How Blair Was Squeezed-Between Cheney and Chirac

Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader, by Philip Stephens. Viking, 288 pages, $25.95.

The Point of Departure , by Robin Cook. Simon and Schuster, 384 pages, $27.

Two years ago, Tony Blair’s standing could scarcely have been higher-a liberal national leader prepared to make common cause with an ultra-conservative American President in the face of the new and menacing threat of terrorism. His alliance with Bill Clinton had segued seamlessly into an alliance with George W. Bush, his new best friend. Different political traditions and countries could and should unite before a common foe.

Today, Mr. Blair is paying a steep price for those heady days. Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, which allegedly presented such a serious and immediate threat to British and American interests, have proved to be nonexistent. The inability to win a second U.N. resolution in the spring of 2003 to justify the Iraq war, brushed aside at the time as an inconvenience, is now beginning to recoil on both the U.S. and U.K. The two countries launched an illegal war, not even justified on its own terms, that has led them into a bloody and deepening morass. A critical mass of Mr. Blair’s own party is so outraged that his own political position is gravely weakened: He would not now be able to deliver similar support for his trans-Atlantic ally, and his capacity to execute his own domestic program is endangered. The Iraq policy is and was an epic political miscalculation-yet this from Britain’s most-successful-ever Labor politician. Why?

This is the conundrum addressed by Philip Stevens, associate editor and lead political columnist of the Financial Times , in his new book, Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader . The portentous title gives the game away: Though clear-eyed about his hero’s failings, Mr. Stevens admires Mr. Blair. The British leader is right to think that the new 21st-century security risk is terrorism and right to worry that access to rogue states’ armory of weapons of mass destruction will give terrorists the weapons they need. Mr. Blair, writes Mr. Stevens, was making public and private pronouncements along these lines well before Sept. 11, and he didn’t believe that the Anglo-American policy of Iraqi containment was working. When George Bush declared his war on terrorism, Mr. Blair was already fully on board, and it was never going to take much to persuade him to up the ante on Saddam Hussein.

Where he differed with Mr. Bush was not the ends, but the means. Mr. Blair is a believer in interdependence as a human, social and moral reality; his Christianity drives and is driven by this belief-and it informs his social as much as his security policy. It is why he’s on the left rather than the right. Thus, while Mr. Blair wants to be as tough on the Taliban and Saddam Hussein as Mr. Bush, he instinctively wants to construct international alliances of interdependence to execute the job. As a lawyer, he knows the importance of legality; he’s a master of those turns of phrase which can keep a politician on the right side of the law (a tactic he prefers by far to rewriting the law unilaterally or ignoring it altogether).

What Mr. Blair wanted was to reconstruct with Mr. Bush the alliance that Mr. Bush’s father had built (aided and abetted by British Prime Minister John Major) after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August of 1990. Desert Storm was legal, backed by U.N. resolutions, and the enormous cost of the exercise was shared by countries as disparate as Saudi Arabia and Japan. The military burden was shared, too. Interdependence meant accepting constraints, but it meant legality and a shared burden-priceless assets. Mr. Blair embraced Mr. Bush’s objective, but-as Mr. Stevens reads it-the British prime minister wanted to achieve that objective the smart way.

Unfortunately, Mr. Blair overestimated his own powers of persuasion and underestimated the implacable opposition of two men: Dick Cheney and Jacques Chirac. Vice President Cheney doesn’t believe in interdependence as a value, and he certainly doesn’t believe that the U.S. needs to accept interdependence in its foreign and security policy. In his view, the U.S. is the sole great power and has an obligation to itself to call the shots in its own best interests-and its own best interests can never, as a matter of principle, involve taking into account any other power’s interests or sensibilities (unless they happen to suit the U.S.). Mr. Cheney, with his ally Mr. Rumsfeld, had no intention of building legitimacy through the U.N. or burden-sharing; that might constrain U.S. autonomy of action. If the British prime minister wanted to sell America’s wars and join in of his own volition, that was fine but not essential. What was essential was the exercise of American will.

The Cheney-Rumsfeld axis never gave Mr. Blair-or Secretary of State Colin Powell-the chance to maneuver France and Germany-and, with them, the moderate Arab states-into a broad-based coalition. (Only the willing were welcome to join in, not the reluctant or the cautious.) Moreover, intra-European politics in the six months up to March 2003 made Mr. Chirac more and more unwilling to offer Mr. Blair the coup of French support for a second U.N. resolution.

In the book’s most devastating revelation, Mr. Stevens relates how details of private conversations held by the French president and uncovered by British intelligence showed that Mr. Chirac wanted to recover leadership of the European Union from the British. Gerhard Schröder had unexpectedly won the German election (with Mr. Blair’s backing) and hoped that Mr. Blair could rebuild bridges for Germany with the U.S. despite Mr. Schröder’s anti-American election rhetoric. In French eyes, what was emerging was a potential British-German alliance running Europe and acting in concert with Washington. Mr. Blair had to be blocked. Mr. Chirac, Mr. Blair came to believe, was “out to get him.” The French president threw his weight behind German doubts over the war, wooed Mr. Schröder and then declared his opposition to war in Iraq under any circumstances. The chances of winning a second U.N. resolution collapsed. Messrs. Cheney and Chirac between them had ditched Tony Blair, and made an interdependent response to terrorism impossible. Blair may have lost, but it was a noble, if doomed, effort.

It’s a great story, and Mr. Stevens tells it with élan. I’m convinced that he accurately depicts the positions of the dramatis personae, and Tony Blair’s true intentions, too. Mr. Stevens’ description of how Mr. Blair came to hold his values, and how they informed his radical reform of the Labor Party, is also, I think, accurate and insightful-and without that background, it’s impossible to understand why Mr. Blair was so ready to form his alliance with Mr. Bush.

It’s difficult at this point, to dispute that the foremost security threat of the 21st century comes from international terrorism. But as former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook argues in The Point of Departure , his insider’s account of events leading up to the invasion of Iraq, it rather matters whether Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction and thus actually constituted a potential terrorist threat. Until he resigned in protest from Mr. Blair’s government, Mr. Cook was a cabinet member with a ringside seat at the drama. He points out that any genuine international alliance of interdependence would necessarily have wanted to assure itself, before invading Iraq, that Mr. Hussein did possess the weapons in question-and would not have set an arbitrary deadline to discover the fact.

Mr. Stevens says that Mr. Blair did tell Mr. Bush that this delay would be a consequence of a second U.N. resolution-and that Mr. Bush gave his verbal agreement. The trouble was (as Mr. Bush knew), British diplomacy would be undermined by an inexorable and manifest reality: America was going to war anyway. Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld had said that U.S. troops had to move in during the first quarter of 2003, and Mr. Blair had agreed that if America went in, Britain would join as well. And the reason for that was that British and American intelligence was convinced-without the need for further U.N. searches-that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. Or, more sinisterly, that it didn’t matter what Saddam possessed; what mattered was that America should act and install a democratic regime in Iraq, whatever the pretext. The Middle Eastern “swamp” had to be drained-and the place to begin was Iraq. Great Powers, after all, make the weather.

In which case, the whole Blair worldview, as presented by Mr. Stevens, has a massive flaw: You can’t separate means and ends. Interdependence is not just a means that allows you to do what you wanted to do anyway; it will also adjust the end to be achieved. If the process had shown that Saddam did not have W.M.D., then that judgment would had to have been respected. The problem was that Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair never intended to allow such a judgment to be made. Mr. Blair, despite his values and his rhetoric, thus became an adjunct to America’s pre-emptive unilateralism.

He deceived himself and others. As Mr. Cook argues, he allowed his belief in Britain’s alliance with America to trump his belief in interdependence. Tony Blair would have better served his beliefs, his party and the national interest (and, in the long run, Britain’s friendship with the U.S.) had he put interdependence before realpolitik. Between them, Messrs. Cook and Stevens give us the best account of why he failed to do that.

Will Hutton is a columnist for the London Observer .