Sunday, September 19, 2010

Blair Sells His Book

Tony Blair's new memoir is called "A Journey". I'm not plugging the book, or anti-plugging it, either. I would instead like to make some comments about two or three rather surprising things Blair said in his interview with Christiane Amanpour on ABC's "This Week", last week.

In the late '90's, I admired Blair as symbol of a new, revitalized, progressive-but-pragmatic Britain. After that, I was living in England early in this century: first I saw his generous, heartfelt support for the US in the wake of the 9/11 horrors; then, I watched that loyalty bring him to his disastrous support for the invasion of Iraq in 2002-03. Was Blair courageous in either case? In the first one, one could argue that Blair did what was popular and expected of him, though he did back up that stance with actions. In the latter case, I would say that the clearer profile in courage was that of the late Robin Cook, who resigned as Foreign Minister rather than support the unwise invasion of Irag, in a brilliant speech in Commons that I remember well. I would like to read what Blair says about that speech and his former Cabinet minister, who died rather suddenly a couple of years later.

In his interview, Blair defends broadly the Iraq invasion despite the absence of weapons of mass destruction. Not much of a surprise there; documents that have come forward in recent years suggest Blair knew that the allegation of Iraq's trying to develop nuclear weapons, at least, was a canard. His comment today, and I'm sure it's consistent with how he felt at that time, was that risks must be taken to advance the lifelong cause of the war on terror. He likens that to the Cold War and urges the West to have the same kind of unconditional, long-term commitment to the struggle that we had back then.

For me, this is a major overstatement of the seriousness of the threat currently posed by violent Islamic fundamentalists, and this kind of overstatement leads to overreaction, precisely of the kind that the Iraq War brought, and that in turn gives the terrorists great recruitment opportunities. There is a need to combat Al Qaeda and its ilk, and I am fully prepared to support offensive action in some cases when that will help reduce or eliminate that threat, but what I don't want to hear is JFK-type language that we are going to "face any foe, go to any length" to combat them. Instead, I want to hear that we are taking extremely well-targeted, limited, practical steps to reduce the threat and further isolate this small, fragmented, and harassed band of outlaws from modern Islamic society.

If the first surprise was a negative one that Blair is still talking unlimited, endless war on terror, the second was a positive one: Blair was asked about his relationships with Bill Clinton and with his successor as President. The popular view of Blair today, both here and in the UK, is that he was the lapdog of W, Cheney, and the neo-cons, but what he said in the interview (and, presumably, in his book) was that he was closer to Clinton, and he specifically said, "I'm a Democrat." That's pretty unusual, his identifying with a foreign political party--though I could imagine his political philosophy might have been closer to the mainstream of our Democratic party than the trade union socialist traditional center of his own Labour party--that kind of sympathizing and identification with foreigners, no matter which ones from whatever country, would never be tolerated in this country.

The third surprise had to do with Prime Minister's Questions, the weekly grilling of the Prime Minister by his fellow members of Parliament (and particularly, by the leaders of the opposition parties). Blair was the best I've ever seen at it, and my experience is that he eloquently, knowledgeably and effectively faced down all challenges. So, the surprise for me was his admission that he was terrorized by the weekly ritual: it kept him up at night and stressed him out incredibly. I don't doubt him for a moment, I'm just surprised at his ready admission that it was, indeed, frightening to be at the center of it.

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