There was a double irony in John Reid's recent disparaging comments about the intelligence services. In the first place, Tony Blair has the closest, most amicable working relationship with the heads of those services. He has at least as high a regard for Richard Dearlove, John Scarlett and Eliza Manningham-Buller as he does for any of his cabinet ministers, certainly including Dr Reid. In both the last public spending rounds, the secret services received a generous increase in their financing. Secondly, Tony Blair went to war with Iraq because he belatedly accepted MI6's assessment of world events.
From 1997 onwards, the security services were exercised about the risk that rogue states would equip terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. For four years, however, they found it hard to get a hearing in No 10. One could understand Tony Blair's reaction; it is never pleasant to be told about the existence of a well-nigh insuperable problem. As a result, however, MI6 was in the position of the Fat Boy in The Pickwick Papers: he wanted to make people's flesh creep, but was forever forcing his attentions on an unwilling audience. But the CIA, meanwhile, had a worse problem. From the mid-1990s, it tried to warn President Clinton about the threat from al-Qa'ida and similar organisations. At that time, al-Qa'ida was regularly killing American citizens, yet the President did not wish to listen. That is a far greater stain on his reputation than anything he did to Monica or Hillary.
Then came a new President and 11 September. Suddenly, Tony Blair changed his mind and made up for his earlier inattention. He decided that he did not want to go down in history as the premier who fiddled while mass destruction burned, and concluded that something had to be done. So did George Bush, but there was a crucial difference. The President had a plan, which had been devised by Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defence. Well before 11 September, Mr Wolfowitz had concluded that the Middle East was inherently terror-genic because it was dominated by corrupt and oppressive regimes. Until there was large scale regime change, accompanied by the introduction of democracy and human rights, the West would be under threat.
From 12 September 2001, that became the intellectual foundation for American policy. As a result, the Bush administration was committed to an audacious experiment in liberal imperialism. By the logic of its own position, it was also committed to a Palestinian state. In the context of all this radicalism, Saddam's possession of WMD was a mere detail. As President Bush regularly made clear, his primary aim was regime change in Iraq. Nor was he that interested in coalition-building, especially as he felt certain of British support. America would lead; others could follow.
Life was more complicated for Tony Blair. At least since Suez, all British Prime Ministers - even Margaret Thatcher - had known that for them, the days of superpower unilateralism were over. Like it or not, they needed allies to achieve great objectives. So there is a profound psychological difference between British policy-makers and their American equivalents. On this side of the Atlantic, we decide what we would ideally like to do and then try to work out how to do as much as possible. In Washington, they decide what they want to do and do it.
Tony Blair is also an instinctive multi-lateralist. It is not only in domestic politics that he wishes to build a big tent to encompass all positions. From early on, he was told that his alliance with President Bush would jeopardise his Euro-diplomacy. He reacted as he always does when informed that he has to choose between apparently contradictory alternatives; by insisting that he can have both (in this case, he was wrong).
So Mr Blair was determined to try the United Nations route. Mr Bush, although suspicious, was prepared to put up with the UN as long as it did what it was told, and was happy to make a concession to his ally. As a result, the WMD issue was emphasised as if it were the sole reason for going to war, which was never the case in Washington.
But Mr Blair made WMD the cornerstone of his argument. This brings us to a fundamental difference between George Bush and Tony Blair. Unlike the President, who is as straightforward a man as ever occupied his great office, Tony Blair has always been a stealth politician, for two compelling reasons. He has never felt able to trust either the Labour Party or the British people. He was obliged to be stealthy in his endeavours to transform his party and about his ambitions for British participation in Europe.
There is a further reason for the Prime Minister's habitually tentative approach to big issues. In comparison with President Bush, Mr Blair has a serious intellectual disadvantage. Although he is no less intelligent that the President, he is not as clear in his thinking, because he lacks the bedrock of conviction and principle.
Eamon de Valera often said if he wanted to understand the Irish people, he just had to look into his own heart. George Bush could say the same about his fellow Americans; he believes his values are shared by the broad mass of his countrymen. Mr Blair has no such certainty. On the contrary; if he were to look into his own heart, he would not even understand himself. This is a man who makes himself up as he goes along.
He was convinced of the dangers of WMD terrorism and of the need to respond pre-emptively to the threat. He was also convinced that Saddam Hussein was the poisonous spider at the heart of the lethal web. He was not prepared to share his convictions with the British people.
Here, he was the victim of his previous successes as a stealth politician. For years, New Labour's tactic had been to spin and move on. If there was a difficulty, a phrase or two would be found to ensure favourable headlines in the next couple of news broadcasts, by which time public attention would have switched to a new issue. Though this worked for several years, it also created a moral hazard. Even if he had ever known how to do so, Mr Blair lost the ability to talk frankly to the British people.
The security services are still worried about terrorism. If Islamic fanatics are prepared to travel from Derbyshire to Palestine to blow themselves up, how long will London be immune? Some senior people are convinced it is only a matter of time before an outrage is committed on the Underground. It may be that Britain's participation in an American-led campaign to eradicate the long-term causes of Middle Eastern terrorism will make us more vulnerable in the short term.
If that were to happen, the Government would have to rely on public understanding and public confidence; but Mr Blair has done nothing to promote that confidence. He went to war for the right reasons, but with the wrong rhetoric. That was a serious failing on his part, for it could undermine the necessary trust between the British people and their government.Reuse content