Iraq, Blair & the “Art of the Possible”

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    27th March, 2008


    Steve Richards has an interesting if somewhat confusing article today in The Independent, on Tony Blair’s decision on the Iraq invasion. (Or you can read it here)

    He argues forcefully and almost 100% persuasively that New Labour’s re-positioning under Blair (& Brown) was at stake if he made the wrong decision on Iraq. Yet, after arguing with such credibility that there were many influences playing on this decision, and arguing that the same political influences were at work in the recent attempt by the opposition parties to press for a further Iraq Inquiry, he seems to come to an inconsistent and slightly peculiar conclusion.

    PUZZLING, Mr Richards

    Steve Richards’ analysis concludes with this:

    “Britain did not have a leader with the boldness to step aside”.

    How odd. Excuse my highlighting, but …

    In my humble opinion he had the boldness to step up to the mark, and the consistency to understand why. Every re-positioning step he and New Labour had taken took him in the same direction. The act of siding with America was as inevitable as all the other steps with which Mr Richards agrees, indeed argues, in the article. So quite why Mr Richards says it was “inevitable” and then says Blair did not have the boldness is, well, inconsistent, imho. Or is Mr Richards playing devil’s advocate here, in order to stimulate debate?

    The Iraq decision was as right as it was inevitable.

    Blair had the boldness to make New Labour the centre of political influence in Britain after decades of Conservative predominance. This centring of Labour as the natural pary of government will be of monumental importance for decades to come, if it is not derailed by Old Labourites.

    He had the boldness to insist that we need to be onside with America AND Europe.

    He had the boldness to make ground-breaking international statements on the global influences pressing on the world.

    He had the boldness to support the USA in Afghanistan.

    He had the boldness to stand by America’s side after 9/11 regardless of many at home saying, stupidly, that America “had it coming”. I could go on …


    So is “boldness ” in the eye of the beholder. Is it bold to take all the other steps, and yet weak to take the one step which could have, at a stroke, undone all the others?

    I suppose it just shows that even supporters of Mr Blair, which I understand Mr Richards is or was, can disagree on where boldness lies, dependent upon whether we think that the decision on Iraq will be judged by history as momentously good or bad. But surely we cannot fairly argue (a) then conclude (b).

    To bullet-point the article (with apologies to Mr Richards if this is incomplete) he seems to be saying this:

    The last conclusion aside, this thesis is bound to be slightly complicated for the antis to take on board, as it tries to get inside the head of the dominant political figure of recent years – New Labour’s first Prime Minister, Tony Blair. This is a place few of the antis feel inclined to visit.

    To them it is simple: Blair wanted to be Bush’s best friend – whatever it took – and supporting the Iraq invasion was a way of doing it.

    Of course it is much more complex than that. And the position that Blair found himself in as regards the Iraq war decision, whether by his own hand or not, is of the utmost importance.

    To understand how momentous the change from Old to New that the British Labour party had become since the early 1990s, and WHY the decision to support the invasion was inevitable, this is exactly where we need to start. Inside the head of the epitome of New Labour. And in that recognition Mr Richards is absolutely correct. Particularly so now that some within the party’s ranks have misunderstood the whole project, or disagreed with it to begin with, and are now attempting to dismantle it. Taking Labour back to the future seems for many to be the way forward.


    The hypocrisy of the self-righteous is truly a sight to behold. And yet, with the connivance of many in the press, they often get away with it. They are, imho, either lying or are too stupid to be involved in politics. Perhaps they should remain nameless. But there are some prominent, though in the long run I believe, insignificant politicians that leap to mind here, within ALL of our parties.

    For evidence of the intellectual malfunction of some of our politicians, we have to look no further than at some of the oddballs in the Liberal Democrats and in the nationalist parties. Their continual inference that Tony Blair makes Saddam Hussein looks as innocuous as Mother Theresa is utter tripe. True there are others, lesser informed, in the country who believe this too, without the malevolent influence of superciliousness. But these people are not paid to work out political complexities, and often maintain a lifelong pacifism ideology. I DO believe that Keeping It Simple Sweetheart should be the prerogative of the red tops and not of our politicians, of whichever party.


    Going over the reasons for the call of the opposition parties for yet another Iraq war decisions debate is as necessary as they say the inquiry is. Their inquiry call is no more than a smokescreeen puffed up by those who sense their gun has mysteriously stopped smoking.

    Theirs is a desperate call.

    It is NOT to try to find out “what went wrong” so that we won’t do it again. That, coming from William Hague, is utterly disgraceful. It is political opportunism, and tries to camouflage his party’s support of Blair on Iraq. If in power, they would have done exactly the same as Blair, and they know it.

    It is NOT to try to make parliament the decision-making body in momentous decisions such as going to war as is the Liberal Democrat argument. Blair did NOT sidestep parliament or use the royal prerogative in the Iraq decision. Parliament voted FOR it, supporting Blair.

    The recent decision to allow war decisions to be taken by parliament and not the PM is designed, by the present government, to appease the losers in the argument, as well as unhappy voters. It is unlikely to work. The losers will still try to inculcate this ‘lie’ and promulgate it facetiously as ‘fact’ into our collective history.

    The lie is simple: they say they had no say in the matter. They say Blair was an undemocratic leader of this country. THIS is a disgraceful lie. The truth is that THEIR side’s position did not prevail. And nor did they win the recent call for a debate.

    And to boot, in its limitations, the new power of parliamentary decision-making signifies little.

    Steve Richards: Overwhelming and still underestimated factors propelled Blair into war in Iraq

    Thursday, 27 March 2008

    ‘A pattern is forming. This week’s debate about whether or not there should be a government inquiry into the war in Iraq was fuelled by a range of domestic political calculations. The Conservatives instigated the Commons debate in order to distance themselves from their robust, and highly influential, support for the war. The Government refused to hold an inquiry now because the nightmare of Iraq would be revisited as the next election approaches. The Liberal Democrats called for an apology from those who supported the war in order to emphasise that they did not do so.

    There is a depressing symmetry about the way that domestic political considerations continue to define attitudes towards the war. In my view, there were overwhelming and still underestimated factors which propelled Tony Blair towards war in the first place.

    The decision to go to war was not an aberration as some have argued, a moment when Mr Blair dropped his normal cautious calculations and became messianic. It was part of a New Labour approach to politics, entirely predictable and arguably inevitable from the moment Mr Blair and Gordon Brown became the only dominant figures in their party and then the Government.

    Here are some of the common factors in New Labour calculations from the mid-1990s until now. When there are highly controversial policy areas, Labour worries hugely that the Conservatives might be on the more popular side of the argument. It is determined always to keep Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers on board. It is fearful of its own past, including perceptions that it was anti-America and soft on defence.

    Such calculations, made constantly by a group of people used to losing elections rather than winning them, helped to turn New Labour into a formidable campaigning machine. They also made Iraq a nightmarish trap. Early in his leadership, the Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith was gung-ho, declaring that his party would support the US irrespective of whether it acted with the support of the United Nations. The Spectator magazine’s Coffee House website has pointed out that the current shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, was equally robust, highlighting this contribution from the backbenches in the build up to war: “Is there not at least a significant risk of the utter catastrophe of Iraq possessing a nuclear device without warning, some time in the next couple of years? In that case, does not the risk of leaving the regime on its course today far outweigh the risk of taking action quite soon?”

    With a cautious, New Labour timidity, Mr Blair must have weighed up the domestic political situation. He did on every other issue, from the smoking ban to whether he dared to say anything positive on Europe. If he had opposed the war, he would have been placed in alliance with President Jacques Chirac of France and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany, while Mr Duncan Smith would be the leader who supported the US. Mr Blair would have given up the space he had jealously protected as a new Labour leader. He would be back to the Neil Kinnock era, when a US President treated Labour leaders with disdain. He would lose The Sun, which would cheer for Britain’s only war leader, Mr Duncan Smith.

    At some stage, Mr Blair wanted to fight a referendum on the euro. If he stayed close to the US on Iraq, he could never be accused of being anti-American and indiscriminately pro-European. On this basis alone, Mr Blair was never going to break with George Bush over an issue as multi-layered in its complexity as Iraq. It was too risky. Admirers and detractors who believe Mr Blair dropped his previous character traits of caution for a nobly bold or reckless set of convictions cite as conclusive evidence his Chicago speech in 1999. In this address, delivered at the height of the Balkans conflict, Mr Blair put the case for intervention including military action in certain circumstances.

    The speech is worth re-visiting because it contains plenty of familiar Blairite get-out clauses. In it he argued, for example, that military action should be contemplated only when diplomatic efforts had been fully exhausted. In the case of Iraq, the Chicago speech could have been used to justify further diplomatic activity. I can hear an alternative Blair sermon putting the case against immediate military action five years ago: “As I argued in my Chicago speech, it is necessary to follow through all diplomatic options…” By then, the speech was being used to justify anything that Mr Bush was moving towards.

    For those who believe I am underestimating Mr Blair’s convictions or his messianic follies, I pose this question. Would he have been pressing for an invasion if it had been opposed by President Bush, the Conservative Party and Rupert Murdoch, while being strongly supported by France and Germany? Of course he would not have done so.

    For those who argue that he acted in defiance of popular opinion, I would point out that wars in Britain usually make governments popular and there was much talk in the immediate aftermath of a “Baghdad bounce” in which Mr Blair’s popularity would soar. Mr Blair was a genius at making the most of the situation he was in. Early on in his leadership, he cited his popularity as vindication of the new Labour strategy. When he became unpopular, he claimed he was being bold for “doing the right thing”.

    I suspect that Gordon Brown was broadly supportive of Mr Blair’s approach to Iraq. When he felt strongly that Mr Blair’s instincts were wrong, during the vicious, stormy second term, he acted to block them. Mr Brown fought ferociously hard to stop any attempts by Mr Blair to revive the possibility of a referendum on the euro. He challenged with a sweaty determination elements of Mr Blair’s public service reforms. He did not attempt to stop the route to war.

    At a time when Clare Short was still singing Mr Brown’s praises on other matters, she told me: “Gordon supported the war”. Even if he had tried to stop Mr Blair, he would have brought down the Government and fatally split Labour for decades. What is more, Mr Bush would still have gone to war, with the same deadly consequences.

    Still, at a time when Britain needed a leader with the boldness to step aside, it had one who did not dare to do so. But it is worth noting the political consequences. Tony Blair went on to win another election. The Tories could make no political capital out of the war as they had supported it, too.

    An official inquiry will be held when the Government deems it politically safe to do so. The pattern continues. Domestic political calculations will determine the timing, as they played a decisive role in the build-up to war. If such an inquiry is held, I doubt if it will explore the politics of desperate expediency. Yet Mr Blair supported Mr Bush partly because of where it left him in relation to the US, Europe, the Conservatives, his party’s vote-losing past and the media. It was, from his fearfully defensive perspective, the least bad option.’

    “The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.”

    John Kenneth Galbraith

    “Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”

    John Kenneth Galbraith, US (Canadian-born) administrator & economist (1908 – 2006)

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    One Response to “Iraq, Blair & the “Art of the Possible””

    1. Local Elections - And The Other Elephant in The Room « Tony Blair Says:

      […] wrote about the complexities of the Iraq decision here. It has long been clear that Brown was with Blair on this. And the longer he is PM the more he […]

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