Blair: Why Did He Do It?

13 May 2007

Blair: Why Did He Do It?

By Gwynne Dyer

It has been the longest good-bye in modern politics, and there are still another six weeks to go before Tony Blair finally hands the prime ministership over to Gordon Brown on 27 June. After he finally quits, most people in Britain assume, Blair will go off and make a living on the lecture circuit in the United States (where he is far more popular than he is at home). They won’t miss him much.

It is strange that a prime minister who has presided over an unprecedented surge of prosperity in Britain should be so deeply unpopular, but the answer lies in a single word: Iraq. Support for that war in Britain is even lower than it is in the United States, and the popular conviction that the public was misled into invading Iraq by a leader who ruthlessly manipulated the “evidence” to get his way is even stronger. The argument is only about why he did it — and the consensus answer is that it was religion.

In “post-Christian Britain” — the phrase dates from the 1970s, but is even truer today — Blair is what was once known as a “muscular Christian”: a person who believes that his faith requires him to act, and justifies his actions. Only a minority of British prime ministers in the past century have been Christian believers (Winston Churchill, for example, was a completely irreligious agnostic), and even the ones who were personally devout felt that religion should remain a private matter.

In terms of spin-control, this phenomenon extended even into Blair’s government, as the prime minister was under strict instructions not to speak in public about his faith. “We don’t do God,” as spin-master Alastair Campbell once put it. But in fact, Blair did “do God.” That was what led him into Iraq.

Columnist Geoffrey Wheatcroft got it exactly right in “The Independent” last Sunday: “In some ways (Blair) is more innately American than British. Blair may not have prayed with the born-again George Bush, but their shared faith was certainly a bond, and (Blair’s) wearing his faith on his sleeve would not have seemed too odd or embarrassing in the US, where more than half the population goes to church and where supposedly grown-up politicians can say they approach difficult problems by asking: ‘What would Jesus do’?”

The problem was that it would seem odd and embarrassing in Britain, where only seven percent of the population regularly attend church or its equivalent. The notion that British foreign policy was being driven by one man’s faith would have inspired mass revolt if Blair’s motives had been plain. But they weren’t: the spin machine did its job well.

From the time he took office in 1997, Blair talked about having a “moral” foreign policy, but it wasn’t clear at the time that that meant he believed in doing good by force. Then came a series of more or less legal military interventions abroad in which British troops did do some good: in stopping the genocide against Muslims in Kosovo in 1999, in ending the civil war in Sierra Leone in 2000, and in overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan after the terrorist atrocities of 11 September, 2001.

All those uses of military force succeeded at a relatively low cost — the flare-up of guerilla warfare in Afghanistan today is due to neglect of the country AFTER 2001 — and it was flowers and champagne for Tony Blair each time. He was doing good by force, and he was doing very well by it politically, too. But the lesson Blair learned was that this sort of thing is cheap and easy, and it was getting to be a habit. Then along came the Bush administration’s plan to invade Iraq.

It is clear in retrospect that Blair had agreed to commit British troops to the invasion by the spring of 2002. It is hard to believe that he was so ignorant and ill-advised as to believe the nonsense about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and his alleged links to the al-Qaeda terrorists, but it is very easy to believe that he leapt at another chance to do good — i.e., rid the world of a wicked dictator — by force.

Did Blair understand that the Bush administration’s real motives for putting Iraq at the top of its hit-list were quite traditional great-power concerns, and that the American public was just being fed those stories about Saddam’s terrorist ties and his imaginary WMD because they went down more smoothly? Probably he did, but he was willing to go along with all that so long as the wicked dictator was actually overthrown. For the true believer, the end often justifies the means.

Blair’s perennial claim that “I have always done what I believe to be right” is no defence — do the rest of us usually do what we believe to be wrong? — but he firmly believes that good intentions absolve him of responsibility for the outcome. The United Nations is a wreck, the reputations of the United States and the United Kingdom have never been lower, and Iraq is an almost measureless disaster, but no higher authority will ever officially hold Blair responsible for any of that, so in practical terms he is quite right.

Enjoy the lecture circuit, Tony.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“In terms…Iraq”; and”Did Blair..means”)