Rise and fall of Tony Blair

Andrew Rawnsley's two-part Channel 4 documentary, The Rise and Fall of Tony Blair (executive producer: an old friend, Anne Lapping), was obligatory viewing last Saturday evening and last night.  This was political documentary of a high order, as one would expect of a programme by Anne and Brian Lapping's company Brook Lapping, once described by the Wall Street Journal as "The acme, the Rolls Royce, of documentary makers". 

The programme was predictably full of intriguing insights and some trivial but incisive revelations alongside much familar footage, some of it so familiar that one found oneself mouthing silently in synch with the sound-track:  "Most people think I'm a pretty regular sort of guy, and I am…";  "She was…  the People's Princess," and so forth.  Funny to Tony Blairthink that we shan't be seeing and hearing these greatly loved classics much more, with the departure of the Great Communicator and War Criminal tomorrow, although if he is really going to be the envoy of the "Quartet" — the US, the UN, Russia and the EC — charged with bringing peace and justice to Palestine and Israel, we may be hearing from him for two or three more months, until he can announce, echoing his mentor and role model, "Mission Accomplished!"

I was glad that the Lapping/Rawnsley programme identified, in some detail, Blair's unshakeable belief that he had scored a great personal triumph with his part in the NATO attack on Yugoslavia over Kosovo as one of the prime motivators driving him to disaster in Iraq four years later.  I regretted, though, that the usually sceptical Mr Rawnsley seemed to have fallen for the Blair version of what actually happened at and around Kosovo in 1999.  I have described at length elsewhere (especially here and here), and needn't repeat now, the powerful evidence that the NATO attack on Yugoslavia (generally but misleadingly referred to in shorthand as Kosovo) was neither legal, nor justified, nor necessary, nor honestly motivated or accurately represented publicly, nor successful in achieving either its pretended or any of its actual objectives:  thus in all these respects, a terrible warning of what was to come in Iraq.  A defining characteristic of Blair's premiership has been his ability to convince himself, and often others, that everything he has done has been right, honest and necessary:  "I did what I passionately believed was right," another lethally revealing Blairism, used indiscriminately of his failures as well as his occasional successes.  But I couldn't accept as adequate Rawnsley's account of the Kosovo affair when he omitted any mention of the fraudulent Rambouillet conference (billed as an attempt to negotiate a settlement between the Kosovo Albanian separatist guerrillas and the Serbs, but actually so managed as to provide a pretext for bombing Serbia — and the rest of Yugoslavia);  and, almost worse, omitting even to touch on the secret diplomatic initiative by envoys of the US and Russian governments, with the then president of Finland, which devised and negotiated a radically revised set of proposals, differing from the NATO demands in several material respects, thus producing the eventual settlement under which Serbian forces were withdrawn from Kosovo and replaced by an international administration — all on condition that NATO stopped the bombing at once.  It was hopelessly inadequate at best, grossly misleading at worst, for the programme to give the impression, as Rawnsley did, that all it needed for Milosevic to be forced to capitulate to NATO — Blair at its head, sword raised aloft — was for Blair to persuade Clinton to say that 'all options were open' (with the unspoken but wildly implausible implication that he was about to send American ground troops halfway across Europe in a land invasion of Kosovo).  But this has now become the received wisdom, so I suppose Rawnsley can't be too severely blamed for reflecting it.

One other passage in this otherwise excellent retrospective had me muttering 'No, no!' at the screen.  Here too the Blair revised version is in danger of displacing historical truth.  It's simply not the case, as the programme claimed, that the then French president Jacques Chirac was personally and primarily responsible for the UK's (and US's) failure to get the vital "second UN resolution" conveying Security Council authority to use force then and there against Iraq.  Contrary to British ministers' knowingly mendacious assertions at the time, Chirac had never said that France would veto any such resolution at any time and in any circumstances.   Indeed, in his much misquoted television interview of 10 March 2003, just days before the US-UK attack on Iraq, he had pointed out that France would not need to veto any resolution authorising war at that time because there was a clear majority in the Security Council opposed to the use of force before the UN weapons inspectors had finished their work, so if the UK and US were imprudent enough to put any such resolution to the vote, it would be humiliatingly defeated without the need for vetoes by France or anyone else.  (The facts and references are in an earlier Ephems piece here.)  Chirac was right, and the UK and US never dared to let their draft enabling resolution come to a vote in the Council.  Had they done so, it would have been defeated without any need for French, Russian or Chinese vetoes. But the US and UK took their countries to war anyway, with the consequences that we all know.

However, this flaw was handomely offset by a splendid description in the programme by Sir Stephen Wall, possessor of perhaps the sharpest brain in the Diplomatic Service of his day, of a call on Chirac by Blair, accompanied by Wall, several months before the Iraq war when Bush's ambition for such a war was beginning to be widely rumoured.  Chirac had told Blair that he, Chirac, had experienced the ugly reality of war as a young soldier in Algeria, and it was not to be undertaken lightly — an obvious reference to Blair's lack of any personal military experience.  It would not, Chirac continued, be difficult to topple Saddam in a military attack on Iraq, but it would be extremely difficult to establish anything resembling a democracy thereafter.  Giving the vote to the Shia majority would not be democracy.  There would be bitter inter-communal fighting between Shi'ites, Sunni and Kurds with wholly unpredictable consequences.  Wall said that as they left the meeting with Chirac, Blair said to Wall:  "Poor old Jacques!  He just doesn't get it, does he?"  Wall adds the devastating comment:  As we all know now, poor old Jacques 'got it' a lot better than we did.  A wonderful story!

It would be nice to think that Chirac's far-sighted analysis and warning were being replicated by the professional diplomats and policy experts in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; and that their Secretary of State at the time, Jack Straw, was faithfully relaying them to the prime minister and to his other Cabinet colleagues.  If so, it's hard to understand how they could have been so comprehensively ignored — and how the Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary could have stayed in office while his department's fears and warnings were being so irresponsibly binned.  But we shan't know the truth of these things for at least another 30 years when the files are opened, and possibly not even then, thanks to the Blair administration's self-serving habit of not keeping written records of its deliberations and decisions.  


1 Response

  1. Oliver Miles says:

    Dear Brian,

    Just two points.  First an additional word on Chirac and the Security Council on Iraq, on which I agree with everything that you say. Tony Blair had told us in one of those Sunday morning television interviews (a clip which ought to be replayed) that we would not go to war without another resolution; he qualified this by saying that we would not feel inhibited from doing so if all that prevented a second resolution was a maverick veto. Thus the way that Chirac's remarks were interpreted enabled him to say that he was keeping his word, when we went to war without a resolution.

    So Chirac got him off the hook. If one were a conspiracy theorist…

    Second, as I wrote to the Guardian on 4 May, Geoff Hoon (hot tip for Foreign Secretary?) said in an interview on 2 May that in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq the coalition could not have foreseen Sunni/Shia violence.Perhaps he doesn't speak French.


    Brian writes:   Thanks, Oliver.  Apt comments!  But of course Chirac didn't really get Blair off the hook:  Blair had said that the only circumstances in which we would go to war without a UN resolution authorising it was if an authorising resolution were to be subject to "an unreasonable veto" — a category of veto not known to the UN Charter, incidentally.  But in the event there was no unreasonable veto;  there was no veto at all, reasonable or otherwise;  Chirac didn't in fact even threaten to veto a resolution authorising the use of force (he pointed out that since there was a decisive majority in the Security Council against such a resolution, it would be defeated without any question of a veto arising);  and, to cap it all, there wasn't even a vote on the US/UK draft resolution implying authority for war, because the British and American sponsors withdrew it without such a vote, knowing that if they let it come to a vote it would be heavily defeated (and not therefore vetoed).  [A negative vote by one of the five permanent members of the Council is only a veto if the resolution would have been adopted but for that vote.]  Trying to put the blame on Chirac was a bit of conscious and deliberate dishonesty which had very bad effects on UK relations with France at a time when we should have been working overtime to mend fences.  

    There is a link in my post above to the English translation of the transcript of the Chirac television interview which was so scandalously  misrepresented by Blair and, if I remember rightly, also by Straw and perhaps others.

    The thought of Hoon as Foreign Secretary would be risible if it weren't for the even more incredible appointment of Blair as a middle east peace envoy for the Quartet.  Peace envoy!  Blair!