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Since the Suez debacle, the chemistry between American presidents and British prime ministers has helped determine the ‘special relationship’s’ potency. Between Harold Macmillan and John F. Kennedy, as with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, it was dynamic. Between Edward Heath and Richard Nixon, John Major and Bill Clinton, it was inert. Many commentators reasonably assumed London-Washington relations would go the same way in 2000 when Tony Blair’s best buddy, Clinton, vacated the White House and in swaggered George W. Bush.
To the horror of metropolitan opinion, Bush and Blair proceeded to form an alliance more controversial than any that had existed between their 20th-century predecessors. Its full effects will take decades to appraise.
The catalyst, of course, was 9/11 and the War on Terror it unleashed. Yet, as Con Coughlin, the distinguished author of Saddam: The Secret Life, convincingly shows in his new book, American Ally, Blair had decided it was his duty rather than a choice to get on with the leader of the world’s hyper-power. In this he had Clinton’s blessing, the outgoing president telling him to be a friend to his successor. Blair’s house-warming present for Bush was the loan of Jacob Epstein’s bust of Winston Churchill. It has pride of place in the Oval Office.
What did the Labour leader and the Republican Texan have in common? Coughlin has interviewed them separately for his book and they both mention the same qualities in the other — straight- forwardness and a determination to see an enterprise through to its conclusion. As Bush puts it, ‘In politics, you find people all the time, they say, I’m going to do this with you, and then the heat gets on and they turn and run.’ No names are mentioned. Suffice to say that in early 2003 the French discussed with the Pentagon contributing a division to the invasion force for Iraq before proceeding to denounce the whole exercise. As far as Blair was concerned, it was untenable to say to America, ‘We want you to be engaged in the world — we don’t want you to be isolated — but we are not prepared to be there with you.’ Here was an outlook that went beyond Anglo-Saxon attitudes and a shared taste for Colgate toothpaste.
Bush and Blair continue to speak to each other every week. Video conference is the preferred means of communication. The partnership has unquestionably been drawn together by the personal trust that exists between them. It has ended up being this, rather than some inevitable congruence of national interest, that has secured the coalition of the non-faint-hearted.
In marked contrast to the President, neither Dick Cheney nor Donald Rumsfeld has left the impression they gave a dime whether Britain was involved in America’s great crusade. Cheney’s presence at summits between the two leaders has never risen above the status of brooding. While Colin Powell and Condi Rice were always on cordial terms with Jack Straw and the Foreign Office, there was no rapport between Rumsfeld at the Pentagon and Geoff Hoon at the Ministry of Defence. This became a serious problem when, following Iraq’s occupation, security issues took precedence over diplomatic initiatives.
It could never be an equal relationship. America was always going to lead. The question was whether Britain would follow. No quid pro quo was requested or delivered. Indeed, both leaders shudder at the suggestion of anything so squalid when Coughlin raises it with them. Blair never made his support conditional but he did hope to persuade America to act through the United Nations, a policy neo-con hawks knew would fail to deliver the resolutions they wanted. He also repeatedly appealed to Bush to be more active in addressing Palestinian concerns. The President, however, would not negotiate with Yasser Arafat.
Regime change in Iraq had been official US policy since 1998 when Clinton was president. In contrast, the British government had to come up with a specific reason for attacking the country. Bush tells Coughlin that he reacted to the possibility of Blair losing the crunch Commons vote in March 2003 by telling him on the telephone to withdraw from the coalition rather than risk being forced to resign. Blair replied, ‘I’m staying, even if it costs me my government.’ It was the sort of attitude the Texan admired.
Coughlin provides a comprehensible and unpretentious narrative detailing how Blair became inextricably committed to invading Iraq. Unlike many of the highly partial accounts cluttering high street bookshops, he avoids introducing his own angle into this admirable work of reportage. Conspiracy theorists will be bored rigid.
The question for the reader, as for those assessing whether Saddam was within 45 minutes of launching weapons of mass destruction, hinges on the quality of the intelligence. The inside information that is American Ally’s real claim upon our attention is repeatedly cited without attribution in the endnotes as ‘private interview’. Since the author was granted co-operation on the condition of anonymity (many of those speaking to him are bound by the Official Secrets Act), we are expected to accept his assurance that ‘a senior official’ or ‘a close aide to Blair’ is what it purports to be, and not somebody who once spent ten minutes on the Thames Embankment jogging alongside Alastair Campbell. Unlike the sources that underpinned the WMD claims, the revelations in American Ally are informative rather than sensational. Put simply, Bush and Blair looked at each other and saw what they liked to imagine themselves to be — a pretty straight kind of guy.