Blair's five wars

Iraq has severed the thread of Blairite foreign policy. This fifth war may turn out to have been his last
October 19, 2003

Few 20th-century British prime ministers have been strongly associated with a distinctive brand of foreign policy. Macmillan, Wilson, Callaghan, Major: none had a particularly original view of Britain's role in the world. Thatcher had her tryst with Ronald Reagan and fought against Brussels, but that hardly amounted to a coherent doctrine of foreign policy. Heath and Churchill had strong views of their own. So did Chamberlain and Eden, although foreign policy destroyed them both.

Tony Blair took charge of the country with no foreign policy experience and, apparently, little interest. So it is remarkable that he has developed a recognisably "Blairite" foreign policy, sometimes in opposition to the views of the foreign and commonwealth office.

Blair's most distinctive position is that Britain should be prepared to intervene militarily in other countries, when it is practicable, and when there is a strong ethical justification. Thus Blair led the Nato countries into the bombing of Serbia in 1999, to prevent ethnic cleansing; he sent British forces into Sierra Leone in 2000, to end a bloody civil war; and he took part in the US-led attack on Afghanistan in 2001, to purge that country of al Qaeda. When Blair set out the criteria which would justify humanitarian interventions in a speech in Chicago in April 1999, he did not consult the foreign office, many of whose diplomats (and lawyers) were horrified by what they regarded as his naive idealism.

The second central idea of Blairite foreign policy is the attempt to balance strong Atlanticism with a deep commitment to Europe. Britain should be a leading member of the EU, shaping it to become more outward-looking and effective. But at the same time Britain should be a loyal partner of the US, showing it that multilateralism and working with allies pay. Blair is not the first prime minister to talk about Britain as a "bridge" between the US and Europe, but he has emphasised it more than most, and argues that Britain must avoid having to choose between its European and Atlanticist vocations.

In his diplomacy prior to the Iraq war, Blair showed his commitment to these two central ideas. He thought it was right to depose a bloodthirsty and oppressive regime. But because there is no basis in international law for attacking such regimes, he had to use other justifications-notably Saddam's defiance of UN resolutions and the threat of his weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This was not insincere: Paddy Ashdown's diaries reveal Blair's obsession with Saddam's arsenal as long ago as 1997. After 11th September, Blair shared George Bush's worries that international terrorism and Iraqi WMD could come together. Blair's decisions on Iraq also reflected his Atlanticism. He thinks that if America is left to act on its own, it is more likely to behave in a manner that may injure British and European interests. He believes that if Britain supports the US in public it can wield some influence behind the scenes.

However, the decision to go to war led to the collapse of much of the European side of Blair's bridge. He tried to avoid choosing between Europe and America-but ended up choosing the latter. The decision to back the US on Iraq, combined with the decision not to join the euro any time soon, has hugely damaged his reputation and influence in many parts of Europe. Britain's standing had grown considerably in the first five years of Blair's premiership. Blair's eloquence and constructive tone-in contrast to the carping and complaints of earlier Conservative governments-and his policy proposals, such as the St Malo defence initiative and the Lisbon agenda for economic reform, helped to make him the pre-eminent European leader.

Blair has lost that position, although several EU governments and most of the countries that will join next year supported the US and Britain on Iraq. Across the continent, public opinion is largely hostile to Britain's stance. Blair is widely seen as an American poodle, and not only in the Franco-German core. Moreover, France and Germany have revived their alliance and reasserted their leadership of the EU. They have worked together to oppose Britain's policies in several areas, such as farm policy reform and new institutions for European defence.

When Blair decided to back the American invasion of Iraq, he knew that he might pay a heavy price, at home as well as in the EU. So the interesting historical question-whatever happens in Iraq itself-is why Blair took such huge risks in backing the US invasion. Two new books on Blair's foreign policy provide rather different answers. John Kampfner's Blair's Wars tackles the five wars that Blair has fought in six years (the bombing of Iraq in 1998, Kosovo in 1999, Sierra Leone in 2000, Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq again in 2003). Kampfner is the political editor of the New Statesman, and Robin Cook's biographer. In places the book - although generally fair-minded - echoes Cook's criticisms of Blair's foreign policy. It is driven along by a strong narrative, with plenty of scoops on who said what to whom at which behind the scenes meeting (though annoyingly, there are no footnotes). Most of the original material comes in the last half, which covers Blair's diplomacy in the year before the Iraq war. Kampfner is at his best in reporting on events in Downing Street and the foreign office, though less insightful about Washington.

He stresses that these five wars were Blair's personal wars, implying that without his leadership Britain would have stayed out. That may be true for the Iraq war. But it is probable that any British prime minister would have committed British forces to the others, with the possible exception of Sierra Leone.

Hug them Close: Blair, Clinton, Bush and the 'Special Relationship' by Peter Riddell, the Times's political commentator, takes the contrary view, arguing that by backing the Americans on Iraq, Blair was simply following a pattern of British support for the US in a security crisis. "Blair has been in a long line of British prime ministers in often putting the claims of transatlantic solidarity ahead of those of European unity," he writes. "The most consistent feature of transatlantic relations... has been the desire of British prime ministers to be insiders in the Washington policy debate." Riddell shows that every prime minister since 1945 except Ted Heath wanted a special relationship with the US on defence and intelligence. Even Harold Wilson, who refused American requests for British troops in Vietnam, gave strong diplomatic backing to the US in that war.

Hug them Close is a history of the special relationship since 1945, although the bulk of the book covers the Blair years. Riddell is a former Financial Times Washington correspondent and is especially good on the making of US foreign policy. His narrative is not as gripping as Kampfner's, but he provides more measured analysis.

On the question of why Blair went to war in Iraq, Kampfner writes of "a combination of self-confidence and fear, of Atlanticism, evangelism, Gladstonian idealism, pursued when necessary through murky means... a combination of naivete and hubris."

Riddell is more sympathetic. "Not only did he genuinely believe that Saddam and his programme of WMD were a threat, particularly if used by terrorists, but he also recognised, at least from spring 2003 onwards, that America was going to confront... the Iraqi dictator. And since it was in the interests of neither Britain nor the world for the US to act alone, Blair would be together with America in backing a war and in committing troops."

Both books suggest that, in addition to the importance of standing by the US, and of dealing with Iraqi WMD, a third factor influenced Blair. Success in the earlier wars had made Blair bolder, perhaps too bold. He took huge risks in Kosovo: if Milosevic had not backed down and Clinton had then refused to provide ground troops-neither of which was implausible-Nato would have collapsed and Blair might have resigned. He also took risks in Sierra Leone: at the time of that intervention a CIA official told me that Blair had been crazy to send troops, for they were bound to become stuck in a quagmire.

Kampfner quotes Blair saying in February 2003 that he was proud of the interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. "Those people who benefited most from military action had been the people of those countries... If we have to do this in Iraq, the people in Iraq will be the main beneficiaries."

But as we know only too well, things did not go to plan in Iraq. Blair failed to convince the key European governments to back Bush, he failed to achieve the further UN resolution that would have given diplomatic cover to the invasion and then, when the war was won, he failed to get Bush to agree to the kind of UN role that would have persuaded other countries to provide troops and money. The WMD have not been found and the Pentagon proved ill prepared for running Iraq.

In the months before the Iraq war, Blair had little purchase over the behaviour of the US, Russian, French and German governments, as their actions tore the west apart. But Blair and his ministers and advisers must take some responsibility for the diplomatic failures of early 2003 (see my Prospect article, June 2003). They all believed that a further UN resolution on Iraq was attainable. If they had understood that Germany's support for France had emboldened Chirac, and that he and Putin were prepared to veto a further resolution, Blair would not have pursued that resolution for so long, and thus suffered a humiliating diplomatic defeat

The British government misread the situation. Kampfner blames Downing Street for rejecting warnings from the foreign office. But in fact, some of the top foreign office officials also doubted that France and Russia would wield their vetoes. Blair's self-confidence had rubbed off on many of his colleagues. And he overestimated his powers of persuasion with other leaders. Kampfner reports that at the Camp David summit with Bush, in September 2002, Blair promised that he could deliver the Europeans on Iraq. In the weeks before the war, Riddell writes, "Blair's optimism bordered on self-delusion. He repeatedly told MPs and the public alike that he was sure that a further UN resolution would be agreed... His words became more and more unconvincing."

Riddell criticises Blair for not paying sufficient attention to trying to keep the Europeans together on Iraq. Yet when he examines whether it would have been possible to maintain a common European front in the autumn of 2002, to prevent the split into "new" and "old" Europe, he concludes that it was probably not. Chirac, freed of all constraints by his election victories in the summer of 2002, was in no mood to compromise on how the EU should deal with US power. Schr?der, re-elected in September with the help of anti-US rhetoric, could not change tack in a hurry. Blair "was always more concerned with his relations with Washington, than with either Paris or Berlin." Finally, America's unilateral behaviour and high-handed attitude had, for many European leaders, made compromise impossible.

One reason why Chirac turned against Blair, I am told in Paris, is that he could not forgive him for befriending Bush. Chirac had understood the Blair-Clinton friendship, apparently, but thought the bond with Bush-widely regarded in France as an uncivilised cowboy-de trop. Both books try to explain the Bush-Blair relationship by quoting Roy Jenkins in the House of Lords in September 2002. "My view is that the prime minister, far from lacking conviction, has almost too much, particularly when dealing with the world beyond Britain. He is a little too Manichean for my perhaps now jaded taste, seeing matters in stark terms of good and evil, black and white, contending with each other, and with a consequent belief that if evil is cast down, good will inevitably follow."

George Bush often displays a similarly Manichean worldview, which may be why the two men get on as well as they do. Both Bush and Blair are instinctive politicians who attach great importance to personal relationships. And both have challenged the Westphalian principle that sovereign states should be immune from outside interference-though from different perspectives. Blair's doctrine of humanitarian intervention is about intervening to prevent the abuse of human rights. The Bush doctrine, of pre-emptive war and regime change, is a response to the threat of terrorism and rogue states.

Kampfner argues that Blair shares some of the US neoconservative agenda, notably in wanting to use armed force to bring about democratisation in the Arab world. However, as Riddell points out, Blair has a very different worldview to many of the right-wingers in Washington, the president included. Blair believes in extending the rules and institutions of global governance; indeed, his central concern is to find ways of getting the US to overcome its unilateralist instincts and to work through those institutions.

Kampfner's book contains some wonderful vignettes. He describes how badly the Blair camp gets on with Vice-President Dick Cheney and his office, and particularly with Lewis Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, who is close to Israel's Likud party. In 2002, while Colin Powell was having a difficult trip in the middle east, he complained to Jack Straw that Ariel Sharon always seemed to have advance notice of the US position. Kampfner reports that Straw later remarked, "It is a toss up whether Libby is working for the Israelis or the Americans on any given day."

Kampfner also throws new light on the sacking of Robin Cook as foreign secretary, on the day after the last general election in June 2001. Kampfner suggests that Richard Wilson, then cabinet secretary and John Kerr, then permanent under-secretary in the foreign office, had a hand in Blair's decision to move Cook. "Blair and Jonathan Powell [Blair's chief of staff] had also been picking up misgivings, ever so gentle, from the Bush administration about Cook."

Riddell raises an intriguing "what if?" by suggesting that in March 2003 a last-minute deal could have postponed, if not prevented, the war with Iraq. He reports that on 9th March, Blair and President Ricardo Lagos of Chile discussed giving Iraq a 15-day deadline to comply with six benchmarks, or face invasion. If this compromise had appeared viable, Blair might have backed it, although he would then have risked a rupture with Bush, who probably would have refused to delay.

Then on 10th March, Chirac made his infamous statement that France would vote against a new UN resolution, "whatever the circumstances." Riddell reports that Blair rang Chirac to clarify exactly what he meant. Chirac said he would not agree to an ultimatum which implied war if Saddam failed to take certain actions by a certain date. Riddell thinks Chirac mistaken not to have backed the Blair-Lagos compromise, for it could have put Blair in a very awkward position. (Both books rely mainly on Anglo-Saxon sources and would have benefited from more conversations in Paris and Berlin.)

Both authors are critical of the British government's diplomacy but neither says exactly what Blair should have done during the run-up to the Iraq war. Riddell argues that it would have been inconceivable for Blair to follow Chirac and Schr?der in opposing military action in Iraq, "reversing the 60-year-old foundation of British foreign policy, as well as endangering American co-operation which was vital for the operations of Britain's Trident submarines and for satellite intelligence." Nor, claims Riddell, would it have been feasible for Britain to have adopted a policy of neutrality or mere diplomatic support.

But Kampfner reports that, in a memo to Blair shortly before the fighting started, Straw said Britain should only provide diplomatic support for the US invasion, and deploy troops at the end of war for peace enforcement. After Blair rejected this suggestion, Straw supported him loyally throughout the conflict.

Blair may well remain prime minister for several years to come. But will a distinctively Blairite brand of foreign policy survive? Given the problems that Blair has had with Iraq, he is unlikely to back the US on any future pre-emptive wars, should Bush pursue other rogue states. However, if some new humanitarian crisis of sufficient magnitude emerges, a Blair government might still wish to deploy troops.

What of Blair's ambition to lead in Europe and act as a transatlantic bridge? Blair can do neither so long as Europe remains divided into "new" and "old." He will need to work hard to restore British credibility in Europe and overcome these divisions. It would help if he told a different story about British foreign policy: ministers seldom point out that on most key issues-the Kyoto protocol, the international criminal court, arms control treaties, Iran and the middle east peace process-the British are usually with the other European states and are sometimes not aligned with US policy. Blair also needs to come up with new ideas on European defence, to show that he takes his own St Malo initiative seriously. Many continental Europeans assume that because of its recent alignment with the US on so many military matters, Britain no longer believes in the EU playing a role in defence. Blair could argue the case for EU members to save money by pooling military assets in some less sensitive areas, such as air transport, aircraft maintenance, catering and medical care.

Most important of all-and despite the very strained relations between Blair and Chirac-Blair needs to find a way of reconciling British and French attitudes on how to respond to US power. This is not impossible, if both governments are prepared to adjust their stances. The French need to become less instinctively critical of the US and adopt a more constructive attitude in dealing with Washington. Chirac should stop talking of a world that is "multipolar"-a word that annoys Americans and divides Europeans-and stress his support for multilateralism.

The British will also have to shift. As Riddell argues, if they want to convince the French and other Europeans that they are committed to the EU, they should become less unconditionally supportive of the US. Kampfner reports that John Holmes, the ambassador in Paris, told Blair earlier this year that he should occasionally criticise Bush in public. Blair replied that Holmes had spent too long in Paris. But if Blair wants to revive Britain's European prestige, he will have to rethink the way he balances Europe and the US.

Britain and France should be able to support the idea of a stronger Europe, that usually backs US policy but is capable - on matters of vital importance - of saying "no" to the US. If the British and French could accept that compromise, the Germans and the other Europeans would too. Then common European foreign policies would become more feasible, the EU would be a stronger and more useful partner to the US, and Britain could play the pivotal role between Americans and Europeans that Blair desires. Today, alas, it seems a distant dream.