Tony Blair and the Death of the Special Relationship
The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, survived a nerve-racking test on the controversial issue of university finance, by a mere five votes in the House of Commons. There are signs, albeit not definitive ones, that he may be at least partially exculpated by the imminent report by Lord Justice Hutton into the circumstances of the suicide of weapons expert Dr. James Kelly, which has itself thrown a sombre light upon the attempts by Downing Street to suppress official doubts about the justification for the war in Iraq. But the fact remains that the Prime Minister is gravely damaged. All the talk is of a deal with Chancellor Gordon Brown to see Mr. Blair through to the next election, after which, no doubt, a lucrative spell on the lecture circuit beckons.
But who will be found to explain to the Americans the extraordinarily rapid and seemingly inexorable political destruction of Tony Blair? And will they recover from the shock? These are questions of enduring strategic not mere passing, significance to the relations between the two nations, as I argue in a forthcoming article in the London Spectator.
The British Prime Minister is, it seems, everyone's special friend in America, not just the personal friend of the US President. There has been no such adulation of a foreign leader since Churchill. Margaret Thatcher was never so indiscriminately popular, though she was probably more respected. Mr. Blair has managed to surmount all political divides. His artfully crafted, soft-focus simplicities exploit that mighty, but vulnerable, nation's desire to be loved.
Yet a powerful case can be made that this Prime Minister has done great harm to the Anglo-American relationship. He has undermined his country's trust in America's motives. He has made the British public reluctant to contemplate any further action to bring rogue states to heel. He has planted the bacillus of Euro-pacifism in the only major European state hitherto immune from it. These are facts which should gravely worry all those in the United States who value and hope to count upon the Anglo-US axis.
The Prime Minister retains no credibility from any quarter now in Britain as a war leader. Saddam Hussein may have been found, but weapons of mass destruction have not, and (in any quantities at least) clearly will not. That may not matter much in the United States, but it is politically fatal in the United Kingdom. It is not just the usual suspects on the Left who are outraged. So are huge numbers of centrist or non-political people who, through motives of patriotism, are always ultimately prepared to support a conflict that the preservation of national security requires, but who now feel bewildered and deceived.
Mr. Blair may find this difference of perceptions between one side of the Atlantic and the other puzzling and frustrating, but the reason is not far to seek. It is simply that the United States, not Britain, was the victim of the 9/11 terrorist outrage. America alone had been wounded and humiliated. No matter how many alternative arguments were offered, America was going to show its enemies in both the secular and the theocratic Islamic world that it meant business. Ousting the Taleban was not enough. Saddam had to go too.
From the first, Mr. Blair was out of his depth. He proffered a stream of bad advice to President Bush, some of which was unfortunately taken.
Thus, he confidently persuaded the President to resort to the UN Security Council to authorize war. Despite protracted diplomatic wrangling, these initiatives totally failed. Mr. Blair urged the Americans to build a wide coalition, including Muslim powers: high hopes were entertained by the British Foreign Office of the mullahs of Iran and even of the preposterous ruler of Syria. That diversion failed, too. Mr. Blair finally pressed the President, against the latter's better judgment, to embark upon a new Middle East initiative in the form of a "road map". The suicide bombers and Ariel Sharon together, quite predictably, tore it up.
None of this would have mattered very much, however, if Mr. Blair had been able to deliver the one thing that America actually needed - something far more important than the modest military contribution Britain could make - that is, the consistent support of British public opinion. This has been his greatest, and potentially disastrous, failure.
Because the Prime Minister dared not, perhaps could not, explain in traditional patriotic terms why his strategy was right, he had to engage in shiftiness and subterfuge. His justifications for war have varied from minute to minute. Sometimes it was all about preventing an imminent use of Weapons of Mass Destruction against us or our allies. Since these weapons either did not exist or were insignificant, that argument now appears in the form of our having had every reason to believe that the threat was real - even if it wasn't. This argument has the drawback that it makes Mr. Blair a dupe: as such, it is not flattering. Sometimes, though, the preferred justification is that the war in Iraq was part of a wider strategy of preventing rogue states, armed with sophisticated weaponry, from joining forces with Islamic terrorism. But the links between Saddam and Bin Laden proved as nebulous as British intelligence always contended. It actually took the war in Iraq to cement them. Sometimes, again, especially when appeals to the Left are required, it all becomes a matter of defending the Iraqi people's human rights from a bloodthirsty dictator. To that, of course, the inevitable riposte is: "Why Iraq, rather than, say Chechnya or Zimbabwe, Myanmar or North Korea?" And, in terms of human rights at least, there is no answer.