Tony Blair Siding with Bush a No-Brainer

Tony Blair Siding with Bush a No-Brainer

It is 160 years since Thomas Carlyle wrote On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History, but the treatise was in my mind as I watched Sir Jeremy Greenstock, our former Ambassador to the United Nations, give evidence on Iraq to the Chilcot inquiry yesterday. Another time came flooding back. You could almost hear the drumbeat of war. Could Britain, could Tony Blair, have chosen to march to any other drum?

The invasion of Iraq at the beginning of our century provides a canvas so richly painted with the clash and convergence of interests, and so crowded with large and lurid personalities, that there is scope here for Carlylians (who believe individuals determine history) to do battle with Marxians (who see leaders as the playthings of larger forces) until the crack of doom. But narrow the focus on to one corner of the canvas: the heroism or otherwise of our own Prime Minister at the time.

I do think that a man can show heroism in a bad cause. I’ve argued consistently that the Iraq war was a rotten idea, but minds on both sides have more or less closed on that; and there’s a different question about Tony Blair’s role that still remains open. Did he act heroically — in the sense of the moral courage that makes a man grip fate by the lapels and, rather than let the flow carry him, swim against compelling circumstances, knowing that he takes a serious risk for himself or his career? A case, at least, can be made for Mr Blair as a hero in this sense.

He makes it himself all the time. It has become his mantra to close down discussion of the war itself with the remark that “you can argue” (I paraphrase) “about whether my decision to support George W. Bush was right or wrong, but please accept that at the cost of making many enemies I did what I believed to be right”.

He is asking all of us — pro or anti war — to acknowledge his heroism in the Carlylian sense: to accept that he made a call that took great guts, and that at an important national crossroads he set Britain down a road that we did not have to travel, but which he personally believed was right.

This is, in a sense, Mr Blair’s last resort: his final appeal to the court of history and potentially a potent one, as I’m sure he senses. Mr Blair is fond of repeating the cliché about Margaret Thatcher — “love her or loathe her, you knew where she stood” — and would like his own story to put us in mind of Martin Luther’s “Here I stand; I can do no other”. This is what that weird conference speech in 2000 about his “irreducible core” was all about.

And watching Sir Jeremy before the Chilcot committee yesterday, a remarkable paradox struck me. Tony Blair’s claim to heroism can indeed be securely rooted. But only in the belief that he was lying about the weapons of mass destruction.

Sir Jeremy was (rightly) reminding us that most people did at the time of the invasion think it quite likely that Saddam Hussein might have WMD. I certainly did. Colin Powell, then the US Secretary of State, appeared to have convinced himself too. Yesterday Sir Jeremy revealed that the representatives even of nations opposing the war had privately told him that if or when the “smoking gun” was found, they would reconsider.

So think yourself back to where Mr Blair was before the war started. He led a country tightly bound to supporting its close, senior and long-standing ally, the United States. He knew privately that George W. Bush was determined to invade Iraq, come what may. He had not a scintilla of doubt that (with or without British involvement) it would be a military success. He was untroubled by worries about the post-invasion running of Iraq: nobody at the top seems to have been troubled. And he believed that during or after the invasion, concealed weapons of terrible destructive power would be uncovered, and the world would see with its own eyes the evil and the danger of Saddam. And then opposition would melt away and all would concede that the invasion had been right.

The Tories believed this too. Wouldn’t any British prime minister conclude that to support Washington was obvious: the default option, the line of least resistance? There was a cost, of course — to be pecked at in the United Nations and suffer the French pouting for a couple of months; but Sir Jeremy was paid to endure that. As for public opinion, a minority was queasy, but the public are queasy about wars until they are won.

In these circumstances Britain’s response to Mr Bush’s plans was almost a no-brainer. By siding in the playground with the biggest boy — the US President — Mr Blair expected to emerge as a stalwart ally and war-winning prime minister, quite quickly gaining permanent admiration at the cost of a little immediate embarrassment.

Mr Blair didn’t dive into this war to swim against the tide. He simply mistook the tide. He didn’t contemplate for a moment the cost to his reputation, when he was exposed as having misled the nation on WMDs and cornered into a bloody and intractable counter-insurgency operation.

All that flak came later. In inviting us to see Mr Blair as having acted heroically, his supporters are conflating the trouble into which he finally and unexpectedly landed with the downside as it appeared when the decision was made.

Unless, that is, you think he knew that there were no WMDs, and simply lied, fully expecting Britain and America to find themselves in cruel and long-term international isolation. And that he foresaw the mess the allies would make of the occupation itself, and the years of carnage that would follow. In which case he deserves the name of prophet, and of hero, and of villain too.

But, no, Mr Blair surely didn’t lie about WMDs. He did what we all do: sure in our mind that a conclusion is true, we overstate the evidence for it, and expect to be vindicated.

Sadly, Mr Blair wasn’t. It was a sort of Oops. He wasn’t a hero and he wasn’t a villain. He just miscalculated. And that’s the most inglorious epitaph of all.

 

 

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Matthew Parris joined The Times as parliamentary sketchwriter in 1988, a role he held until 2001. He had formerly worked for the Foreign Office and been a Conservative MP from 1979-86. He has published many books on travel and politics and an autobiography, Chance Witness. In 2005 he won the Orwell Prize for Journalism. His diary appears in The Times on Thursdays, and his Opinion column on Saturdays

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