None of that applied to the British. When all the specious, ostensible reasons they were given are discarded, the real motive was Blair’s determination to support Washington at all times and at all costs. He was driven by his conviction (expressed to a journalist rather than to Parliament) that “it would be more damaging to long-term world peace and security if the Americans alone defeated Saddam Hussein,” and he persuaded himself that he must embrace Bush so as to “keep the United States in the international system.”
There was never any logic to that “more damaging.” Either the American administration was doing something wise and virtuous, in which case it should have been supported for that reason, or something vicious and foolish, in which case it should have been restrained, or if necessary, disowned. Nor was there any more obligation for the British Army to join the invasion than there had been for it to fight in Vietnam; but Blair, unlike Wilson, did send a “goddamn battalion of the Black Watch,” and rather more than that.
And he got absolutely nothing in return. His belief that he could bind the Bush administration into the international order, or exercise any “Greek” influence at all on the Americans, was frankly absurd. Just how absurd has become clear on the other side of the Atlantic in innumerable books about Iraq, which barely mention Blair, and from the evidence of one witness after another at the Chilcot Inquiry, all admitting in morose tones that London had no influence at all over the White House or the Pentagon.
Two eminent British diplomatists have spelled this out. Sir Rodric Braithwaite was ambassador to Moscow, and then chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (as well as author of Moscow 1941, his excellent history of the Battle of Moscow). In a ferocious rebuke in the Financial Times, he wrote that:
Mr Blair’s prime responsibility is to defend the interests of his own country. This he has signally failed to do . . . he has manipulated public opinion, sent our soldiers into distant lands for ill-conceived purposes, misused the intelligence agencies to serve his ends and reduced the Foreign Office to a demoralised cipher. . . . Mr Blair has done more damage to British interests in the Middle East than Anthony Eden, who led the UK to disaster in Suez 50 years ago.
And although the Chilcot Inquiry testimony of Sir Christopher Meyer, the ambassador in Washington at the time the war began, has been called self-serving, he is plainly right to say that Blair failed to get any quid pro quo from Bush.
Addressing the Labour conference in the autumn of 2001, Blair spoke of “the starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan: they too are our cause.” Those words thrilled his slower-witted followers, who did not stop to ask whether the Bush administration also thought the wretched of Gaza were “our cause.” Blair assured his party that one beneficial side effect of the Iraq War would be to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Any such attempt on Blair’s part “failed miserably,” in Meyer’s brutal words.
“We could have achieved more by playing a tougher role,” Meyer said. Blair should have told Bush he would not commit British troops “unless we have palpable progress on the peace process.” In his speech commending the Iraq War, Hague made the far-fetched claim that every serious effort to advance peace in the Middle East had been made by Washington. This July he said that “time is running out to secure a two state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict,” leaving his listeners to decide who had let the time run out.
ALTHOUGH BRITISH and American politicians, including Obama, still intone the words “special relationship,” nearly fifty years after Acheson derided the phrase, it looks more foolish all the time. While the new foreign secretary inevitably pays lip service to “our unbreakable alliance with the United States,” it is a new and chastened William Hague who says that the last government “neglected to lift its eyes to the wider strategic needs of this country, to take stock of British interests, and to determine in a systematic fashion what we must do as a nation if we are to secure our international influence and earn our living in a world that is rapidly changing.” All in all, Hague agrees with Braithwaite that the Labour government had failed to protect the British national interest.
Funnily enough, most of these points had been made by an earlier Tory prime minister. Mrs. Thatcher wasn’t quite an English de Gaulle, but in her heart she agreed with the Victorian Prime Minister Lord Palmerston when he said that England has no eternal friends and no eternal foes, only eternal interests. Some of her American admirers may not be aware that she angrily rebuked the Americans, in the form of George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, when they met in 1986, about the way that unconditional American support for Israel prevented any just settlement and imperiled peace throughout the Middle East.
Nor do those admirers cite the way Thatcher, well before the neoconservatives promoted their notion of preemptive war, argued that we should use force “to defend our way of life,” but “we do not use it to walk into other people’s countries, independent sovereign territories.” One suspects that her American claque may not even know those words, or the way she continued so presciently: if a new law is ordained that wherever an evil regime holds sway, “the United States shall enter, then we are going to have really terrible wars in the world.”
And for her friendship with Reagan, she had a far clearer view than Blair of the national interest, and duty. As Meyer said in his unkindest cut of all at Blair, “I think [Margaret Thatcher] would have insisted on a coherent political and diplomatic strategy.” If Cameron and Hague now pursue such a plan, whatever sweet words they may say, it can only mean a relationship with the United States which is less “special,” but more honest.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English journalist and author, whose books include Yo, Blair! (Politico’s Publishing, 2007), The Strange Death of Tory England (Allen Lane, 2005) and The Controversy of Zion (Perseus Books, 1997), which won a National Jewish Book Award.Image: Pullquote: Although British and American politicians, including Obama, still intone the words “special relationship” nearly fifty years after Acheson queried the phrase, it looks more foolish all the time.Essay Types: Essay