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How Bad Was Tony Blair?

In response to:

Tony Blair’s Eternal Shame: The Report from the October 13, 2016 issue

George W. Bush and Tony Blair at Hillborough Castle, near Belfast, Northern Ireland, April 2003
Nick Danziger/Contact Press Images
George W. Bush and Tony Blair at Hillborough Castle, near Belfast, Northern Ireland, April 2003

To the Editors:

It’s impossible to disagree with most of Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s harsh assessment of Tony Blair’s role in the Iraq war [“Tony Blair’s Eternal Shame: The Report,” NYR, October 13, 2016], but two of his many charges do need qualification.

First, Wheatcroft accuses Sir Jeremy Heywood, the UK cabinet secretary, of “obstruct[ing]” the Chilcot inquiry into the war and “deplorably [trying] to protect Blair” by resisting Chilcot’s requests for permission to quote in his published report secret exchanges between Blair and George W. Bush about the war. But a more charitable and equally valid interpretation is that Heywood’s main motive was to protect not Blair but the principle that heads of state and government (like other senior public figures and diplomats) ought to be able to communicate frankly and honestly with each other without the fear that their messages would later be made public, a fear that would fatally damage frankness, and make it impossible for vital decisions and the reasons for them to be properly recorded to ensure that they would not be misinterpreted by those tasked to carry them out. (I write as a former UK diplomat who would not have dared to record some of my exchanges with diplomats and opinion-formers of other countries, or to offer some of my advice on and criticisms of my government’s policies, if there had been a risk of their publication while the relevant issues were still current.)

Secondly, Wheatcroft’s concluding assessment of Tony Blair as “a complete and utter mediocrity…in our strange and testing times he was hopelessly out of his depth” is impossible to reconcile with Blair’s record in many fields apart from Iraq and the question of international intervention. Electorally he was the most successful Labour Party leader in its history; domestically his thrice-elected government achieved numerous reforms in promoting civil rights, restoring public services, and reducing poverty and inequality; economically his governments presided over eleven years of uninterrupted growth, low inflation, and full employment, until the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the US precipitated a near collapse of the West’s financial system for which Blair could not be held responsible, even by Mr. Wheatcroft. Some mediocrity!

Brian Barder
London, England

Geoffrey Wheatcroft replies:

I am grateful to Sir Brian Barder for his letter, and glad that we agree about Tony Blair’s part in the disastrous Iraq war. Although we must agree to differ in other respects, and although my description of Blair as a mediocrity is obviously a matter of opinion, as is Sir Brian’s contention that Blair restored public services, some of his defense is not only debatable but refutable.

It really will not do to blame the financial implosion of 2008 on the wicked Americans alone. New Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” (in the famous words of Peter Mandelson, Blair’s consigliere, and we never guessed then how literally his capo would follow that precept!). Like Sir Brian, Blair and Gordon Brown, his chancellor, boasted of a decade of uninterrupted growth, thanks to what Brown called “light touch” regulation of the financial sector. That meant in practice that the bankers and fund managers of the City of London, not to mention the Royal Bank of Scotland and Northern Rock, were allowed recklessly to inflate a bubble economy with an explosion of house prices and other asset values, and another explosion of debt. When the bubble burst, tax revenue plummeted, and governments have been dealing with the problem ever since.

A point mentioned by neither of us is Blair’s responsibility for the estrangement of the British people from the European Union. He was a false friend to Europe, promising but not delivering closer engagement. His embrace of President Bush and the Iraq war rather than Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder, who opposed the war, completely ruptured Europe at a moment when a common European front might have changed history.

And in 2004, when the East European countries, with their much lower economic product and wage levels, were admitted to the EU, Blair could have taken the opportunity, which other West European countries did take, to restrict immigration from those countries for some years. But he was too absorbed in his Levantine crusade, and failed to do so. Immigration ensued on a scale wholly unforeseen by the Blair government, and immigration was the central question on which our “Brexit” referendum turned last June. Is Sir Brian pleased with the outcome?

To the Editors:

The Chilcot report on Iraq and Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s summary of it seem under a misapprehension as to the position before the Iraq war in 2003. The issue was not, as Wheatcroft suggests, that Britain joined the invasion “before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted.” In 1991, following the first Gulf war, the UN had granted Saddam Hussein an armistice, provided that he remove his weapons of mass destruction within ninety days. The onus was on him to remove them, not on the inspectors to prove that he had done so. By 1998, the weapons had not been removed. In President Clinton’s words, “Instead of the inspectors disarming Saddam, Saddam has disarmed the inspectors.” It was Clinton in 1998, and not Bush, who signed the Iraq Liberation Act committing the US government to regime change.

In 2002, the UN Security Council unanimously declared that Saddam was still “in material breach” of UN resolutions, since he had not disarmed. He was to have a “final opportunity” to comply within thirty days or face “serious consequences.” It is difficult to believe that the “serious consequences” the UN had in mind were simply to give the inspectors more time. By March 2003, when the invasion occurred, no major power nor the inspectors believed that Saddam had complied with the armistice terms after eleven years of obfuscation.

Wheatcroft condemns what he calls “shameful collusion of the British intelligence agencies.” But the intelligence agencies of every major country, including those of France and Germany, which opposed the war, believed that Saddam still had weapons of mass destruction. If there were misjudgments, they were not those of Britain and the United States alone.

It is true that a suggestion made in a dossier presented to Parliament in September 2002 that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction that could reach Britain in forty-five minutes was not accurate. But that was in no way crucial in the case for war, and was not mentioned in the Commons debate endorsing invasion on March 18, 2003. It became important only with hindsight.

It is absurd to suggest, as Wheatcroft does, that Blair—or Bush for that matter—was “mendacious,” in that they knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It would have been pointless to do so since the deception would have been discovered immediately after the invasion.

Indeed the conclusion that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq needs to be qualified. The Butler report, which Wheatcroft cites, but appears not to have read, declared that Saddam was in fact a greater threat than had been believed. He was importing dual-use goods in breach of sanctions and, unknown to the UN, maintaining laboratories that could be quickly reactivated to produce weapons of mass destruction. The Iraq Survey Group declared that Saddam was “planning to produce several chemical warfare agents including sulfur mustard, nitrogen mustard and Sarin.” His previous record leaves little room for doubt that he would have used these weapons. Those opposed to the war have to face the fact that the regime of UN sanctions and containment was not working effectively.

Wheatcroft declares that ministers in Britain were bypassed by Blair and that there was no collective discussion on the war. But Robin Cook, who resigned from the government because he could not support the war, says exactly the opposite in his memoirs: “I have little sympathy with the criticism of Tony that he sidelined the Cabinet over Iraq. On the contrary, over the next six months we were to discuss Iraq more than any other topic.” The Butler report declares that the Cabinet discussed policy toward Iraq twenty-four times in the period before the war.

There is of course a serious debate to be had on the Iraq war and on the limits of liberal interventionism. But the torment in Syria shows the dangers of a policy of nonintervention, as does the failure to intervene against Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s. The debate is not helped by simplistic caricatures and distortions.

Vernon Bogdanor
Professor of Government
King’s College London, England

Geoffrey Wheatcroft replies:

Those who have read Mr. Bogdanor over the years will be aware that he’s indefatigable, and incorrigible. His letter completely ignores inconvenient facts, including the lengthy testimony of Hans Blix, the chief United Nations weapons inspector, that by the end of February 2003 hundreds of inspections had not found any weapons of mass destruction, that the inspection regime was still working, and that it would be completed in “months, not years.”

It is thoroughly disingenuous to say that the notorious “forty-five-minute” dossier in September, while “not accurate,” did not influence the subsequent debate. Once the Sun had shouted “Brits 45 Mins From Doom,” the dossier had done its work. Mr. Bogdanor wisely does not mention the still more infamous “dodgy dossier,” which was cobbled together by Downing Street in February 2003, partly plagiarized from a paper written in California in 1991, misprints and all, or indeed before that the Downing Street Memo of July 23, 2002, summarizing what John Scarlett, then chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, had reported after talks in Washington: the Bush administration had determined on an invasion of Iraq, and “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

The following summer, after the invasion, Scarlett gave evidence to the Hutton inquiry. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Tory defense secretary and foreign secretary, immediately pointed out how incriminating Scarlett’s testimony had been, demonstrating as it did the intimate collusion between Scarlett and Alastair Campbell, Blair’s media officer, who concerted the propaganda campaign in support of the invasion. Does Mr. Bogdanor think that Sir Malcolm is another stooge?

But really, I now find arguing with people like Bogdanor as tedious and fruitless as arguing with someone who thinks that the way Sir Anthony Eden took us into the Suez adventure sixty years ago was entirely honest. Or perhaps Bogdanor believes that as well.