In building the case for war against Iraq, the United States has had only one dedicated ally, and it isn’t Great Britain. It is Tony Blair. The distinction is important, because Blair has supported the Bush Administration’s policy of a regime change in Iraq despite significant criticism from his own party, the British press, and close to three-fourths of the British public. To many, Blair has dangerously charted his own path, in pursuit of what former Labour Minister Peter Kilfoyle has called “the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, against the wrong enemy.” To Blair, however, the campaign against Iraq is the right war. It’s his moral mission.
How he came to this crusade is a story of opportunism, conviction, and what Harold Macmillan once called “events, dear boy, events.” As the head of New Labour, the reformist outgrowth of the original Labour Party (formed by Socialist Democrats in the late 1890s), Blair entered government in 1997 with a strong domestic agenda and a singular ambition: to make a mark on the world. He began by transforming the Labour Party’s policies on the economy and public services, reforming the House of Lords, and pursuing a “liberal interventionist” foreign policy (he assisted Clinton in the bombing of Kosovo in 1999).
Blair has been popular and skillful enough to remain in power for six straight years, but he has endured the enmity of many fellow Labour MPs who hate him for moving the party from the left to the center. He has been criticized for his handling of the euro, health services, education, and privatization. His critics have charged that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, his press secretary, and a few influential party members have determined his domestic policy. His reputation as a reformist Labourite is intact, but in recent years, Blair’s ostensible hold on his place in history has been sliding.
Iraq, oddly enough, might be the very thing that will save him. This even as it raises obvious questions: why, for instance, would Blair choose to gamble on such an unpopular, unpredictable issue? The answer lies in Blair’s self-image. He has as little interest in realpolitik as he does in any restoration of Britainnia’s long-lost glories. His focus is more directly on the future, as he understands it. As he told the House of Commons last week, the conflict with Iraq and the U.N. “will determine the pattern of international politics for the next generation.”
Blair insists the war policy is moral, that Saddam’s long history of tyranny and mass murder, as well as his potential for further aggression, warrant the use of force, with or without popular and international approval. He has been so emphatic about this that even the Labour left and the Tory right contend that he is acting out of conviction. Indeed, “moral” seems to be the most common word in Blair’s lexicon. In October 2001, he declared that the war against terrorism allowed for “no moral ambiguity,” that the invasion of Afghanistan was about “moral fiber.” This past February, he responded to British anti-war protesters by saying that their “moral case against war has a moral answer. It is the moral case for removing Saddam.”
This mantra, with all its simplicity, is not merely Blair’s way of clarifying the war issue. If it’s integral to his religious piety (he even consulted with the Pope in February), it’s even more integral to his historical ambitions. Just as William Gladstone had Irish Home Rule and Winston Churchill had the war against Hitler, Blair has the war against terrorism and Iraq. In bucking party and public opinion, Blair is betting that history will prove that the United States was right about Iraq, and, by standing with Bush, he will therefore be seen as a visionary, while everyone else will be remembered for their lack of courage. He indicated this on March 18, when, before Parliament, he alluded to the appeasement of Hitler: “We can look back and say: there’s the time, that was the moment… That’s when we should have acted.”
Unlike Bush, Blair has pursued U.N. and military pressure on Iraq with some consistency and measured resolve. Meeting with Bill Clinton in February 1998, Blair warned against Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and advocated the use of force if inspections failed. In September 2002, he presented a dossier to the British parliament detailing Saddam’s violations, and then persuaded Bush to go to the U.N. before pulling the trigger. When no second resolution seemed viable, Blair proposed, on 13 March, a series of disarmament measures to Iraq (including the questioning of Iraqi scientists and the destruction of banned missiles).
Despite his determination, Blair has not been able to change his opponents’ minds. British papers, across the political spectrum, predicted that the Iraq issue could destroy him. The Mirror commented, on 12 March, that the future is “looking grim” for Blair, citing the statement of 40 MPs that if Blair wasn’t going to find a peaceful resolution to the Iraqi crisis, “he must make way for those who will.” The reasons for such predictions are many. Blair has habitually neglected Parliament, accelerating the trend away from a balanced relationship between Parliament and Prime Minister, towards a stronger executive position akin to the U.S. presidency. He has ignored large blocs of his own party, all the Liberal Democrats, and the electorate.
But by far his greatest liability has been George W. Bush. As the Bagehot editorial in The Economist puts it, the dissension between Blair and Britain is due to the widespread notion among the public that “President Bush is a trigger-happy Texan who shoots from the hip” (18-24 January 2003). Blair might fear Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, but it seems that many Britons, like many Europeans, fear U.S. hegemony. Last week in Parliament, John Denham, who resigned as Home Officer Minister over Blair’s Iraq policy, cited his opposition to “a U.S. administration that has seemed, at times, to delight in stressing its disdain for international opinion.” On March 8, The Independent reported that polls showed that antipathy to Blair’s Iraq policy stemmed from Bush’s “cowboy image.”
The predictions (made by The Times, The Independent, and The Mirror, among others) of Blair’s fall seemed, at first, right on target. In February, Blair faced the largest Parliamentary rebellion of his career, when 122 Labour MPs (out of 410) backed an amendment stating that the case against Iraq had not been proven (the BBC’s verdict of the 27th was that Blair had been left “bloodied”). On 18 March, Blair faced the largest Parliamentary rebellion in history, when 139 Labour MPs backed an amendment opposing the government’s pro-war stance. The revolt was compounded by the resignation of eight ministers, including Robin Cook, the Leader of the House of Commons.
Though it would seem that no Prime Minister could withstand such damage, Blair seems to have done just that. In the end, Parliament voted 412 to 149 in favor of using force. This show of support is partly due to Blair’s opening pro-war speech, which persuaded some, including Conservative opposition MP Andrew Mackay, who said, “The case [for war] has now been made.” It’s also due to the belief among many MPs that, since the troops were already in the Gulf, it was too late to turn back. But it is chiefly a function of political self-interest, embodied by Clare Short’s apostasy. Secretary of International Development, Short had previously maligned Blair’s Iraq policy as “reckless” and said she would resign if war occurred. On 18 March, she buckled, voting in favor of force and maintaining her cabinet post.
In opposition, Labour MP Alice Mahon declared, “The postmortem will reveal it [the war] was illegal and immoral.” Even then, it might not undermine Blair’s personal destiny. On the illegality, he is already trying to minimize the fallout. This week, Blair is attending an E.U. summit (along with Jacques Chirac), where he is proposing U.N. and E.U. humanitarian efforts in post-war Iraq. On the immorality, Blair already seems convinced that he has ethics on his side. His constant invocation of morality, as genuine as it might be, does not mean he is right about the war; it does mean, however, that if he pays a huge political price, his sense of righteousness will probably remain intact.
If the war goes well, he might again have the British public on his side. If the war does not—and there are many ways in which, in the long term, it can go wrong—Blair will go down in history as yet one more Prime Minister who lost his party, and his government, because of the steadfastness of his convictions.