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."