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09.01.10

11 Revelations From Blair's Memoir

The biggest political book of the season is riling up both sides of the pond. Here’s The Daily Beast’s take on what Blair thought of the Iraq war, Clinton, Bush, and all the rest.

The biggest political book of the season is riling up both sides of the pond. Here’s The Daily Beast’s take on what Blair thought of the Iraq War, Clinton, Bush, and all the rest.

1. Was the Invasion of Iraq a Mistake?

No other topic in Tony Blair’s memoir is as highly anticipated as what he says about his decision to support the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. Any regrets? It seems not—or none that he’s sharing. 

“If you had told me then that we would not find WMD after we toppled Saddam, and that following his removal there would be six years of conflict as we grappled with the terrorism so cruelly inflicted upon the Iraqi people, would my decision have been different? I ask that question every day.” (412)  

“I am unable to satisfy the desire even of some of my supporters, who would like me to say, ‘It was a mistake but one made in good faith.’ Friends opposed to the war think I’m being obstinate; others, less friendly, think I’m delusional. To both I may say: Keep an open mind.” (380)  

Full Coverage of Tony Blair“On the basis of what we do know now, I still believe that leaving Saddam in power was a bigger risk to our security than removing him and that, terrible though the aftermath was, the reality of Saddam and his sons in charge of Iraq would at least arguably be much worse.”

2. Bill and Tony

Have any two presidents from different countries ever seemed more natural political and emotional allies than Blair and Clinton? As we later learned, Blair and Bush were an even closer match, but with Clinton, Blair shared a sense of finding that political middle and a passion for politicking.

"Bill was actually a brilliant president. He made it at times look easy. ... But it is fascinating to speculate how he would have handled later world-changing events. There neither charm nor intellect would have been sufficient. It would have been pure calibre that determined the outcome. I believe he would have had it." (p. 4)

book-cover---tdb-tony-blair
A Journey: My Political Life. By Tony Blair. 720 pages. Knopf. $35. ()

“We were political soulmates. We shared pretty much the same analysis of the weakness of progressive politics. We were both quintessential modernisers. ... 
He was the most formidable politician I had ever encountered. And yet his very expertise and extraordinary capacity at the business of politics obscured the fact that he was also a brilliant thinker, with a clear and thought-through political philosophy and programme.” (231)

3. In Praise of America

Not since Churchill (and his mum was from New York) has a British PM found so much to love in the U.S. Blair is genuinely, sincerely a great fan of America.

After a meeting with Treasury Secretary James Baker, Blair comes out "seeing stars" and reflects that "These Americans can be smart, really, really clever. Homely, folksy, in certain aspects disarmingly simple; but don't let any of that fool you. Underneath all the pop culture, old-fashioned courtesy, Disney, McDonald's and the rest of it, there beats a brain." (p. 3)

But Blair gets the heart of America (it’s all about aspiration) and more than anything else, this might explain some of the British animosity toward him.

"Basically I understood aspiration. I like people who want to succeed, and I admire people who do ... I hate class, but I love aspiration. It's why I like America. I adore that notion of coming from nothing and making something of yourself." (113)

4. George W: Not Dumb Either

That old canard of the left about Bush’s intelligence is rebutted by one of the smartest political leaders around. Perhaps it’s time to let that one rest.

"George Bush was straightforward and direct. The stupidest misconception was that he was stupid. He also had (has) great intuition. But his intuition was less—as in the case of Bill—about politics and more about what he thought was right or wrong. This wasn't expressed analytically or intellectually. It was just stated. ... I would be at a press conference with him, in the epicentre of those world-changing events, and I would think 'George, explain it; don't just say it." (p. 5)

"This was not because he wasn't smart; he was very smart. One of the most ludicrous caricatures of George is that he was a dumb  idiot who stumbled into the presidency. No one stumbles into that job." (389)

5. Iraq Sent a Message to the World

Taking a page from the Bush administration’s justifications for the Iraq War, Blair contends that the invasion of Iraq shifted the geopolitical calculations of leaders from Libya to North Korea.  

“Forgotten in all the inevitable controversy over Iraq was the impact on other regimes at the time of action. In early 2003, Libya began its negotiations ... In October 2003, Iran, at first shocked by the U.S. action, came back to the negotiating table ... North Korea came back to the six-party talks demanded by President Bush. People reckoned Bush was tough enough to do anything, and they took notice. As I knew from private conversations with leaders in the Arab world, their reaction at the time, whatever the public stance, was one of silent approbation for an America that appeared to brook no nonsense from anyone.... A little bit of fear about what America might do was no bad thing.” (391)

6. On Gordon Brown

The world has been waiting to hear what Blair thought of Brown and the book is peppered with faint praise and sharp judgments. Needless to say, this was not a political match made in heaven.

“I found him odd at points, to be sure: The introspection, the intensity, finding him in his flat in Edinburgh on a Saturday morning in his suit trousers and white shirt, surrounded by a veritable avalanche of papers, but certainly, back then, it seemed an endearing eccentricity.” (70)

"I discovered there is a lacuna—not the wrong instinct but no instinct at the human, gut level. Political calculation, yes. Political feelings, no. Analytical intelligence, absolutely, Emotional intelligence, zero." (630)

7. Her Star Shone Too Brightly

The hit movie The Queen probably gave everyone a pretty good sense of how Blair “got” Princess Diana better than her own in-laws. Here’s his summation:  

"[Princess Diana] captured the essence of an era and held it in the palm of her hand. She defined it. This was gravely disconcerting for the monarchy as an institution, or a business, if you like. She so outshone the others in terms of charisma, ability to connect with the public, courage in embracing the new, that she was a rebuke rather than a support." (pg 130)

8. Kosovo Lessons

Many British commentators felt that Blair’s support of Iraq was a surprise, but as he writes about Kosovo, it’s clear that as prime minister he felt strongly about Britain’s moral responsibilities in oppressed and unstable foreign countries.  

He writes that he was surprised to find how “extraordinarily forward [he] was in advocating a military solution.” (227)

“I saw it essentially as a moral issue. And that, in a sense, came to define my view on foreign and military intervention. ... My primary motivation was outrage at what was happening.” (228)

“[T]hrough Kosovo I came to the view—rightly or, some may think in the light of Iraq, wrongly—that in such an uncertain landscape, the only way of finding direction was first to ask some moral questions: Should this be allowed to happen or not? Should this regime remain in power? Should these people continue to suffer injustice?” (229)

By his account, Blair pushed the Europeans to action and lobbied Bill so hard that it put “the most colossal strain on my personal relationship with Bill Clinton.” (227)

9. Naysayers in Afghanistan

Less controversial was the invasion of Afghanistan, but Blair stoutly defends it from criticism.

“Now, years later, people say: But the mission isn’t clear, or it’s confused. It isn’t, and it wasn’t. To us then, and I believe this to be true now, there is no neat distinction between a campaign to exorcise al Qaeda, or to prevent Taliban re-emergence, or to build democracy, or to ensure there is a proper, not a narco, economy. There is no “or” about it.” (362)  

10. Ballsy Like a Fox  

"I thought Rupert [Murdoch] an enigma, and the more I got to know him, the more I thought so. In the end—and I am aware of the shrieks of disbelief as I write this—I came to have grudging respect and even liking for him. He was hard, no doubt. He was right wing. I did not share or like his attitudes on Europe, social policy or on such issues as gay rights, but there were two points of connection: He was an outsider, and he had balls. ... That gave me something to work with." (95-6) 
 
 

11. Was He a Neocon? 

"I never quite understood what the term 'neocon' really meant. To my bemusement, people would say: It means the imposition of democracy and freedom, which I thought was an odd characterization of "conservative." But what it actually was, on analysis, was a view that evolution was impossible, that the region needed a fundamental reordering." (383) 

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