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Blair’s Infatuations

911 papers

The skies over New York on the morning of 11 September 2001 were famously clear: the skies over much of the eastern seaboard three mornings later were covered by cloud low enough to have obscured the top floors of the World Trade Center, had its two towers not been destroyed. There was a hope that overnight rain would put out the fires burning in the ruins and the wreckage at Ground Zero. But the fires burned for weeks, and anyone who knew their smoke will remember it for ever.

More easily forgotten is how the fall of the towers brought down many other buildings. A few days later I helped a visiting Anglia TV film crew extricate their belongings from the 36th-floor apartment they had rented a few blocks to the south — they had been making a documentary about an animal rescue team in Manhattan. A couple of them were lucky to avoid falling steelwork; firefighters immediately behind them were never seen again.

There was no power, the elevators didn’t work, it was a long walk up an unlit stairwell with torches, each step covered in ash. The living-room of the apartment had been left in a hurry; plates of bread, a bowl of unfinished cereal, a knife with some jam on it, tea that hadn’t been touched. I looked out the window. The ground was covered in girders and from that height it looked as if someone had spilt a large box of matches. There were crushed red objects among the girders; they had been fire engines. Everything about 11 September defied scale: no large TV, no cinema screen conveys how vast the scene of the destruction was. The smoke clouds that rose up when the two towers fell look big in footage of the destruction, but seen from the roof of a six-floor walk-up a mile away, they were much, much bigger.

In Washington DC that Friday there was an ecumenical service at the National Cathedral, which I watched in my apartment on Fifth and First. At the end they sang ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, a marching song if ever there was one.

George W. Bush travelled to New York on Friday afternoon. No marching for him: his motorcade went down the West Side Highway, zipping through the fire engines that had arrived from as far away as Alabama. Phalanxes of steel workers were mustering on the dual carriageway: the scene on Christopher Street was loud as a lot of gay men cheered on a lot of straight men, including Bush. That was how things were: the spirit of a carnival one moment and on one block; at a bar on another the atmosphere drained and silent, shaken only by snatches of news that may or may not have been important — there will soon be no more burgers, we’re out of Scotch, where is Jim?

To become intoxicated by events doesn’t mean you have to have an opinion of what you encounter. I wanted to see as much as I could: I’ve never walked as much as I did that week. There was no other way of getting round much of Manhattan. You couldn’t get to Brooklyn, the bridges were closed, and it was days before phone lines to the rest of the city were restored. I walked to the New York Times building on West 41st Street to get a newspaper — it wasn’t easy to find them, and I still have the ones I bought that week. On Saturday 15 September, Anthony Lewis wrote a piece entitled ‘Beware Unintended Results’:

The American government has sounded two main themes in its response the terrorist onslaught; the United States is going to war against terrorism and we expect all other countries to support us in the struggle. The second effort, enlisting the rest of the world, is being done with particular determination and dispatch … The danger in the current situation is that hasty, ill-targeted military action could arouse anti-Western sentiments across the Middle East … President Bush, inexperienced as he is in war and statecraft, may be tempted to act quickly.

Speed proved to be exactly Bush’s temptation. He addressed a joint session of Congress on 21 September, and Tony Blair flew in to the capital to hear him speak and to begin to forge his special relationship with the American president. ‘I will not yield, I will not rest,’ Bush said at the end of his speech.

I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people. The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them. Fellow citizens, we’ll meet violence with patient justice, assured of the rightness of our cause and confident of the victories to come.

Less than 20 months later, on 1 May 2003, Bush gave a speech on an aircraft carrier to pronounce ‘mission accomplished’ of the invasion of Iraq. The speed with which the White House acted now seems impossible. It took years for the US to become fully involved in Vietnam, years to remove itself from the conflict, and years to get over it, though in the 1990s there were signs that some hadn’t: the History Channel ran endless programmes about the hardware that been used in Vietnam, and gave every indication that the US had won.

On 17 July 2003, Blair was once more in Washington. He’d been given the Congressional Medal of Freedom for being a good friend, and he gave a speech to a joint session of Congress. In it he made a joke, which now drips with irony thick as tar:

Actually, you know, my middle son was studying 18th-century history and the American War of Independence, and he said to me the other day, ‘You know, Lord North, Dad, he was the British prime minister who lost us America. So just think, however many mistakes you’ll make, you’ll never make one that bad.’

On the same day that Blair got his medal and spoke on Capitol Hill, David Kelly, the British weapons inspector, killed himself in a wood near his house in Oxfordshire. In the introduction to his report, John Chilcot says he had no powers to re-examine the circumstances of Kelly’s death. Nor did he investigate the motivation that drove Tony Blair to be swept up in Bush’s march to war. What was it about Blair’s wish for American approval, since he seems to have yearned for it? Where did this personal infatuation come from? It went over and beyond national interest. Why lose your head out of a wish not to lose the US? On the Today programme this morning, Blair was still pleading, saying he was less wrong than Chilcot said, that history would prove him right.

Blair’s offices are on Grosvenor Square, and a former diplomat I met who has been to see him there says it resembles his office on Downing St. He has a powerful neighbour, the ambassador of the United States.

Comments

  1. suetonius says:

    A personal note, Thomas is right that anyone who knows their smoke will remember it forever. My wife and son and I lived in Williamsburg Brooklyn when the towers went down, you could see them from our windows. My wife worked half a mile from them. I watched the towers fall. At the time all I knew about where my wife was was that she had been on the subway to work, and was likely still stuck there, 6 months pregnant with our daughter. She got through to me soon after, she actually made it to work. It burned for weeks, we were pretty lucky – our loft was almost due east of the towers, and for most of the next several weeks the wind was coming from out of the North, so we only got hit with smoke a few days. It was horrific when it happened though, you could smell flesh, or thought you could. And the hole where the towers had been in our view meant you could never forget it, not for a second. We were lucky, we didn’t have cable, so for a long time we didn’t really have TV (CBS had minimal service over the air from the Empire State Building).

  2. Joe Morison says:

    ‘Why lose your head out of a wish not to lose the US?’ For Blair, the world is a battle between light and dark, and most decent people are blighted by an ignorance that has sinister origins; only a few like him are blessed to see clearly and stand to fight the good fight. The war against Saddam was a war against evil, and his zealous self-belief could accept no doubt.

    I think it’s clear from his tortured face that at some level he knows he is holding onto his self-belief with the desperation of a man baling out a sinking dinghy; that if he didn’t keep busy doing things and telling himself that he was important, he’d crumple into a gibbering wreck.

    • pfrobson@gmail.com says:

      It seems very naive to argue that “The war against Saddam was a war against evil”. I remember the reasons that were given for waging that war. As it has been proven later, the war was justified by three big lies: that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, that Iraq/Saddam had orchestrated 9/11; that Iraq/Saddam posed and imminent threat to the US.

      But, wait a sec, you are being sarcastic, right?

  3. Timothy Rogers says:

    Another personal note. I was at work (on the other side of the Hudson, 20 miles north of Manhattan) when the news of the first plane crash into one of the towers broke, though many radio broadcasters were unsure of what happened and what its scale was. After the second plane came in almost everyone in my building went to a lunchtime lounge that had a TV, and people watched with a kind of numbness as the fires continued and the two towers collapsed within an hour of each other. Since the city’s bridges and tunnels were shut down, on the next day I drove south to a public beach park (Sandy Hook). The park is on the New Jersey side of New York’s very wide harbor mouth (basically where the bay widens out into the ocean). Here one had a clear view of the southern Manhattan skyline, with two towering pillars of smoke where the Trade Center towers had been. During the preceding and following days the weather in the NY area had been perfect – dry, sunny September days with almost cloudless skies. To me a very notable feature of those days was the “air-space” silence – not a single commercial jet or private small plane could be seen or heard in an area where there are hundreds of flight-paths per hour. A few military jets and helicopters were present every so often. The silence itself was strange. I talked to several people (including my daughter) that week who worked in buildings close to the WTC complex, and their tales were both confusing and amazing – one friend, covered in thick white dust, had been evacuated from lower Manhattan by small boat. He wound up going through a “detox station” (portal type showers) that soaked his clothing through to the skin, and was then put on a commuter train on the NJ side, wet and shivering. He said that while he was waiting in line two military jets flew over low and loud, and in their confusion that they might be under attack, a lot of people scurried for cover; confusion reigned. At the end of October, on a beautiful sunny day my wife and I went into the area (you could get to within one or two blocks of the perimeter that was sealed), and the local streets were still radiating heat and there was a smell coming from still-burning underground (or under-rubble) fires, with that peculiar odor of burning plastic mixed with fine particles of mortar-board.

    As to Blair’s need to “buddy up” with Bush junior during the aftermath of 9/11, when all kinds of irrational revenge plans (disguised as “geopolitical re-organization in the name of peace, stability and democracy”) were being hatched by the likes of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and a host of others, the psychological dynamics seem obvious. It’s the fact that he was able to sell Parliament his bill of goods that surprised and disappointed many Americans like me, who felt that he might actually be able to restrain the misaimed impulse to go to war against Iraq (with an invasion being called a liberation). I believe that the damaging consequences of his (more so of Bush’s) decisions will linger for decades – their principal victims will be residents of the Middle East, but the damage done to the idea of constitutional procedures, executive-branch probity, and rational politics are still with us in the US and UK.


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