Like Kaa the python in Disney’s Jungle Book, Tony Blair has staked his career on a single hypnotic refrain. Interviewed on TV, he contrives to sound like a man vouchsafing a confidence: “Look, in all honesty…” His rhetorical home is the moral high ground; harried in the House, he likes to make his opponents look petty, their concerns nit-picking distractions from his far-reaching vision. He himself is always above suspicion. If the government bungles, decoy ministers are deployed to take the flak; if party unity cracks, implausible rumors of Blair’s impending fall are mobilized to rally the dissenters.
The transatlantic furor about Saddam’s missing weapons comes at a very bad moment for Blair. Though the war’s statue-toppling photo finish briefly mesmerized the masses, the government’s I-told-you-so’s ring increasingly hollow as weeks go by without the discovery of a single grain of anthrax or vial of poison gas. As if on cue, six British soldiers in Iraq were killed in a single day, reminding everyone of the real cost of war. The damage Blair has done to his party by dragging it unwillingly to war becomes more obvious; his autocratic style of government is thrown into sharp relief. The man who constantly asks us to trust him clearly trusts almost no one. This June’s “botched reshuffle” pushed through overdue constitutional changes–including the abolition of the 1,400-year-old office of Lord Chancellor, the unelected head of the judiciary–without consulting Parliament or even the Cabinet. It was Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith who saved Blair’s bacon, by rounding so crudely on the government that even the backbenchers momentarily closed ranks. The following week Peter Hain, newly appointed Leader of the House of Commons, broke a New Labour taboo by hinting that a tax rise for the very rich might ease the pressure on middle-income earners; Blair took time out from the EU summit in Greece to force him to recant. This crude attempt at censorship backfired everywhere. Right-wing tabloids went to town on Labour’s “leaked” plans to “soak the rich”; liberal broadsheets shook their heads at Blair’s “Stalinist” tactics. The dwindling number of Labour supporters who saw in Hain’s remarks a flicker of official willingness to think about taxation and our cash-starved public services had their hopes dashed yet again.
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Blair’s paranoid caution on the T-word makes an instructive contrast with his willingness to risk his whole career for the invasion of Iraq. There’s little doubt he did this out of passionate conviction–so passionate that mere facts could not stand in its way. He gave Churchillian speeches on the dangers of inaction; he went into the lion’s den of handpicked hostile audiences on live prime-time TV; he called on history to be his judge. And, in pursuit of some higher truth, he or his close associates exaggerated–some would say falsified–evidence of the threat from Iraqi weapons, which formed the vaunted legal basis for the war.
Blair was quick to announce that neither he nor Alastair Campbell, his sultan of spin, would testify to the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee inquiry on the war. The Prime Minister may get away with it; Campbell is in the hot seat as we go to press. In true Sopranos style, he has been fingered by the foreign secretary for the government’s “dodgy dossier,” the report on Iraq cobbled together from articles available on the web and handed out in February at the United Nations.
So far, the most damning testimony to the inquiry has come from former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, whose resignation from the Cabinet shook the government on the eve of war. His conclusion that “in Iraq…intelligence was not being used to inform and shape policy, but to support policy that had already been settled” stopped barely short of imputing an intent to deceive to the government’s propaganda. Intelligence briefings he received in the days before the war showed that “Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term”–let alone WMDs that could be launched in forty-five minutes as the Prime Minister claimed in Parliament. Clare Short, whose nonresignation at the eleventh hour pulled the rug from under the war’s opponents, was vaguer and less circumspect. Though she accused Blair only of an “honorable deception,” she claimed to know on high authority that he and Bush had set the date for war in Washington last summer; from that point on, nothing could change his mind. Decisions on Iraq were made behind closed doors by Blair’s tight inner circle. The Cabinet was pointedly left out of the loop.
Disinformation, like intelligence on Iraq, is notoriously hard to source. The British government produced two alarmist documents in the guise of objective assessments to boost the case for war. The February “dodgy dossier” has been disowned by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw as “an embarrassment.” Ten of its nineteen pages were copied without acknowledgment from scholarly studies–one of them written by a California postgrad–and “sexed up” for effect. (“Opposition groups” supported by Saddam magically become “terrorists.”) No ministers were consulted in its preparation; no clearance was apparently sought from the intelligence services. The September report on Iraqi weapons that launched Blair’s push for war bristled with references to sarin gas and aluminum tubes, fired off like military chaff to jam bullshit-detectors. One of its few hard claims, that Iraq had tried to buy 500 tons of uranium oxide from an African country, turned out to be based on forged documents–but not until after Colin Powell and George Tenet had used it to persuade Congress of Iraq’s intent to build a bomb and Bush had trumpeted it in his State of the Union address. It was March before the United States finally handed over letters purporting to arrange Iraq’s uranium purchase to the International Atomic Energy Agency; it took the IAEA less than a day to prove they were crude fakes.
Tracking the forgery in The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh points out that false accusations have been part of US and British policy toward Iraq at least since 1997. The uranium letters, he suggests, may have come from an MI6 propaganda office known to have spread disinformation in the 1990s. (The same office could be responsible for the forged documents “found” in Iraq and used to smear Labour MP George Galloway, a longtime defender of Saddam, as the dictator’s paid retainer.) No doubt it suits Hersh’s CIA sources to blame the British for this particular “bungle.” But as Cook told the Foreign Affairs Committee, the unique intelligence relationship between Britain and America makes it almost impossible to tell which country is responsible for which raw data. Passing the buck is a time-honored trick for dazzling the punters. Here, the spooks have made stern noises to the government about the misuse of intelligence; Blair’s loyal bulldogs have revived the specter of MI5’s traditional hostility to Labour by denouncing “rogue elements” in the intelligence services. When it comes to secrets, prime ministers and presidents will always have a trump card up their sleeves. All that opponents of the war can do is follow the cards we do see as they flash across the ocean.
At the beginning of his first term, the millions who voted for Blair hoped they could at least trust him to save the schools and health service, to soften the blows of capital, to govern honestly. That illusion has been long dead; the Iraq war was the last nail in its coffin. A June poll gives Labour a lead of only four points over the laughably incompetent Tories; a third of those questioned said they had lost faith in the government over Iraq, and more than half said Labour had deliberately exaggerated the risk from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The future, such as it is, must now depend on Blair’s rebel angels–the increasingly vociferous crowd of former ministers gathering on the back benches who look to Europe before Washington and who still carry a torch for democracy, or something like the socialism that dares not speak its name.