Hemorrhaging Trust

LONDON—Both President Bush and Tony Blair had a great deal at stake last month, when Blair became only the second British prime minister in history to be called to testify before a judicial inquiry. The inquiry was triggered by the apparent suicide of David Kelly, a British government scientist and former U.N. weapons inspector. Kelly was the source of a May 29 BBC news report alleging that Blair's government had "sexed up" intelligence reports about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

Several questions were hanging over Blair. Did his government scapegoat Kelly and drive him to suicide? Adam Raphael, political editor of The Economist, witnessed Blair's August 28 testimony and reported, "Blair said, 'Look, these were very serious allegations being made against the government. If we had covered up his identity or the fact that he had come forward, we would have been in real trouble.' "

What about the allegations themselves? Blair told the inquiry, "This extraordinarily serious allegation, if it were true, would mean we had behaved in the most disgraceful way, and I would have had to resign as prime minister." According to Raphael, "On the main charge leveled against this government—that they inserted information in the dossier against the wishes of intelligence experts—Blair was able to show there was absolutely no truth to the charge whatsoever."

Blair's testimony was good news for Bush, who had relied on British intelligence and had gotten into trouble for saying in his 2003 State of the Union speech, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." The White House later acknowledged that the intelligence was unsubstantiated and should not have been included in the speech. That seemed to end the controversy in the United States.

But here in Britain, Blair's political troubles are far from over. The day after he testified, Blair lost his spin doctor. Alastair Campbell, the director of communications who has been with Blair since 1994, announced he was leaving the government. Campbell was the name most directly associated with the BBC charge that the prime minister's office had "sexed up" the intelligence. To get a sense of the political impact, imagine Karl Rove's leaving the Bush White House.

If the British inquiry found no evidence to back up the BBC's charge, why did Campbell have to go? Because the political damage to the prime minister has been severe. Two-thirds of Britons think that the Blair government did "deceive the public about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction," according to an ICM poll for The Sunday Telegraph.

What doomed Campbell was the ferocity with which he responded to the BBC charges. He went on the warpath—apparently backed by the prime minister—to discredit the story, disgrace the reporter, and expose the BBC's source. The source turned out to be Kelly, who was put through two days of grueling public testimony. The news of Kelly's death produced a wave of public anger at the government's "spin machine," even though the facts vindicated the government's story.

But the Blair government still faces serious troubles. The prime minister staked his case for war with Iraq on the charge that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction presented an immediate threat. How immediate? Forty-five minutes. The government dossier claimed that Iraq could launch an attack on the West just that fast.

"The main reason this country went to war was that we were told Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," Sean O'Grady, columnist for The Independent, observed. "He was going to give them to Al Qaeda. There would be a huge bomb at Buckingham Palace or Westminster or Downing Street. And we would all pay the price for our complacency."

Instead, Blair is paying a price for the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. British voters are furious at him and his government; they regard the entire war as based on a monstrous deception. Bush is not paying any such price because his case for going to war with Iraq was more complex. Bush argued for "regime change," the need to topple Saddam. That is an argument Blair could not have made. "I do think that the American administration was a little more honest," Raphael said. "Yes, they said there was a threat. But they also said, 'This is a bad man. We want regime change.' Those were dirty words here in Britain. That was never the way the war was sold to people here."

Blair did say, "If we were wrong [about the weapons of mass destruction], we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering." But he said that months after the war. And he said it, not to Britons, but to the U.S. Congress.

The failure to find weapons of mass destruction has done far more damage to Blair than to Bush. Barely more than a quarter of the British (27 percent) think that Blair is a leader who can be trusted, according to a poll taken for The Daily Telegraph at the end of August. Some British commentators are comparing Blair's fate with President Clinton's following impeachment. Like Clinton, Blair may survive, but he has lost credibility.