The Magazine

No Regrets for Blair

The combative prime minister defends his Iraq policy to a skeptical party.

Oct 13, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 05 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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Bournemouth, England

THE ROAD to the pleasant seaside resort of Bournemouth, where the Labour party faithful gathered last week for their annual conference, began in Chicago almost five years ago. It was there that British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the bags not yet formed under his eyes, the hair not yet thinning and graying, not yet "battered" as he now describes himself, told an audience that it is morally intolerable for civilized nations not to intervene in the Balkans to end the genocide being perpetrated by Slobodan Milosevic. Never mind that this was a civil war. The world has a responsibility to intervene when inaction means the slaughter of innocents: A war that is about "values" rather than "territory" is a just war.

From there to Baghdad. Never mind about finding new weapons of mass destruction. To the blaring of Heather Small's "Proud" ("I look into the windows of my mind, reflections of the fears I know I've left behind, I step out of the ordinary, I can feel my soul ascending"), Blair strode to the platform to assure the assembled delegates that WMD did once exist, had been used, could easily again be manufactured, and that failure to find new ones now doesn't much matter in the scheme of things. He told the conference, "We didn't regret the fall of Milosevic, the removal of the Taliban, or the liberation of Sierra Leone, and whatever the disagreement, Iraq is a better country without Saddam."

In short, regime change in Iraq, although not presented to Parliament as a reason for going to war, was a good thing. At least, so it seems to Blair and to the minority of delegates willing to use force to "destroy evil and restore human rights," as Ann Clwyd, MP for Cynon Valley, put it.

In private conversations, Blair defends his commitment of British troops, 51 of whom have thus far lost their lives, on two grounds. First, and most important to this deeply religious and moral man, because it is the right thing to do. "All you can do in a modern world . . . is to decide what is the right way and try to walk in it. . . . I look at Saddam's country and I see its people in torment, ground underfoot by his and his sons' brutality and wickedness," Blair says. Unlike most of the world's politicians, Blair comfortably speaks of "wickedness" just as George W. Bush unashamedly speaks of "evil"--one reason the two men get along so well, and why the likes of secular, pragmatic Jacques Chirac find them so difficult to understand.

But Blair has a second reason for announcing to a skeptical party that "I would take the same decision again" and "I've not got a reverse gear" (echoing Margaret Thatcher's famous "The lady's not for turning"). He has more than once told me of his "nightmare"--that the growing trade in weapons of mass destruction will eventually place them in the hands of terrorists who will turn them on Britain. The recent trial run to develop a response to a possible anthrax attack in the London tube reflected Blair's concern.

Neither the prime minister's moral certainty nor his worries about a terrorist attack on Britain trumps his party's hostility to his decision to back America. "Bush's poodle" is the epithet of choice used by Blair's opponents, and not just those within his party. A recent poll found that 57 percent of the British people believe that President Bush has the greatest influence on the prime minister--only 41 percent think that his wife, Cherie, no silent partner, wields more influence on her husband.

One Labour member of Parliament called the war "illegal" and demanded a pullout to "stop the killing"; a former minister accused America of engineering the destruction of the World Trade Center so that it would have an excuse to unseat Saddam; a Labour party activist warned of "the unpredictability of the Bush administration with its overwhelming economic and military power"; a member of the party's governing committee accused Blair of creating "a wasteland" and denying the Iraqis their basic human rights. More significantly, Robin Cook, a former foreign minister popular with backbench Labour MPs, called Britain's policy "the most disastrous episode for a decade in Britain's international relations." And Tony Benn, the dean of old-line Labour socialists and a man who long ago renounced his peerage in order to sit in the House of Commons, walked the line between the anti-Bushism that is so fashionable in Britain and an anti-Americanism that is less pervasive: "It is very important not to allow ourselves to be trapped into a crude anti-Americanism as if Bush, and the American people, were indistinguishable, which they are not."

With that as background, the expectation in the smoke-filled corridors of the once-grand, now-slightly-seedy Victorian hotels that housed those delegates who can afford more than a modest bed-and-breakfast--yes, there are still smoke-filled corridors at party conferences here in Britain--was that Blair would duck the issue, perhaps following the lead of his popular chancellor, Gordon Brown, who the previous day had confined himself to notably unenthusiastic support of Blair's Iraq policy: An unassailable "it is right . . . to bring security and reconstruction to Iraq" was about as far as Brown was prepared to go, other than the obligatory plaudits for "the professionalism and dedication of our armed forces."

Blair didn't duck--no surprise to those who know that when he is convinced that he is right, as he is in the case of Iraq, the prime minister will display none of the ambivalence that seems to make him uncertain when confronting such issues as whether to attack crime or the causes of crime, or illegal entry into his country by people, some of whom are indeed poor, homeless, and wretched, but others of whom are not.

Blair confronted the poodle argument head on. Britain should confront terrorism "not because we are America's poodle, but because dealing with it will make Britain safer." He worries not about American unilateralism or the unwise use of its power. Instead, he fears America's "isolation, its walking away when we need America there engaged in the world, fighting to get world trade opened up, fighting to give hope to Africa, . . . staying with it in the Middle East."

This played to a fear that is emerging among many here who opposed the war. It goes something like this. The war was a mistake, and postwar Iraq is the quagmire that we predicted it would be. But if America is defeated, as it was in Vietnam, it will retreat into some form of isolationism for a generation. That will leave the world dangerously exposed to terrorists and unable to cope with disasters such as Kosovo, where Blair's importuning finally brought American power into play, ending the slaughter.

Whether Blair changed any minds is difficult to say. His speech was followed by seven-and-a-half minutes of applause. That may have been in response to leaflets urging the delegates to "Clap Tony to 10 More Years." It seems that at the party conferences of 2001 and 2002 he received "ovations" of two and two-and-a-half minutes, respectively. The leaflet concluded, "Labour Party Conference 2003: Let's make it three minutes. Remember: when Tony stops talking, keep on clapping."

They did, and then some. But their approbation extended only to two of the sentences Blair spoke on Iraq and America. The first was when Blair, who must know something that the rest of us don't, suggested that the United States is "changing its position for the future of the world, on climate change." The second was when he praised America for "telling Israel and the Palestinians: Don't let the extremists decide the fate of the peace process, when the only hope is two states living side by side in peace."

In Britain, the "two-states solution" is more often than not code for "ending Israeli oppression of the Palestinians." Some delegates didn't bother with code. Oona King, the much televised MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, condemned "terror on both sides," called for removal of the wall being constructed by the Israelis, said that "power lies with the Israelis and with power comes responsibility, so end the occupation now." Another delegate went further, calling for elimination of the veto in the U.N. Security Council so that resolutions condemning Israel might pass.

I know from personal talks that the prime minister doesn't use the "two-states solution" as code; but many of the delegates to this conference do, either from conviction or in recognition of the fact that many of the approximately two million Muslims living in Britain are concentrated in constituencies won by the Labour party, and outnumber by far the fewer than 300,000 British Jews. This is a country in which Muslims belonging to a group called al-Muhajiroun this year took the occasion of September 11 to honor the "Magnificent 19" who crashed planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. There is no estimate of the total membership of al-Muhajiroun, but it must be significant. After all, the BBC found the group's press conference sufficiently important to warrant prominent coverage.

Blair entered the conference hall in Bournemouth faced with polls that showed that the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction that he had assured Parliament and the nation Saddam could deploy in 45 minutes had sapped trust in him. That loss of trust infected attitudes towards his domestic programs (crime, immigration, education, transportation, health care), none of which have been resounding successes, and made it possible for the halls to buzz with talk of a post-Blair era.

But such talk is not much more than that--talk. Blair will stand for a third term at the next election in about two years, and will win handily. The delegates may not be happy with his decision to back America despite the French-induced paralysis of the United Nations Security Council; the trade unions may be unhappy with his efforts to introduce a modicum of consumer choice and market mechanisms into the health service; Muslim delegates might wish he would be tougher on Ariel Sharon, but all, or at least most of these unhappy campers know a winner when they see one. Blair is their meal ticket, and only the loony left prefers anti-Americanism, socialist doctrinal purity, and consignment to permanent opposition, to Blairite pro-Americanism, reform of the welfare state, and continuance in power. The only threat to a continuation of the Bush-Blair alliance seems to be coming from our side of the Atlantic, where the president is headed for a far tougher fight for reelection than is his British ally.

As the conference ended, the delegates joined in singing the once-banned "The Red Flag," and the star of "Blair does Bournemouth" returned to No. 10 Downing Street, secure in the knowledge that the delegates, who had arrived shaken by polls showing the opposition Tories with a slight lead, left stirred by his promise to lead them to a record third term.

Irwin M. Stelzer is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, director of economic policy studies at the Hudson Institute, and a columnist for the Sunday Times (London).