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The People v. Tony Blair
Politics, the Media and the Anti-War Movement
By Chris Nineham
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2012 Chris Nineham
All rights reserved.
The Road to War
"Either Tony knows something the rest of us don't know, or he's insane."
Unnamed government minister, March 2003.
It is not part of the official version of events, but it is a fact that many in George Bush's cabinet saw 9/11 as an opportunity. The word, and others similar, keeps coming up. At the first post-9/11 strategy cabinet, vice president Dick Cheney argued bluntly that events presented them with a chance to strengthen the US position in the Middle East. Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was equally straightforward. 9/11, he said, "gave the U.S. a window to go after Hussein." A little later, by her own admission, Condoleezza Rice called together senior staff of the National Security Council to discuss "how do you capitalize on these opportunities."
A group of US foreign policy officials and advisors including Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, Richard Armitage, John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz had been promoting a turn to a much more aggressive foreign policy for years. They were organised around William Kristol's Project for the New American Century (PNAC), they were known as the neo-conservatives, and they were particularly focused on Iraq. Eighteen of them – eleven of whom were to end up serving in the Bush administration – sent a joint letter to the Clinton administration in early 1998 criticising its foreign policy and calling for regime change in Iraq. That same year the Murdoch-owned Kristol-edited neo-conservative house magazine The Weekly Standard ran an issue headlined, 'Saddam Must Go – A How to Guide.'
The neo-con tag was first used as a criticism of rightward moving liberals in the early 1970s. The term was adopted by the group to distinguish their thinking from both the liberal interventionists, who historically tended to rely on the United Nations and international law as vehicles for the propagation of US interests, and the isolationist right who were wary of all foreign adventures. More than anything what defined neo-cons was unilateralism based on the belief that the US was a unique force for good in the world.
Leading neo-con and Bush speech writer David Frum spelt out the logic as it applied to the Iraq adventure:
If the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein next, it could create a reliable American ally in the potential super-power of the Arab world. With American troops so close, the Iranian people would be emboldened to rise against the mullahs. And as Iran and Iraq built moderate, representative pro-Western regimes, the pressure on the Saudis and the other Arab states to liberalize and modernise would intensify.
Their pseudo-democratic dreaming was underpinned with hard power calculation. Frum goes on, "An American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein would put the US more wholly in charge of the region than any power since the Ottomans, or maybe the Romans."
Whatever the contradictions in their intellectual positions, 9/11 was the neo-cons' moment. Though Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz lost the argument for an immediate attack on Iraq at that first meeting, the opposition was mainly tactical. Bush apparently felt the link with 9/11 was too tenuous for Iraq to be the first target. But no one was against the idea in principle, and as early as 17 September according to the Washington Post, George Bush asked the Pentagon to draft plans for an attack on Iraq.
Emboldened by 'success' in Afghanistan, by the time of the State of the Union address at the end of January 2002, Bush was talking like a true believer. In the speech he claimed the right to take pre-emptive action against any state perceived as a threat by the US. He listed North Korea, Iraq and Iran as the main enemies in an "Axis of Evil," and the deliberate and deadly confusion between terrorism and "rogue states" was hardwired into his thinking. "The United States of America," he said, "will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most dangerous weapons." By early spring 2002, minds were well and truly made up. To prove the point, Bush stuck his nose into a spring meeting between Condoleezza Rice and some senators about diplomatic initiatives with Iraq to say simply, "Fuck Saddam, we are taking him out."
Tony Blair was not far behind. Without discussing it in cabinet, as early as the start of March 2002, Tony Blair had commissioned an Iraq Options paper from the Overseas and Defence Secretariat of the Cabinet Office outlining options for regime change. He was telling the public and the cabinet that no decisions had yet been taken, but in fact he not only knew that Washington's mind was made up, but he had tied Britain to a war for regime change.
In a top secret memo to Blair dated 14 March 2002, David Manning, the PM's senior advisor on foreign affairs, reported on a dinner meeting with Condoleezza Rice:
We spent a long time at dinner on Iraq. It is clear that Bush is grateful for your support and has registered that you are getting flak. I said that you would not budge in your support for regime change but you had to manage a press, a Parliament and a public opinion that was very different from anything in the United States.
Days later, British ambassador to the UN Christopher Meyer confirmed Blair had signed up to regime change in Iraq in a meeting with Paul Wolfowitz. "We backed regime change," he reported, "but the plan had to be clever and failure was not an option."
Blair was, then, pursuing an illegal foreign policy behind the backs of parliament and people, let alone his cabinet. His supporters' much-repeated defence was that getting close to Bush was essential to restrain him, to try and ensure there was no action without UN support, and that moves against Iraq would be accompanied by an Israel/Palestine peace initiative. When Blair travelled to the US in April 2002 for a special summit with Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, the Downing Street narrative was that he was going to persuade Bush to work multilaterally and with a long term plan for Iraq's future.
The reality of the meeting was very different. Before it Blair was indicating to aides that Britain's support for the US was unconditional. "We have always been with the US on this one," he said. American participants including Colin Powell and Bush's chief of staff Andrew Card didn't remember any conditions on British support being tabled at the Crawford encounter, and the Cabinet Office minutes don't mention Blair presenting any strong caveats except that the Americans must help win international opinion for action. David Manning, who was there, was very sceptical too. "I doubt the conditions were that forcibly expressed," he says, "I doubt he even mentioned the UN at Crawford. I don't even remember the UN coming up at Crawford."
Blair spent most of the time at Crawford in one-to-one discussions with the president. At the joint press conference Bush singled out Blair's lack of concern for public opinion for special praise: "History has called us into action. The thing I admire about this prime minister is that he doesn't need a poll or a focus group to convince him of the difference between right and wrong."
The method in their madness
There have been many explanations for the ascendancy of the neo-cons and the resulting mayhem. The neo-cons' rise is often regarded as the result of an aberration, a freak coincidence of a deranged president, a servile media and the overweening power of the oil lobby. John Le Carre brought these themes together eloquently in a January 2003 essay entitled The United States Has Gone Mad:
The combination of compliant US media and vested corporate interests is once more ensuring that a debate that should be ringing out in every square is confined to the loftier columns of the East Coast press ... But the American public is not merely being misled. It is being browbeaten and kept in a state of ignorance and fear. The carefully orchestrated neurosis should carry Bush and his fellow conspirators into the next election.
The problem with the view of the war as the outcome of a conspiracy on the US people by a crazed president is that it doesn't explain the broad consensus within US foreign policy circles. While the neo-cons made the running, and there were plenty of tactical and strategic disagreements, what is remarkable is that when the time came, the US foreign policy establishment appears to have been pretty united in supporting the attack with or without UN backing. In the words of Deepa Kumar after 9/11, there was "unanimous agreement in the foreign policy establishment that the War on Terror would henceforth frame US foreign policy."
It also can't explain the fact that, though 9/11 was an important turning point, there was a marked tendency toward interventions over the previous decade, starting with the 1991 attack on Iraq and gathering pace with the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. In the words of one historian of US foreign policy, "what will stand out one day is not George W Bush's uniqueness but the continuum from the Carter Doctrine to 'shock and awe.'"
Others have stressed the influence of the Zionist lobby on the neo-cons and the wider Washington foreign policy community. There is no doubt that the Israeli lobby is very strong in Washington, but it is not decisive even in ensuring a pro-Israel policy. Unconditional support for Israel spans the political spectrum in Washington foreign policy, across party and religion. From Jeanne Kirkpatrick to Francis Fukuyama and Zalmay Khalilzad, next to no one challenges a militantly pro-Israel policy.
To see the Israeli lobby as a driver of US strategy is to look at the relationship between the US and Israel upside down. The US turned toward the backing of the Israeli state in the late 1960s and 1970s when its traditional allies in the region became unreliable due to the rise of Arab nationalism and later the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The US backs Israel because it needs a 100% loyal military ally in what the US regards as the most important region of the globe. In fact the idea of a Zionist hold over US foreign policy can help to conceal the real source of the problems in the Middle East. It allows Gulf States to blame Israel and the Zionist lobby for policies that are really made in Washington. It allows them to project the fantasy of influencing the US to taker a tougher line on Israel, and so justifies trying to get close to US policymakers.
Perhaps the most common response at the time was to see the rise of the neo-cons as a product of the unchallenged supremacy of the US worldwide, the achievement of untouchable hyper power status. Hardt and Negris' influential books suggested early last decade that 'empire' had become so powerful and all pervasive that it had transcended national boundaries completely. Other more orthodox commentators have argued the US has been able to maintain an informal empire in the West strong enough for it to launch any attacks it wants with impunity.
Bush was certainly not one to play down US power and its associated responsibilities. In one of his many soaring rhetorical flights at the time he assured us that "Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world. As the greatest power on earth we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom."
At their most confident, the neo-cons actually felt they and America had a free hand to manufacture global reality. One Bush aide, probably Karl Rove, boasted to a journalist, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
But the contempt for existing facts on display here suggests a hollowness to the triumphalism. Arrogance and unease mix in equal measure in neo-conservatives' policy statements. The PNAC report written in September 2000 was in effect a warning to the US foreign policy elites:
The United States is the world's only superpower, combining preeminent military power, global technological leadership, and the world's largest economy. Moreover, America stands at the head of a system of alliances that includes the world's other leading democratic powers. At present the United States faces no global rival. America's grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible. There are, however, potentially powerful states dissatisfied with the current situation and eager to change it, if they can, in directions that endanger the relatively peaceful, prosperous and free condition the world enjoys today. Up to now, they have been deterred from doing so by the capability and global presence of American military power. But, as that power declines, relatively and absolutely, the happy conditions that follow from it will be inevitably undermined.
"Potentially powerful and dissatisfied states" were the clouds on the horizon of the post-1989 vista. The collapse of communism had swelled the chorus of self-satisfaction celebrating the conquest of neoliberal economic policies domestically under Thatcher and Reagan.
The USSR, the US's main competitor, had been removed from the scene. But the reorganisation of the Western economies along neoliberal lines had itself partly been a response to economic challenges in the sphere of production. The figures speak for themselves: in 1945 the US share of world manufacturing production was around 50%, by 1980 this had dropped drastically to 31%, by the middle of last decade it was down to 25%.
The surpluses that were recycled through Wall Street and increasingly London in the 1980s and 1990s more and more came from production centred abroad, in Taiwan, Singapore, The Pearl River Delta in China and elsewhere. The US boom in the early 1990s helped it to at least temporarily pull Germany and Japan out of economic difficulties, but by the end of the decade the relationship had switched and it was Japan and Germany that were hauling the US out of slowdown.
Meanwhile, by the end of the nineties, it had become clear not just that there was a global slowdown but that, unlike in the period after the Second World War, the US was not able to provide the impetus for growth. Compared to the sluggish performance of most of the Western economies at the time, China's rise was relentless. From 1994 to 2004 its average growth rate was 8.5%. The rise of China was the most serious of a number of threats which the West was worried about.
After the Second World War the US had the economic capacity to pull the Western powers around it and build hegemony across the Western world and direct the struggle against its only serious rival, Russia. Now the US had to face these challenges alone, with much-reduced economic capacity but one massive advantage – huge military preponderance. At the start of the War on Terror the US was responsible for around 33% of the world's total arms spending, significantly higher than the figure during the 1980s. Its 1999 arms expenditure was $281 billion compared to about $88 billion for China, its nearest competitor. US military spending equalled that of the ten countries beneath it on the arms spending league table taken together.
Neo-con policy was above all the US's response of choice to this combination of economic decline and military superiority in a more contested world. They would promote Wall Street as a financial centre, continue to use the international financial institutions as a tool to discipline other economies and most importantly increase the use of military power to inhibit the possibility of new economic challengers becoming great powers.
The National Security Strategy document for 2002 is explicit:
We will strongly resist aggression from other great powers – even as we welcome their peaceful pursuit of prosperity, trade and cultural advancement ... We are attentive to the possible renewal of old patterns of great power competition. Several potential great powers are now in the midst of internal transition – most importantly Russia, India and China.
Back to the future
Blair's enthusiastic buy-in to the war is often explained in personal terms. Many who saw the Blair-Bush relationship up close noticed how the British prime minister relished being the key ally at the court of King George and he revelled embarrassingly in the ecstatic reception he received at the US Congress when he visited in 2002. He had a reputation too for preferring 'big vision' politics to the banal detail of everyday government. He liked to be seen as a man with a mission and he admitted to being frustrated with the difficulties of driving through his market-led transformation of public services at home.
Excerpted from The People v. Tony Blair by Chris Nineham. Copyright © 2012 by Chris Nineham. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Road to War 6
Chapter 2 A Hard Sell 18
Chapter 3 The Second Superpower 29
Chapter 4 The Making of a Movement 39
Chapter 5 Blair on the Brink 52
Chapter 6 The Media in a Spin 60
Chapter 7 The Difference We Make 72
Chapter 8 Wounded Beasts 79