How Blair became addicted to taking us to war
By MAX HASTINGS
The Mail Online
Last updated at 08:37 11 May 2007
Tony Blair took office famously expecting to preside over a nation at peace. He has instead become the Prime Minister responsible for committing British troops to more wars than any predecessor since World War II.
The first was Kosovo in 1999, when he played a decisive part in persuading Britain’s Nato partners to bomb Serbia to halt ethnic cleansing, then to mobilise an army. A large multi-national force commanded by U.S.
General Wesley Clark, and led on the ground by Britain’s Sir Mike Jackson, deployed on the border of Kosovo, ready to invade the Serbian province.
Blair visited the Army and met Kosovan refugees in Macedonia amid emotional scenes that reinforced the Prime Minister’s conviction that force must be used to halt the horrors of ethnic cleansing by the Serbs.
In the event, days before General Jackson’s troops were to march, the Serbs began to withdraw from Kosovo. Instead of fighting a war, Nato forces merely occupied the province and began the long job of reconstruction after years of internal strife.
To this day, British troops remain in Kosovo as part of an international peace-keeping force. The operation to expel the Serbs is widely deemed to have been both necessary and successful. Blair’s role dramatically enhanced his prestige on the international stage. He was perceived to have acted courageously, decisively and rightly.
The same could be said of his commitment of a small British force to East Timor, also in 1999, after its population demanded independence from Indonesia following a long history of oppression and atrocity.
The following year, much more controversially, Blair sent a British naval and ground force to the small West African former colony of Sierra Leone. Its democratically elected government was threatened by rebels, in a struggle over its diamond resources.
The Foreign Office had authorised a British private security company, Sandline, to provide arms and training for government forces. Robin Cook, then Foreign Secretary, found himself under heavy fire from the Opposition in the Commons about the Sandline deal, which breached a UN embargo.
The Government’s defence, not for the last time in Tony Blair’s premiership, was that saving a democratically elected government of a small country was a good deed.
When Sandline’s support for the Freetown regime proved insufficient to halt the rebels, British troops were sent. After some sharp fighting, the rebels were defeated.
Blair had defied critics on both sides of the Commons to intervene in Kosovo, East Timor and Sierra Leone. The lesson he learnt was that success justified all.
Within hours of the attack on the Twin Towers in September 2001, Tony Blair made one of his most moving public speeches in support of the U.S. and its President.
The U.S. pledged to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, where Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorists had planned 9/11, with the active support of the Kabul regime. A few weeks later, when Allied bombing of Afghanistan began, there was token participation by British ships and planes.
More significant, the British deployed the asset which the Americans valued more than any other: the Special Air Service. Though tiny by the U.S. standards, its quality is recognised and hugely admired by the American Army.
In Afghanistan, during the hunt for Bin Laden and the struggle to defeat both Al Qaeda and Taliban guerillas, the SAS fought some of the most impressive actions in its history. Once again, Blair was able to claim success for military action.
When anti-Taliban forces surged into Kabul in November 2001, amid scenes of wild rejoicing, Bush and Blair were perceived as having done something that was not merely right, but had also worked.
The first months of 2002, five years into Blair’s premiership, marked the high point of his standing on the international stage, and of the success of his assertive use of British forces abroad.
That spring, however, the seeds of disaster were sown. George Bush had always regarded Afghanistan as a side-issue: the real target was Iraq.
He believed that toppling Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship would change the balance of power in the Middle East in favour of the U.S., and even facilitate a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine.
The most disastrous error of Tony Blair’s premiership was made in the early summer of 2002, when he gave Bush private assurances that Britain would support the U.S. in toppling Saddam. This was the ultimate expression of Blair’s hubris. He had almost unlimited faith in his own judgment.
Many people in the Foreign Office and the Army had doubts about the wisdom of invading Iraq. But Blair’s self-belief was at its zenith. He ignored the doubters, confident his courage would be rewarded.
It is unnecessary to rehearse the story of the events leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, nor of the reckless steps taken by Blair to justify joining it. A backbench rebellion mustered 121 Labour MPs who refused to support military action in Iraq. Robin Cook and Clare Short resigned from the Government, and a million people demonstrated against the war in London.
By this stage, even Blair had become deeply uncomfortable about his role in support of Bush. His own advisers warned him the Americans had no idea how to run Iraq once Baghdad had fallen.
But, though the U.S. President offered Blair an escape route from the invasion when Washington perceived the strength of British political dissent, Blair did not take it. His profound moral conceit convinced him that courage in pursuit of a virtuous course – the toppling of Saddam – would be rewarded.
It was not, of course. Initial success in toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime was followed by the catastrophe of the bungled occupation. As all but Bush and Blair recognise, there is now no possibility British and U.S. troops will be able to leave Iraq in a stable condition.
Worse, in Afghanistan where they thought they had achieved success, the elected government of President Khazai is struggling for survival. British and American troops are striving to prevent Afghans from once more falling prey to the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the warlords and opium barons, and indeed anarchy.
As Tony Blair prepares to leave office, British troops are committed to waging two major wars, one of which is certainly unwinnable and the other which may also be.
The British Army, which Blair claims to love and respect, has been so starved of resources that it is today stretched by foreign commitments almost to breaking-point.
Blair’s early successes in Kosovo and Sierra Leone imbued him with a confidence in his own powers which, allied to his moral commitment to doing good deeds, has ended in disillusionment and the loss of hundreds of British lives.
The consequences of Blair’s hubris, his ill-judged extravagance with Britain’s armed forces, will be with us for many years to come.
He has inflicted upon Britain a greater foreign policy disaster than Suez in 1956. For all his other claims, Iraq will be the foremost legacy of his premiership.