Opinion: Tony Blair and the American connection

BOSTON — It was painful to watch television images of Tony Blair trying to explain to an official inquiry why he chose to join George W. Bush in invading Iraq nearly seven years ago. If the sobbing mothers of slain British servicemen were looking for some signs of regret from the former prime minister they were to be disappointed.

Blair said that if he had it to do all over again he would still have made the same choice. “This isn’t about a lie or a conspiracy or a deceit or a deception, he said. “It’s a decision.” Given the post 9/11 climate, Blair said: “If there was any possibility that [Saddam Hussein] could develop weapons of mass destruction, we would stop him. It was my view then and that’s my view now.”

Of course we now know that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and we now know that if we had followed French advice we would have redoubled our inspections to find out, keeping our armed might in reserve. But Bush had already made his choice and wasn’t interested in the evidence.

One can put it down to 9/11 fear, but in hindsight invading Iraq was so off-message in combating Al Qaeda terrorism that we have to look for deeper reasons. For Bush it was a matter of national prestige, of correcting his father’s mistakes, of revenge, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. For as Henry Kissinger said, invading Afghanistan was not enough. Arabs had humiliated us, and Arabs should be humiliated in return.

Then there was Iraq’s oil, and neo-con dreams of restructuring the Middle East with democracy. There was even some thought of furthering Israel’s interests, mixed altogether in a stew of motives in an action for which, as Paul Wolfowitz famously said, weapons of mass destruction were just the one thing we could all agree on.

To Blair, I would attribute a much more straight forward and simpler reason. He took Britain to war because the Americans were going to war, and for half a century British policy has been based on staying close to the Americans.

To be sure, Britain has not always followed America over the cliff. Britain was firm about not joining the Vietnam war, but ever since the Suez crisis of 1956 Britain has seen its interests tied to America’s.

Of course Winston Churchill, half American himself, saw the answer to Britain’s declining power as achieving the closest possible union of the English speaking peoples. His successor, Anthony Eden, strayed from that doctrine in his secret alliance with France and Israel to invade Suez, hoping to topple Egypt’s strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser.

This magical thinking came to naught when President Eisenhower told them to go back to square one, which they meekly did. British journalist Martin Woollecott, in his book, “After Suez, Adrift in the American Century,” wrote that “the irrationality of British fears in the 1950s had its parallel in America in 2003 when the dangers represented by Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were both exaggerated and conflated.”

America’s relative power to command other nations was stronger in 1956 then it is today, and Ike, unlike George W. Bush, saw that Nasser’s malignancy was being blown out of proportion by Eden.

After the humiliation of Suez, Britain made a fundamental foreign policy decision: Stick close to the Americans. There was talk in those days of Britain playing Greece to America’s Rome. Clever Britain would guide and channel the brute power of America. Tony Blair has said as much, in different language, when he told Europe that it was a good thing that Britain was in a position to calm America from time to time, which of course it wasn’t.

France came out of World War II with a different vision: rearrange the European furniture that had seen Germany invade France roughly every 30 years or so, and stick close to Germany. Franco-German rapprochement has been one of the wonders of post-World War II Europe, with the two countries even agreeing to expunge their text books of hostility towards one another. Clever France saw itself as the nimble jockey astride the great German draft horse of industrial and economic power.

France took away from the Suez debacle a different message: Don’t get too close to the Americans because they can’t be trusted. And therein lies the cause of deep suspicion of the “Anglo-Saxons,” i.e. Britain and America, in the political and diplomatic life of France.

As for Tony Blair, the British public suspects that he was simply Bush’s enabler, and much of the constructive advice Blair gave George W. Bush, such as working to solve the Israel- Palestinian problem, was routinely ignored.