Why Blair Took the Risk of Making War on Iraq

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

November 20, 2003

Review of Peter Riddell’s, Hug Them Close

President Bush’s state visit to Britain this week highlights the paradoxical position Prime Minister Tony Blair has found himself in ever since the Iraq issue emerged on the international radar screen. Unlike other foreign leaders, who may have supported Mr. Bush rhetorically and in a few instances with token military support, Mr. Blair has stood shoulder to shoulder with America on this issue from Day 1. In so doing, he defied the wishes of much of his own public and many within his own party who deeply distrusted Mr. Bush’s motives in pursuing a highly controversial policy. Why take this political risk?

Peter Riddell, assistant editor of The Times of London, is the first to provide an answer to that question. In chronicling Mr. Blair’s rise and stumble in “Hug Them Close,” Mr. Riddell does a masterly job of capturing the ins and outs of Mr. Blair’s remarkably close relationship with an American president who is in so many ways his complete opposite. Mr. Blair hails from the left, Mr. Bush from the right. Mr. Blair is a policy wonk on par with President Clinton, Mr. Bush shows little interest in the details of policy. Mr. Blair aims to create an international community to deal with the challenges of globalization, Mr. Bush relies on American military power to destroy those who hate freedom and peace. And yet, on the issue of Iraq, these two very different leaders have been kindred souls.

Part of the reason for this convergence, Mr. Riddell argues, results from the belief that Britain’s interests in the world are best secured by a close, even unquestioning alignment with its bigger brother across the Atlantic. The essence of what the British call the “special relationship”—a relationship always more special to London than Washington—is that the best way to influence the course of American policy is to “hug them close,” as one of Mr. Blair’s most senior advisers put it to Mr. Riddell.

“We should remain the closest ally of the U.S.,” the prime minister told Britain’s ambassadors and senior diplomats in January 2003, “and as allies influence them to continue broadening their agenda. The price of influence is that we do not leave the U.S. to face the tricky issues alone.” Mr. Blair is only the latest in a long line of British prime ministers, going back at least to the Suez crisis nearly five decades ago, to believe that only by standing with Washington in public could London hope to influence it in private.

But Mr. Riddell demonstrates that Mr. Blair’s commitment to Mr. Bush’s course on Iraq was based on more than a desire to maintain the special relationship: he firmly believed in the necessity to oust Saddam Hussein. And that belief was not new—it predated even the horrors of Sept. 11. Its origins can be found in the intelligence briefings Mr. Blair received after he became prime minister, in 1997. They left a deep impression upon him—possibly because, as a novice to power, this kind of information was new to him.

Already then, Mr. Blair believed Saddam Hussein was “an evil dictator” and a “threat to world peace,” and it was clear to him that he had to support military action against Iraq when President Clinton confronted Baghdad over weapons inspections in 1998.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Mr. Blair was one of the first to warn of the dangerous nexus between terrorists, weapons of mass destruction and rogue states—what Mr. Bush would later refer to as the “axis of evil.” In his Sept. 14, 2001, statement to the House of Commons on the attacks, Mr. Blair warned that terrorists “would, if they could, go further and use chemical or biological or even nuclear weapons of mass destruction.”

“We know, also, that there are groups of people, occasionally states, who trade the technology and capability for such weapons,” he said. “It is time this trade was exposed, disrupted and stamped out. We have been warned by the events of 11 September. We should act on the warning.”

Finally, Mr. Riddell reminds us of Mr. Blair’s moralistic streak, which colored his view of the world and the challenges it posed. In 1999, at the time of NATO’s war in Kosovo, it was the British prime minister who made the strongest and best case for taking the offensive against Slobodan Milosevic. This, he declared, was a “battle of good against evil, between civilization and barbarity, democracy and tyranny.”

All of this, Mr. Riddell convincingly argues, helps explain why Mr. Blair was Mr. Bush’s soul mate, not his “poodle,” in confronting Saddam Hussein. “People say that you are doing this because the Americans are telling you to do it,” he quotes Mr. Blair telling skeptical Labor Party colleagues on the eve of the war. “I keep telling them that it’s worse than that. I believe in it.”

And so the paradox is resolved. For Tony Blair, ousting Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do. Mr. Blair got very little in return for his steadfast support of American policy, but then he never expected he would. Decisively dealing with the threat was enough of a reward—even if doing so meant risking his political future. For Mr. Blair, a man who came to power often derided as a master of spin and as overreliant on polls and focus groups, the Iraq crisis marked him as the conviction politician he is.

Mr. Riddell’s immensely readable book—published in Britain but available over the Internet—may not be the last word on Tony Blair’s war and his relationship with George Bush, but it will surely long stand as one of the best.