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The American Blair


Blair lecturing at Yale in December 2008.  

All of which raises a crucial question: If Blair believes so strongly that the means is more important than the end, why did he choose to invade Iraq when it was clear that the American government had only an end in mind and no plan for managing the country?

In the U.K., the reasons for Blair’s participation in the Iraq War were the source of endless hypothesizing. Some ran toward the psychologically crude—he’s a compulsive ingratiator, the type who thrills to friendships with the powerful (which would explain his warm relations not just with Bush but with Italy’s lunatic par excellence, Silvio Berlusconi). Some were much more generous, hewing to a simpler narrative of pragmatism and Realpolitik: Blair regarded Saddam Hussein as a genuine menace, and he thought that engaging a powerful country like America to depose him was better in this globally interdependent age than letting our country run rampant on its own. (His mistake was in overestimating the competence of the Bush administration.) And this generous interpretation hardly seems a stretch. Long before he was discussing Iraq with George W. Bush, the subject of how to contain Saddam frequently dominated Blair’s foreign-policy discussions with Bill Clinton, and in March 2003, Blair’s position on the Iraq War was no different from, say, that of both of New York’s Democratic senators, or John Kerry, or John Edwards, or Joe Biden. Like most liberal hawks, he made the case for war in the language of human rights, highlighting the moral urgency of ridding the world of a sociopathic tyrant who ignored the United Nations, gassed his own people, and collected—or so it appeared, anyway—weapons of mass destruction. (He too has since had to rebuff claims that British intelligence was, in the words of an anonymous official to the BBC, “sexed up” in order to make the case for war.)

The difference is that most liberal supporters of the Iraq War have since expressed deep regret over their decision. Blair has not. As The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland has pointed out, Blair has shown none of the agonizing of previous leaders who supported bloody, unwieldy wars. Lyndon B. Johnson was so tormented by Vietnam one could argue it killed him; Menachem Begin fell into a depression over Lebanon. Even George W. Bush finally looks like he’s capitulated to the strains of higher office, such as he experienced them—his features are haggard, his hair is gray, he’s more checked-out than even his usual level of disengagement. Blair, on the other hand, looks positively youthful, a wholesome picture of serenity and fine health: His trademark smile stretches easily across his face; his blue eyes twinkle; during these two days at Yale, he sports a golden tan (whether it’s from a long weekend of writing his memoirs in the Caribbean or from spending so much time in the Middle East isn’t clear). And whenever he is asked about the war, he shows few traces of remorse. “When I’m out in the Middle East now,” Blair tells me, “I don’t think the region would be more stable if Saddam and his two sons were still running around.”

This may be true, I say, as many people do—this entire conversation is one he’s had hundreds of times before—but some half a million more people might be alive.

“Yeah, but you’ve got to ask who killed them.” This is another part of Blair’s argument, one he’s forever repeating: that the extremists sowing havoc in Iraq right now are the same stripe of fundamentalist warriors who’ve sown havoc across the globe, from Kabul to Mumbai. Which is true enough, but neglects to address the staggering number of Iraqi casualties who died not from terrorism but from a barely contained civil war. “There’s also a lot of people who died and who would have died under Saddam,” he continues. “The arguments are that he would have kept a check on Iran, but if you remember, there were a million casualties in the Iran-Iraq War. I mean, he invaded Kuwait. So I’m not sure he was ever much of a check.”

And this analysis is right, too, so far as it goes. But it’s a highly clinical analysis, long on rhetoric and abstraction, two forms with which Blair is quite comfortable, and short on introspection, let alone emotion.

I ask if Iraq has compromised his effectiveness as a Middle East envoy. “To be honest, I’ve never felt it was a real disabler,” he says. “The Palestinians understand that unless you can be someone who can also approach the Israelis, you can’t actually do anything for them.”

Does he still talk to George W. Bush?

“Yeah, of course I keep in touch with him,” he says. “I’m not a fair-weather friend. I say this to people all the time, even liberal people who cannot believe I can possibly like George W. Bush.”


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