Books October 2010

Almost Noble

Tony Blair’s memoir reveals him to be neither a cynic nor an innocent, but a man of some principle.

The Tories had been all but pro-Milošević during the Balkan horrors—a cause of shame that Blair did much to redeem by pressing a hard line on the attempted Serbian cleansing of Kosovo. The record plainly shows that he was more determined than Washington on this occasion, while expressing the imperative for a badly compromised Europe to face the responsibility for its neglected Adriatic front. Before the fall of Milošević, furthermore, he went to Chicago in April 1999 to deliver a significant speech, in which he stressed that internal affairs were not a disguise under which despots should be allowed to conduct genocide or rearmament. He specifically mentioned the outstanding case of Saddam Hussein. (At this point, George W. Bush was a somewhat isolationist governor of Texas.)

In a disappointingly short chapter, Blair also tells the almost forgotten story of his decision to use unilateral British force in the case of Sierra Leone. This West African country, originally established as a haven for free slaves, was by the year 2000 being overrun by a criminal mercenary force sponsored by the insane Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. Its funds came from the blood-diamond racket, and its tactics were those of child-soldier enslavement and hand-lopping. A vestigial UN force had done about as much to stop this as UN forces customarily do. After a direct appeal from Sierra Leone’s president, Blair decided to commit troops, who very swiftly dispersed the mercenaries and arrested their ghastly leader, Foday Sankoh. It is not too much to say that another Rwanda had been averted. Blair might have been forgiven for claiming more credit in this instance than he actually does.

The Kosovo and Sierra Leone episodes, and the Chicago statement, do form a necessary prelude to the chapters that dominate the central part of the book, and that concern Afghanistan and Iraq. Here, Blair throws off his jokiness and folksiness and makes the stand-or-fall case for his legacy. The relevant pages are best read in concert with the book Thirty Days: Tony Blair and the Test of History. This important account was written by Peter Stothard, who as editor of The Times of London was the man who arranged the summit between Blair and Rupert Murdoch and thus initiated the media coup that Blair’s “Old Labour” critics most despised: his endorsement by the most loathed press tycoon of them all. In the all-consuming crisis of 2003, Blair’s capacity as a political persuader and salesman, and his standing as a statesman, were both put to the most-exacting tests. Stothard’s careful conclusion, after a month spent standing next to Blair and his advisers during the preparation for and start of the war in Iraq, was that whether they were right or wrong, they did believe sincerely in what they alleged against Saddam Hussein.

The harsh discourse of confrontation, with its strong overtones of “right” versus “wrong”—Stothard notes the growth of Blair’s half-embarrassed religiosity as the days became more fraught—was the exact opposite of the “Cool Britannia” of cultural hedonism and incremental reform that Blairism had promised the British. Blair writes now that, had he known how long and arduous the Afghanistan and Iraq commitments would turn out to be, he would have been incredulous. In 2006, he informs us drily, he was engaged in discussions with the parties in Northern Ireland when his chief of the general staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, gave an interview to a tabloid paper saying that British forces were more of a hindrance than a help in Iraq and should be transferred to the more hopeful scene of Afghanistan. The two IRA leaders present at the summit, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, thereupon informed Blair that they would never have tolerated such insubordination in their own ranks. At this point, treated lightly by his generals and teased by Irish republicans, he must have realized how much of a gulf separated him from the Churchillian figure he would have liked to cut.

Blair’s pedantic restatement of the legal case against Saddam Hussein, and of the thesaurus of unenforced UN resolutions, now reads, if anything, more strongly than it did at the time. But he would have preferred to be making the moral argument (which is by no means invalidated by having not been put). In the end, he made the lethal mistake of letting his tactical and public-relations instinct overrule his grander and braver one, and petitioned for a second UN resolution authorizing war, for no larger reason than that it would allow him to win over his own party. This was his last concession to Old Labour, which did this time have the electorate on its side. And it proved calamitous, because it involved producing all the half-true claims about Saddam’s “imminent threat” that later discredited the whole enterprise. When compared with the simultaneous contortions of Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac and Vladimir Putin, Blair’s attitude seems almost noble and was actuated by an authentic concern about preventing a Euro-American schism. But Bush and Rumsfeld did not appreciate the sacrifice, and Blair’s political enemies sensed the fatal flaw of vanity, and so the closing chapters of the book are consumed with the paltry rivalry with Gordon Brown, the consequences of whose long-indulged reptilian ambition recently humiliated the Labour Party at the polls.

In closing, Blair contents himself with musings about low-carbon initiatives, the “peace process” in the Middle East, the challenges of globalization, and similar bromides. Looking back on his decision to resign when he was—if he does say so himself—“at the height of [his] powers,” he notes ruefully but unironically, “My constituency in the media had evaporated.” It is an oddly telling phrase, as if nobody had ever whispered to him that this is what happens to people who look upon the media as their “constituency” in the first place.

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Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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