The friendship that shaped the post-9/11 world

The terrorist attacks on America three years ago killed 2,995 people and transformed the world. Vowing to take revenge, George Bush found an ally in Tony Blair. Here, James Naughtie of the BBC reveals how the growing friendship between two men led to a declaration of war
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Bush and Blair were thrown together by war, and little else. Without the 11 September attacks, and the war in Afghanistan that followed, their relationship would have had none of the tingling intimacy that came to characterise it within nine months of George Bush's inauguration. No transatlantic relationship in their lifetimes had turned on such a moment, and it was that instant realisation by Tony Blair on a dark afternoon in Brighton that set the pattern for the next three years and, for him, necessitated a commitment that could not be reversed, even when it led him into a forest of political perils that seemed likely to swallow him up.

Bush and Blair were thrown together by war, and little else. Without the 11 September attacks, and the war in Afghanistan that followed, their relationship would have had none of the tingling intimacy that came to characterise it within nine months of George Bush's inauguration. No transatlantic relationship in their lifetimes had turned on such a moment, and it was that instant realisation by Tony Blair on a dark afternoon in Brighton that set the pattern for the next three years and, for him, necessitated a commitment that could not be reversed, even when it led him into a forest of political perils that seemed likely to swallow him up.

Back in the summer of 2001, Blair was already grateful for the happy lift that he felt in Washington. At home, he'd be assailed by voters wondering why the promised health service reforms hadn't eliminated the waiting time for a heart operation, or why the trains still didn't run on time, or whether he'd yet made up his mind whether it was a good time for Britain to join the single European currency (and, if so, when). In America, there was none of this. He was the visiting friend in whom everyone seemed interested. Whether it was Ted Kennedy praising him for bringing relative peace to Northern Ireland or Bob Dole thanking him for pressing on in the Balkan war to get rid of Slobodan Milosevic, he was welcomed. All this played a part in Blair's character as a leader. He enjoyed the stage America gave him, and because he is an actor by instinct and a performer who savours occasions and moments of drama, he reciprocated.

The American affair that was kindled by Bill Clinton and that flowered throughout his presidency continued to grow after the arrival of Bush, to Blair's surprise and relief, and on 11 September 2001, turned into a thing of passionate intensity. He was closer to the President than any other foreign leader and spoke to him more often than quite a few senior members of the administration in Washington. The price was a certain detachment from all but his closest political colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic. And across the English Channel, on the European continent, where Blair had spent his first term in office trying to manage a reconciliation with presidents, chancellors, and prime ministers who saw Britain as a stand-offish and reluctant partner in their enterprise of political integration, this new friend of the United States experienced a tangible chill. In France, for example, it was thought that you had to choose between being a European or an Atlanticist. You couldn't be both.

To compensate for those difficulties, Blair had his conversations with the Oval Office. They were long, frequent and generally friendly. But he discovered that even a relationship like the one with Bush, which had been cemented in the days after 9/11 and which matured when they went to war in Afghanistan in search of Osama bin Laden, could not rebalance the scales. After all, he was not an American politician. Doting editorials, even in The New York Times, were read by almost no one who could vote for him; flattering findings in opinion polls in the United States might occasionally be reported in Britain with some awe, but for everyone who was impressed, there was someone else who would complain about the intimacy with Bush, a President who, from his earliest days in office, seemed to grate with the European political class and set their teeth on edge. Although Blair was drawn westward across the Atlantic in search of power and influence as well as by instinct, the consequence was that he seemed detached from the political culture on which he had to feed to survive.

The accident

In Europe, the new Bush administration was being caricatured as a trigger-happy band well before 11 September. Although the full weight of neo-conservative thinking wasn't yet understood in most European capitals, enough was known of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, in particular, to raise the hackles of the dominant political class. The lack of knowledge about Bush, whom diplomats in Washington were still trying to understand, exacerbated the prevailing uneasiness in London, Paris and Berlin.

One of the indirect consequences of this atmosphere was an important strategic decision by Blair. After his re-election campaign in the summer of 2001, won easily against a Conservative Party still riven by the agonies that had sapped the Major government of its will to live five years before, he changed foreign secretaries. Everyone was surprised. Gordon Brown did not know it was about to happen, nor did Jack Straw, who was making preparations for an expected move from the Home Office to the Environment Department, and nor did the victim, Robin Cook. Blair has always denied that his removal came about principally because of the aversion he had developed to some members of the administration in Washington - Dick Cheney, in particular - but it remains true that the Bush administration shed no tears on his behalf.

In his attitude to Bush, Blair had no doubt. There were two primary reasons that moved him to such certainty. The first was that in their opening meeting at Camp David in February 2001, they found their conversations easier than they had expected. The diplomatic foreplay had gone well. Second, Blair was personally convulsed by the events of 9/11 and felt drawn into the resulting agony that some other leaders would have resisted as a matter of discipline. When they arranged that first meeting for February 2001, the month after Bush's inauguration, a vast amount of preparation was done. Blair was nervous.

Advice poured in from the Washington embassy about Bush's style and attitude, and Blair spent an unusual amount of time in preparation. But Bush seemed concerned, too. His officials made meticulous preparations for the visit: there was much worrying, for example, about how informal they could be at their first encounter.

As it turned out, Blair was the one who perhaps betrayed the fragility of the atmosphere, asking first how they should address each other. He wanted to avoid "Mr President". They immediately opted for first names, and Blair came home relieved. His early judgment was the one he has repeated often since, and never changed: Bush is quicker in conversation than you expect, more decisive than you've been led to believe, but he isn't interested in talking in terms of ideas, only practicalities.

So he was comfortable with Bush. Even as the President began to be lampooned across Europe, mocked for his malapropisms and painted by cartoonists as a clueless cowboy, and the Labour Party rumbled ominously about the neo-conservative rhetoric of some in the administration, Blair thought he had a relationship that would prosper. The 9/11 attacks forced the pace. In the next few days afterwards, Blair seemed to be everywhere. The first leader to talk to Bush, he was in Berlin and Paris within the week, talking to other Europeans and then to General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. Outside church on that first Sunday, for the first time he consciously echoed Bush in talking of "war''. He went to Washington on 20 September.

As he flew west, there was already disquiet in London about the atmosphere in the White House. Blair shared some of the nervousness. Knowing the obsession in some corners of Washington about Iraq, he feared an early push to war there.

But the difference between Blair and some of those advising him was that he found the "good and evil" rhetoric less scary than they did.

When he arrived, after a few hours in New York to inspect the rubble at Ground Zero, Blair had the meeting with Bush that is now seen as the most important of their early conversations. For 20 minutes they were alone in the Blue Room at the White House, and when Blair came out he seemed to his Washington ambassador and his Downing Street aides to be in a notably determined mood. Something had been settled. His principal aim, to tell Bush that he would support an attack on the Taliban and al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan, but not (for the moment) on Iraq, had been achieved. Bush had already decided that Iraq must wait, a decision settled at Camp David four days earlier. In return, Blair was ready to commit himself to stand with Bush, despite the acute nervousness already disturbing his government at home. Just before he left, Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, had broken ranks to say that the bombardment of Afghan civilians would be unbearable. But Blair was now on board. An hour later, he got a standing ovation on Capitol Hill in the course of the President's address to both houses simply for being there, "Thank you, friend,'' said Bush.

In the normal course of events, Blair is often slow to make up his mind. Coming to power in 1997, Blair led his government in some radical policies - on constitutional change, for example - but as a decision-maker, he often saw himself as the tortoise rather than the hare. In government, that attitude does not always have the fable's happy ending. When he does jump, he makes a spectacular leap. But it often takes some time.

Therefore, after 9/11, the day when there was not time for thought and Blair's emotions were seized in a way that had not happened to him in government before, it was quite natural for him to want to slow things down. In his relations with Bush, he slipped almost without thinking into the role of the adviser at the shoulder who is preaching caution and playing for time. A couple of years later, when Blair's public image at home was that of the crusader with blazing eyes, this truth was often forgotten. But Blair's own justification for his policies in support of Bush - that he was a calming influence on some of the most warlike spirits in Washington - was a genuine belief, and an accurate account of the posture he adopted at the time. Whether it was wise - or right - to allow the closeness to flower into such a fusion of spirits was the question that would come to bedevil his premiership, but at the beginning it seemed to him an expression of his natural instincts: with convictions settled in the firestorm of 9/11, and bolstered by a deep emotion, he then wanted to proceed with caution.

In this attitude, and in Blair's counsel to the President over the following 18 months or so, up to the moment when troops crossed the border into Iraq, lies the explanation for the relationship that has puzzled so many of his supporters and colleagues.

Crazy for war

In the high summer of 2002, Blair appeared to his colleagues to have reconciled himself to war. He began to wear a distant look. He spoke of the possibility of failure at the United Nations and was convinced that only force would remove Saddam Hussein. Blair's concern was his own freedom of action. Without UN sanction and the backing of a coalition of the sort that had supported the Afghan campaign, he knew he would be hobbled. He would be a leader surrounded by doubters, fighting public opinion and the press, and he had a politician's instinctive understanding of how difficult it would be to conduct a war like that. It wouldn't matter that he thought he was right if everyone else thought he was wrong.

Colin Powell's interest was different, but coincided with Blair's. He feared the loss of allies whose help he needed in the Middle East and on the Indian subcontinent, in Nato and in the unstable outposts of the old Soviet empire. Blair spoke of his fear of an America acting alone in the world; so did Powell.

Powell shared these thoughts with Jack Straw. It was around this time that they became more than acquaintances as foreign ministers, and firm friends. They were speaking on the phone almost daily - on one day during the later UN negotiations, eight times - and they shared their frustrations. Powell was frank about his problems, extraordinarily so. Referring to the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz group in the administration, Powell did not feel it necessary to conceal his irritation and feeling of alienation from their view. He told Straw in one of their conversations that they were "fucking crazies".

Straw admitted publicly that much could have been done differently, and when it was put to him that the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz group had dictated the policy, he went so far as to say that surely no one would expect him to agree with those people. But Blair was not in a position to take such a step backward. Having made the case that the threat from Iraq was real and imminent, he found himself unwilling to turn away from war, or from its consequences.

The riddle of the sands

Spies and soldiers were perplexed by the Iraq war from the beginning, and when the old regime had been toppled, the shadows deepened. The facts and assumptions that were the war's justification seemed to shimmer and disappear like a mirage in the desert heat, and the very ease with which the first objectives were achieved taunted the victors with new uncertainties. Iraq remained violent, mysterious and threatening. The military threat that was the justification for war was transformed quickly into a political crisis for Bush and Blair.

The Bush-Blair partnership can't be separated from the intelligence debates that preceded the war and the arguments that followed it, because the inherited assumption at Downing Street and the White House is that the flow of information, analysis and gossip back and forth from the secret parts of the governments is the bloodstream of the "special relationship".

One scene illustrates the primacy of this aspect of the relationship. On the day after 9/11, with the air corridors over the Atlantic shut to all commercial traffic and every commercial airport in the United States closed, one plane took off from Britain to head west. It contained an interesting trio of visitors to Washington - the chief of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove; the deputy director general of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller; and the director of GCHQ, Sir Francis Richards. Once in Washington, they were driven straight to the headquarters of the CIA in Langley, Virginia, to see old friends and colleagues. The next morning they were gone.

(By a curious coincidence, they gave a lift home to their old boss, John Major, who had been stranded in Washington on a business trip. Like George Bush Sr, James Baker and a number of other veterans of the first Bush administration, he is a board member of the Carlyle Group, whose secretive dealings in the Gulf states have attracted interest and, in some quarters, notoriety.)

The loner

The Blair smile is a disguise, because it suggests a gregarious character. One of his closest friends at the top of his government tells the truth of it like this: "Tony has always been a loner and we all know it.'' Blair is explained by his individualism much more easily than by the outside forces that may sometimes seem to have made him what he is. As the years in office have gone by, these influences have become less important than the core personality. As Blair has aged into his fifties, becoming thinner, a touch greyer, and with a rougher physical edge, some of the soft padding that politicians have to acquire has been stripped away. His essential wiring has been revealed.

Asked this question by perhaps his closest friend in government over a lunch table: "Our people really hate us now, don't they?'' there was only one honest answer: "Yes, they do.'' He was talking not so much about Labour MPs, discontented and rebellious though they were, but about the broader swathe of "our people'' outside Parliament to whom Blair and the war had become unpalatable.

There are no calendars for prime ministerial lives. Some are short, some long. Some fall from power - three of the last eight have left office without an election - and the parliamentary system, even when there is a huge government majority, is an unpredictable and wilful beast. A year after he invaded Iraq, Blair knew that he was nearing the end of his time. It might last a year or two, taking him beyond what he could still hope would be a third election victory if attention turned away from the world's troubles; or it might end sooner. But Blair's unquestioned mastery of British politics was over. Iraq would be his epitaph.

Even if his batteries recharged themselves, as they have often done before, and even if he did something extraordinary before he went - such as winning a referendum on the European constitution - he would remain the Prime Minister who fought a war that may divide peoples and governments for a generation or more. He would leave a Middle East in flux and a Western alliance in Nato that wonders after Iraq whether the old obligations of multinational partnership will ever be taken seriously again.