Politics & Prose April 2007

Casualty of War

Tony Blair has been "the most disastrous and dishonest" prime minister in Britain's modern history, a new book argues.
More

Tony Blair, who is about to step down as Prime Minister of Britain, has been called the "Prime Minister of the United States" for his unblinking support of Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, in fact, no friendly foreign leader has done more harm to this country than Mr. Blair. If Blair had spoken out against it, the Iraq war would not have happened — so many of us believe. In the run-up to Iraq one heard, "If Tony Blair is for it…" more often even than "If Tom Friedman is for it…" Blair lent his fatal glibness to the case for war, as well as reassuring solidarity ("If the Brits are with us…").

From the archives:

"Suez in Retrospect" (April 1960)
Chalmers Roberts reviewed Anthony Edens memoirs and speculated on Eden's true motives at the time of the Suez crisis.

Blair’s best chance to stop the war came in the summer of 2002, when he received the "Downing Street memo." Reporting on secret talks in Washington, security advisor Matthew Rycroft wrote: "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." Moreover, "there was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action." The memo was leaked in May 2005. What if it had leaked in 2002? What if Blair had declared that Britain wanted no part of a preventive war based on deceit and planned without thought? The "special relationship" between Britain and the United States survived President Eisenhower’s ultimatum to Prime Minister Anthony Eden to end the Anglo-French intervention in Suez in 1956. If Britain persisted in forcibly trying to achieve regime change in Egypt, Ike warned, "all of Asia and Africa would be consolidated against the West to a degree which, I fear, could not be overcome in a generation." Blair could have spoken Ike’s lines to Bush. Instead, Blair’s PR man, the sinister Alastair Campbell, took twelve-year-old information on Iraq’s WMD off the Internet, combined it with "sexed up" British intelligence, and issued this farrago in a "dossier" marred by typos (the bloggers had nodded). Among other sensational claims, it asserted that Saddam could deploy his WMD in forty-five minutes. You’d think so brazen a deception would have won the respect of Donald Rumsfeld, but you would be wrong. Rumsfeld showed his contempt for the country formerly known as "Great" when he let drop that British troops were not needed for the invasion of Iraq.

Blair favors the cliché "the hand of history." History fairly smote him with it in 2002. Why did he ignore it? Why did he imbibe the folly of the witless pol who greeted him at the 2006 St. Petersburg G-8 summit with "Yo, Blair!"? To one journalist Blair confided that he did it to "keep the U.S. in the international system." He later amplified the point: "It would be more damaging to long-term peace and security if the Americans alone defeated Saddam Hussein than if they had international support." An outlaw U.S.—"outside the international system"—was unthinkable. "Tony Blair has taken a brave decision, that the only hope of influencing American behavior is to share in American actions," Max Hastings wrote in the Daily Mail. That does sound like a brave decision. But was it in Britain’s national interest? In his biting, mordantly witty book, Yo, Blair! (Politico’s, London), Geoffrey Wheatcroft plunges a forensic knife into Blair’s logic: "You don’t say, ‘My big brother is a crazy kind of guy. On Saturday night he likes to get blind drunk and ride through town at ninety. It would be bad for peace and security if he acted alone, so I’ll go along with him for the ride.’" Operating on the disloyal maxim, "Their country, right or wrong," Blair took his country into our war, a step that achieved the opposite of Blair’s intent—that of "binding the Bush administration into the international order."

If we Americans had only known Tony as many of his countrymen knew Tony, we would have resisted his wordy spell. On Wheatcroft’s showing, Blair should be known as "BLIAR"—as one native placard branded him. Wheatcroft furnishes examples, but an anecdote about another British leader captures the BLIAR essence: "‘Dicky,’ Field Marshall Templer said to Lord Mountbatten, ‘you’re so crooked that if you swallowed a nail you’d shit a corkscrew.’" Inveterately dishonest about matters small and large, Blair is free of principle, historical knowledge, reading, or ideas. His intellect begins and ends on his tongue. Says the novelist Doris Lessing: "He believes in magic. That if you say a thing, it is true. I think he’s not very bright in some ways." Blair enraptured liberal American journalists ("the leader of the free world," Paul Berman effused) with his accent, fluency, show of eloquence, and, above all, moral earnestness. As to that, a "Whitehall joke" early in Blair’s tenure had it that the Downing Street answering machine "asked callers to ‘leave a message after the high moral tone.’" Blair is deeply religious and, partly from that, deeply unscrupulous. Like Bush, he acts on the antinomian precept that "to the pure, all things are pure." Bismarck’s cold-blooded realism, according to A. J. P. Taylor, "could not rival the freedom from the principles and scruples of this world which is given by devotion to a supernatural cause." "That describes Blair exactly," Wheatcroft writes. Echoing Bush, Blair avows, "God will be my judge." God save us from these one-constituent politicians.

By his maidenly surrender to Bush—"We will stay with you to the last," "I’m there to the very end," "I said I’m with you. I mean it"—Blair has made Britain "an American client state." It isn’t only Blair who’s been "pitifully diminished" by serving as a human shield" for Bush; it’s the British people. At the St. Petersburg summit, after Bush "Yo, Blaired!" him, Blair revealed the self-contempt beneath his groveling. Before he detected and "hurriedly switched off" a microphone, he volunteered to help Bush’s diplomacy in the Mideast. "I don’t know what you guys have talked about, but, as I say, I am perfectly happy to try and see what the lie of the land is…" Bush reminded him that he was sending Secretary of State Rice to the region. "Well…it’s only if, I mean…you know. If she’s got a…or if she needs the ground prepared, as it were… Because obviously if she goes out, she’s got to succeed, as it were, whereas I can go out and just talk." Indeed. When Britain appointed a new ambassador to the U.S. after 9/11, a Blair courtier told him: "We want you to get up the arse of the White House and stay there." But the Prime Minister had got up there ahead of him.

Britons seem to have concluded that the Blair years have been "just talk," most of it deceitful; he is at 28% in one recent poll. Under once-Socialist Labor, Britain has seen ten years of "market economics powdered with caring rhetoric." To quote a leading Blairite, "New Labour is intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich." Turnout has fallen steadily under Blair: "Fewer and fewer people want to vote, because politics means less and less to them and they despise politicians more and more…" In the still-unfolding "cash for honors" scandal, Blair has become the first sitting Prime Minister ever to be questioned in a criminal inquiry. Tony Blair leaves office after, as Wheatcroft sums up, "the most dishonest and disastrous prime ministership in modern times." Longing for the deliverance of January, 2009, American readers will substitute "presidency" for "prime ministership" and strike the qualification "modern times.”

Jump to comments
Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In