:

Suppose I had come last year on the same day as this year – 10 September. Suppose I had said to you: there is a terrorist network called al-Qaida. It operates out of Afghanistan. It has carried out several attacks and we believe it is planning more. It has been condemned by the UN in the strongest terms. Unless it is stopped, the threat will grow. And so I want to take action to prevent that. Your response and probably that of most people would have been very similar to the response of some of you yesterday on Iraq.

He has a passionate desire to avoid being known to history as the Prime Minister whose lax approach to security exposed his country to attack by a ‘rogue state’ equipped with ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

Just as Blair has an instinctive feeling for what is necessary to win elections, so he has a talent for combining the politically convenient with the morally imperative. And if he is right, and a new international order is emerging which, under the benign leadership of America (‘it has no dreams of world conquest and is not seeking colonies,’ Blair said in Chicago in 1999), is set to transform the world for the better, punish dictators everywhere and remake national states into vehicles for democracy and the rule of law, then he is set to become a leader of Gladstonian stature, and to be judged by history not merely among Britain’s but among the world’s best. If this is the way international relations are to go, where better to start than with Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein? And if it has to be done in tandem with an unsavoury Texan right-winger who cheated his way to his own election, then so be it: ‘the hand of history’ (another Blair phrase) should not be scorned just because of the company it means having to keep.

The case for war, however, depends on the resolution of some very big ‘ifs’, and the tired demeanour of the Prime Minister as he tours the country and the world whipping up enthusiasm for conflict suggests that he knows how improbable the whole project has become, even from his own point of view. The state of public opinion has been well summarised by Michael Quinlan, a former Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Defence, writing in the Tablet (1 February):

It has become more and more widely recognised, in much of United States opinion as well as almost overwhelmingly elsewhere, that a regime-changing invasion would carry heavy risks both in direct costs of life, expenditure and social damage, and in possible repercussions for the future running of Iraq, the stability of the region, the campaign against terrorists and the global economy. Scepticism about whether dealing with Saddam Hussein is practically and morally worth the running of these risks has grown as public attention has reflected upon the gravity of the extraordinary step of starting a war more or less in cold blood. The notion of preventive war, to be undertaken without either evidence of imminent attack or urgent humanitarian catastrophe, is profoundly disquieting both in itself and as a concept to be let loose around the world. ‘We would surely have pre-empted 11 September had we known’ is no argument; we cannot operate on hypotheses of foreseeing the future.

If the war goes badly, it might well destroy Blair’s authority for ever. A delayed victory may prove as fatal as a defeat. Massive casualties in the Gulf – on either side – and even a few deaths at home are likely to be considered by the electorate as too high a price to pay for recklessly putting ideas about a new world community into practice. Even if the war goes as smoothly as Blair hopes, it will almost certainly have divided the Cabinet, split his own party and (for a time, until victory has been achieved) turned the country against him. After it is over, the US-led grab for Iraqi resources will guarantee the Prime Minister a rough time at home, whether or not the looting is legitimised by some sort of Iraqi democratic leader. The involvement of British companies in the asset seizures will be a source of shame rather than pride, unless the plunder can be presented as essential Iraqi reconstruction – a tough propaganda challenge.

Rather than celebrating, Britain will be waiting with trepidation for the next Bush speech – on North Korea? on Iran? – to start the process all over again and present the Prime Minister with exactly the same set of dilemmas as he faced in relation to Iraq. In the speech he gave in April last year at the George Bush Presidential library in Texas, Blair admitted that his internationalist goals carried a suggestion of ‘Panglossian’ idealism, but there is more than a hint of the Sisyphean about them as well.

Saddest of all for the Prime Minister is the emerging realisation that even on his own terms this is likely to be a bad war. Whether or not his speeches can continue to camouflage this as the crisis unfolds is unclear; already his jaded appearance and his body language have begun to give him away. Blair’s speeches over the last three years on the international community and the role of Britain within it reveal a consistent commitment not just to pre-emptive military action but also to international law; the achievement of a settlement in the Middle East; and a continuation of the US-UK special relationship. All three have been more or less publicly shredded by the US, leaving in place only the UK’s commitment to attack Iraq.

Take Blair’s devotion to international law. Unusually for a political leader, this is sincere, often repeated and well reasoned. In his Chicago speech in 1999, he set out ‘five major considerations’ determining when the international community should intervene in domestic conflict:

First, are we sure of our case? . . . Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options? We should always give peace a chance . . . Third, on the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake? Fourth, are we prepared for the long term? And finally, do we have national interests involved?

If Blair is right and these are ‘the kinds of issue we need to think about in deciding in the future when and whether we will intervene’, then it is not at all clear that any, much less all, of these tests have been met in relation to Iraq. In trying to develop a new basis for international law, Blair also recognised in Chicago that these ‘new rules’ would work only if we had ‘reformed international institutions with which to apply them’. If ‘we want a world ruled by law and by international co-operation then we have to support the UN as its central pillar’, but ‘we need to find a new way to make the UN and its Security Council work if we are not to return to the deadlock that undermined the effectiveness of the Security Council during the Cold War.’ Blair cannot have had in mind Bush’s way of making the UN work: that is, declaring his intent to engage in aggressive military war and inviting the UN to choose between sanctioning the inevitable action or standing by and watching it happen.

Second, the Middle East: here Blair is at his most plaintive. He told the TUC in September 2002:

Saddam is not the only issue. We must restart the Middle East Peace Process. We must work with all concerned, including the US, for a lasting peace which ends the suffering of both the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and the Israelis at the hands of terrorists. It must be based on the twin principles of an Israel safe and secure within its borders, and a viable Palestinian state.

In Parliament two weeks later, the Prime Minister was acknowledging ‘genuine resentment at the state of the Peace Process, which people want to see the international community pursue with the same vigour’ as the action then being contemplated against weapons of mass destruction: ‘the Palestinians are suffering in the most appalling and unacceptable way’; what was needed was ‘a new conference on the Peace Process based on the twin principles of a secure Israel and a viable Palestinian State’. But when just such a conference took place it was reduced to impotence by Israel’s refusal to permit Palestinian delegates (much less anybody significant from their own side) to travel to London. Blair’s much heralded conference became little more than a video-link discussion of the type seen regularly on Newsnight. The Israeli Government did not even bother to inform the British Government in advance of their decision to starve the conference of Palestinians: Jack Straw found out about it from the media. And the Americans seem not to have raised even the smallest finger to save the UK Government from this deep humiliation.

But Blair’s greatest misjudgment has to do with the special relationship. There is no obvious objection to proclaiming the closeness between the American and British people: ‘We were with you at the first. We will stay with you to the last,’ Blair said during his speech to the Labour Party Conference three weeks after 11 September 2001, expressing his ‘profound solidarity’ with the American people. There is not even a difficulty with proclaiming the close connection between the US and the UK as nation states; it is surely right, as Blair told a meeting of British ambassadors in London in January this year, that ‘we share their values’ and ‘it is massively in our self-interest to remain close allies.’ It might even be wise to strive to ‘remain the closest ally of the US, and influence them to continue broadening their agenda’. But Blair seems to have gone further: he insists on being the closest ally not only of the American people or the US state but of whichever government happens to be in power in Washington. No doubt this elision began when Clinton was in the White House, but it matters enormously now. Bush and his key colleagues are not people with whom the British or Europeans in general share many common values. The logic of Blair’s position appears to be that he would stick by the Bush Administration even if it were opposed by the American people.

The point of Blair’s commitment to this peculiar and narrowly defined version of the special relationship is to maintain influence; ‘the price of influence’, he told the ambassadors in January, is ‘that we do not leave the US to face the tricky issues alone.’ British people understand the price, but see little evidence of any influence. On the environment, on steel, on the International Criminal Court, the Bush White House appears to have done just what it wants. On Palestine, Britain has been brutally reminded it does not count. The Bush Administration has made it quite clear from the start that the UN has been an optional extra in planning for this war. So what exactly has Blair achieved by marketing his highly personal brand of the special relationship? Perhaps things have not happened that would otherwise have happened, but the problem for Blair is that people don’t see what the gains are – perhaps Blair doesn’t see them himself.

What the public sees is the Prime Minister visiting Washington again and again for private talks with the most powerful man in the world about how British Armed Forces can assist in an aggressive military action to take place thousands of miles from home. On the eve of war, this is what both Blair’s ‘doctrine of the international community’ and the special relationship have been reduced to.