It’s good that former UN Secretary General is now saying Blair should have stopped GW Bush from invading Iraq, but a huge shame that he didn’t have the guts to tell Blair to do it at the time.
I’m not a Margaret Thatcher fan – but am grateful for her determination. She as Prime Minister presided over cuts to the Royal Navy which the Argentine junta interpreted as weakness and lack of interest in defending the Falklands. On the rebound from winning the Miners Strike, she remedied this catastrophic oversight with the iron resolution that made victory possible. This earned her two more terms in office, which was probably more important to her than having me as a fan.
But to her enormous credit, Prime Minister Thatcher played the Special Relationship with great firmness to GW Bush’s far more able and sophisticated father, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. “Now is not the time to wobble George” she told him, ensuring a timely US deployment, a remarkable coalition of Arab and Nato states, and the eviction of the invader.
She’d been deposed by the end of the war, when her successor, the more self-effacing John Major was unable to prevent the unwisely premature curtailment of coalition military action, which allowed Saddam to retain his Republican Guard with their tanks and helicopters, to ensure his survival by repressing rebellions in the south and north of Iraq. Bush Senior’s staff sealed him off from further “Special Relationship” influence from Major, ordering the American supreme commander Schwartzkopf to end the fighting.
The decision-making process leading up to the invasion of Iraq used unbelievably amateurish intelligence reports dishonestly to justify action. For months before the fateful decision was taken, senior British officers had been working in the USA with their Pentagon peers, planning potential operations. The one serious bone of contention for them was the American refusal to plan for afterwards. “The US Army doesn’t do nation building” was the response, so no plans were made. The costs of this astonishing failure are uncountably great, and will continue to be paid for decades – mainly by the Iraqis, but also throughout the region – as well as with the next of kin of the 5000 allied troops who died, and the 110,000 Iraqis.
As Prime Minister, Tony Blair would have been briefed regularly about the America failure to consider post-war reconstruction and security. The British military expertise in this area is considerable, so these briefings accurately predicted what then actually took place. British senior officers were very clear about this, and adamant that the Americans should change their attitude – which was arrogant while also being naive. They hoped that their Prime Minister would apply the Special Relationship so that influence from the very top could bring some common sense to the situation.
We don’t (yet) know what went on behind the closed doors, but it’s clear that Tony Blair was looking more to his image as a warrior leader than to his duty – which was very clear. As the only person able to apply any leverage to GW Bush, he should have argued against the invasion, then as Kofi Annan says now, have withdrawn British support and threatened to walk away leaving Bush on his own.
Annan is clear that would have prevented the invasion. It’s a shame we don’t know if he applied similar rigour to his own dealings with GW Bush at that critical time. Probably not. He is after all a politician, and a long way from being a man able to get things done.
But despite Blair’s abject failure to stop the invasion, he’s gone on the make millions as an international trouble shooter. Annan insists he still likes Blair – which is actually what Blair is all about. He wouldn’t have fronted up to GW Bush, because that in his puckish little mind would have meant not being liked by the Leader of the Free World. But as applies equally well to people who judge others by their Facebook profiles, being liked is meaningless.
In the case of Blair, his need to be liked meant he didn’t do his duty – personal needs overcoming national duty.
President Obama has ignored the Special Relationship because of Tony Blair’s failure to use it with GW Bush. There are signs that Obama may have reconsidered this. It is therefore of vital importance that British Prime Ministers be the fearless friends of the US President – which means disagreeing, arguing – and walking away if that’s the only way to be taken seriously. Being liked is a long way down the list of what makes a good leader.