How Blair Lost by Winning
BATH, England -- On BBC radio the other morning, there was a poignant moment when the Pentagon adviser Kenneth Adelman was talking about the war in Iraq. "It bothers me that people in Britain don't see it as people in America see it," he said. "We did a beautiful thing."
He is quite right in supposing that most people here don't see that. The trans-Atlantic gulf has grown wider since the invasion of Iraq, regardless of what Prime Minister Tony Blair likes to think. And now, with Mr. Blair's popularity at an all-time low, his temporary political success on Iraq looks ever more like a self-inflicted wound.
As he said at his Labor Party conference last week, he is "more battered" -- although also "stronger within" -- than at any point of his six years in office. His hold on power is still tenacious, and reports of his political death are exaggerated, thanks not least to what remains an unelectable Tory Party. And yet his credibility had been badly damaged, with his approval ratings plummeting even before the weekend brought him more bad news.
First came the report from David Kay's Iraq Survey Group. Like the White House, Downing Street tries to pretend that Mr. Kay vindicated the decision for war. But while the report shows that Saddam Hussein had the capacity to make chemical and biological weapons, and would have liked atomic weapons as well (all of which we knew already), it also makes clear that he did not have any such weapons available last spring.
This fact was embarrassingly confirmed by the second bit of bad news. Robin Cook, who served as Mr. Blair's foreign secretary from 1997 to 2001 but resigned from the government in March over the war, now says that the prime minister told him two weeks before fighting began that Saddam Hussein did not have any weapons of mass destruction ready for use.
Because of Mr. Blair's tendency to say different things to different audiences, some of us suspected that America should not necessarily count on him in the event of war. In that, we failed to foresee the truly remarkable way in which he would lead his country into a war it didn't want.
Perhaps we overlooked the warning signs. It is, after all, nine years ago this month that Mr. Blair took over a party he never pretended to like, and he has since treated his colleagues with a disdain that is almost impressive. After he became prime minister in 1997, one pressing decision was the future of the Millennium Dome in London, a black edifice that looked like a white elephant. We now know that almost the whole cabinet wanted to scrap it. But Tony Blair takes after the college head who, according to Oxford legend, said after a vote in a college meeting had gone 22-1 against him, "I see we have deadlock." He prevailed, and the dome went ahead (to prove, as feared, an expensive fiasco).
That was a trivial matter compared with Iraq, where the prime minister waged war against the wishes of most British people, and apparently of most Labor members of Parliament and most cabinet ministers. Well under half of voters here supported the war beforehand. Once British soldiers were under fire (sometimes Iraqi fire, sometimes American) that figure of course rose sharply, but it has now fallen back to where it was in the spring.
Although Mr. Blair won his Iraq vote in the House of Commons by browbeating and cajolery, few imagine that there was a majority of Labor members who truly wanted the war. It seems unlikely that there was even an sincere majority inside the cabinet.
Even though Jack Straw, Mr. Cook's successor at the Foreign Office, didn't resign, we have since learned that while he was prepared to give the Americans a friendly cheer from the bleachers, he too privately opposed the use of British troops. So did many other ministers, but they decided to swallow their principles and, as David Lloyd George once put it, to perish with their drawn salaries in their hands.
And yet for all the prime minister's political skills, and the way he overwhelms party and cabinet, and for all that his conduct may seem formidable in its sheer stubbornness, he cannot control events -- or dictate public opinion. Not only has the past year seen a drying up of the great well of sympathy for America that followed Sept. 11, but Mr. Blair's highly personal policy of unconditional support for Washington has turned sour.
"I ask just one thing," Mr. Blair said about Iraq. "Attack my decision but at least understand why I took it and why I would take the same decision again." This sounded brave and sincere, except that his alleged "why I took it" is not the true one. When he speaks about receiving intelligence "not just about Iraq but about the whole murky trade in" weapons of mass destruction, it has become painfully clear that this simply wasn't his real motive.
Someone who saw through this was Hugo Young, the longtime columnist for The Guardian, who died last month. Mr. Young was a man of very high principle, who despite all he had seen retained a capacity to be shocked by political mendacity. He was also a liberal centrist with much fondness for America, if not for the Bush administration.
Shortly before his death (when Tony Blair, needless to say, fulsomely joined in the tributes to Mr. Young's career), and maybe with an urgent sense of mortality, Mr. Young wrote a series of devastating columns. He put his finger on "the great overarching fact about the war that Blair will never admit but cannot convincingly deny." This was that "he was committed to war months before he said he was."
He was committed because he had persuaded himself -- though not the British people -- of the necessity of following the United States, come what may. Mr. Blair even elucidated this (albeit only in private, as reliably recorded by the journalist Peter Stothard): "It would be more damaging to long-term world peace and security if the Americans alone defeated Saddam Hussein than if they had international support to do so."
And so what he insistently calls "my decision" was, in truth, made for him in Washington. After that, it was simply a matter of finding what the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, has called "bureaucratic reasons" for war. And on that count, Mr. Blair performed a very useful service for President Bush.
When the Cuba correspondent in "Citizen Kane" cables back to the newspaper that he could "send you prose poems" about the scenery but that "there is no war," Charles Foster Kane replies, "you provide the prose poems -- I'll provide the war." That, in effect, was the deal between George Bush and Tony Blair.
And provide them Mr. Blair duly did, even if some of the prose rhapsodies -- particularly those about 45-minute missile deployment and exotic minerals out of Africa -- were just a little too fanciful. Now even the prime minister must begin to see the perverse consequences of this: far from a greater closeness between the two countries, there is now a palpable estrangement.
Although no cleverer or nicer than the Americans, the British are perhaps more literal-minded, with an innate distaste for being misled. More and more they sense that they were taken into war on false pretenses. And, no, they do not think that this was such a beautiful thing.
© 2003 Geoffrey Wheatcroft