Con Coughlin is the defense and security editor of London’s Daily Telegraph and the author of several books on Middle Eastern themes: Hostage, about Lebanon in the 1980’s; A Golden Basin Full of Scorpions: The Quest for Modern Jerusalem, a presentation of the city through the voices of residents; and Saddam: King of Terror, a profile of Iraq’s “indefatigable” erstwhile strongman.
American Ally, which was first published in the United States, is an attempt to dissect the superficially paradoxical relationship between the “conservative” George W. Bush and the “left-wing” Tony Blair. To this end, Coughlin has interviewed both men and many of their associates and aides and plowed through reams of largely indigestible books and documents searching for telling information. The result is as detailed a study as is likely to be available until the chief protagonists start publishing their memoirs, key official documents are declassified, and the many anonymous sources quoted by Coughlin identified.
Mr. Coughlin, whose father was also a Telegraph journalist, has a “hawkish” reputation. As he put it in a June 2003 article, he is “someone who has argued consistently in favour of taking military action to remove Saddam,” this attitude being a Telegraph tradition. In 1995, Coughlin wrote a story about Safi Qaddafi, son of Libya’s ill-famed colonel, repeating allegations that Qaddafi Junior was attempting to flood Iraq with counterfeit currency, for which the paper had to apologize and pay costs after it emerged that the story was MI6 black propaganda. In 2003, in the run-up to the American attack on Iraq, he lent credence to the infamous “45 minutes” claim. Shortly after the invasion, he was pleased to publicize the famous document “proving” that Muhammad Atta had visited Baghdad in the summer of 2001—which story vanished suddenly from the political radar after being exposed as a fake. In February 2005, Coughlin was hailing the “success” of the Iraq elections. By July 2006, he was saying that the Beirut authorities “have only themselves to blame” for the Israeli incursion (as if the weak Lebanese government could have done anything to shut down Hezbollah) and that Iran had engineered the Hezbollah abductions to distract attention from Tehran’s stonewalling of nuclear inspectors. And in the same Telegraph article, he asserted that “the primary, almost sacred, duty of an Israeli prime minister is to defend the Jewish people by any means at his disposal” (although even such emotive language did not prevent him from being accused of “Israel-hatred” by one particularly excitable contributor to Stephen Pollard’s website).
American Ally, by contrast, is unexpectedly objective and explains very fairly the rationales of those who argued against the war. There are even strongly worded criticisms of the neocons: “[S]o determined were the hawks to oust the Iraqi dictator from power that they were not prepared to let simple facts impede their prowar rhetoric.” Coughlin includes a chapter entitled “How to Lose a War,” which pulls no punches. (He blames poor pre-war planning—British as well as American—and rivalry between the Pentagon and the State Department after the invasion.) And, in a change of mind since 2003, he concludes that both the 1998 and 2002 intelligence dossiers regarding WMDs “provided a misleading assessment of the threat Saddam posed to the outside world.” Open-mindedness of this kind requires considerable courage.
Coughlin has the investigative journalist’s gift for snuffling out significant turns of phrase or truffles of hard fact from amidst the moldering leaf-litter of the spin-doctors. He also turns a lucid phrase of his own, of help in making this rather depressing story of two rather tedious men with rather predictable views more compelling than it might otherwise have been.
On the other hand, this is a journalistic work that was clearly put together in a hurry. Nevertheless, American Ally has considerable value as a kind of executive summary of the major events and personalities behind the Iraq imbroglio. Those who wish to know the details of the “dodgy dossier,” the interminable U.N. resolutions, internal Labour machinations, or the death of David Kelly will find Coughlin’s summations very useful. The author provides keen insights into the real nature of New Labour, with its strange combination of sugary idealism and cynical manipulation of public opinion. A perfect example came with the 2002 intelligence dossier when, as Coughlin says damningly, “Blair’s staff showed little interest in the technical details and were more concerned with the media coverage that the dossier’s publication had generated.”
Coughlin is excellent at setting out the complex background to apparently inexplicable policy decisions and reminding us of the countervailing pressures that can be brought to bear on such as Tony Blair. “In a conflict that looked set to last a generation or more, the ultimate verdict on the success, effectiveness and necessity of [Blair’s and Bush’s] alliance would be for future generations to decide.” I shall also be eternally grateful to him for the anecdote about the Clinton advisor who turned to Blair just before a joint Clinton-Blair press conference and muttered, “You! Don’t f–k this up!”
In 1995-96, at the time of his friendship with Bill Clinton, in those far-off days when John Major was still prime minister and no one had heard of a plump intern named Monica Lewinsky, “Blair knew nothing about foreign policy . . . We thought it was something we could sort out once he got elected,” as one of Blair’s aides expressed it to Coughlin. Blair went through a rapid learning process between late 1996 and early 1997 in preparation for the May 1 election that catapulted him into office and was, according to Coughlin, “particularly keen to learn about Britain’s military capabilities and how they could best be deployed.” He became inspired by Margaret Thatcher’s determination to allow the Bosnian Muslims to be armed. Shortly after his election, he ordered a review of Britain’s military strength and, a few weeks later, met Mrs. Thatcher for an hour’s discussion. “She told him,” recalled Charles Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, “that it was the primary duty of a British prime minister to get on with a US president.”
Blair set out his own “doctrine of the international community” in a speech to the Chicago Economic Club in April 1999. A respected British defense expert, Laurence Freedman, wrote most of the speech—a careful enumeration of five criteria for international intervention (“Are we sure of our case? Have all the diplomatic options been exhausted? Can the military operation be prudently undertaken? Is there a will to hold out for the long term if required? Are there national interests involved?”) to which Blair “added his own moral dimension” while in the mid-Atlantic. This speech was aimed at justifying and deepening NATO actions in Kosovo but would later serve as Blair’s justification for backing the “War on Terror.” Blair favored war “not based on territorial ambition but on values.” The “international community” could no longer regard “acts of genocide” as a “purely internal matter.” (The Clinton administration’s greater caution about Kosovo irritated Blair and may have predisposed him to like Clinton’s successor.) The stage was set for an Anglo-American alignment in the dizzying days after September 11, when even Le Monde believed that “we are all Americans now.”
Blair’s decision to go to war was also motivated by more traditional considerations, and, to many Conservatives, he seemed more like a Canningite Tory than a Labour leader. After all, the prime minister’s dislike of “rogue states” mirrored Margaret Thatcher’s brisk attitude toward such countries as Libya, Serbia, and Iraq (although he would have had problems with her support for apartheid-era South Africa and Pinochet’s Chile). As early as November 1997 Blair expressed concern about Iraq’s WMDs and the potential for regional instability they provided. He also believed that preemptive military action had a deterrent effect. All of these views have Tory precedents.
Later, Blair was even prepared to offer Vladimir Putin a free hand in Chechnya in return for Russian support for action against the Taliban—a concept sadly vetoed by American planners still fighting the Cold War. He sought to distance himself from new Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s much-vaunted desire for Britain “to once again [sic] be a force for good in the world” and to place human rights “at the heart” of British foreign policy, which would have involved placing restrictions on Britain’s highly lucrative arms trade. According to Coughlin, Blair regarded Cook’s view as “naive and unrealistic.” Yet such disagreements were disagreements only of degree.
Far from being George W. Bush’s “poodle,” as a million-and-one boring commentators have asserted, Blair, as American Ally proves, was “driven by his personal conviction that there was moral justification for taking a firm stand against those who desired to do harm in pursuit of their own political and nationalistic goals.” Although Bush and most of his inner circle had independently reached the same conclusion, “Blair’s own confidently-expressed opinions helped to reinforce the president’s views.” As Blair told the Guardian in 2003, “It’s worse than you think. I believe in it. I am truly committed to dealing with this, irrespective of the position of America.” An unnamed “key Bush aide” assured Coughlin that “Blair has been the driving force in the relationship and has played an important role in the evolution of American thinking since 9/11.”
While this assessment seems overstated, it may well be that Blair influenced Bush in some ways. Britain’s help was, of course, of great practical use to the White House—not just in terms of Britain’s military contribution but because of resources and experiences unavailable to Washington. Blair’s ability to speak directly to such men as Iran’s President Khatami (“You mean you actually talk to these guys?” asked an impressed Bush in a subsequent conversation with Blair) and General Musharraf of Pakistan were also vastly helpful to an America with few friends and no imperialist experience. Blair’s tireless attempts to get the United Nations to act against Iraq must surely have delayed American military action. Coughlin believes this: “Bush’s agreement to go to the UN was a significant concession to Blair and demonstrated that, when it came to the crunch, the British leader did have leverage at the White House.” And Blair’s quiet insistence on the Palestinians’ right to statehood—a legacy, perhaps, of Britain’s traditionally Arabist sympathies—has indubitably had an ameliorating effect on U.S. policy in relation to both Israel and Palestine.
Blair is a surprisingly religious man, for a politician whose various administrations have been consistently anti-Christian and antitraditional in their effects, and for a husband whose (notionally Catholic) wife is notorious for her love of “healing crystals” and “faith healers.” He is consistently rumored to be verging on conversion to Catholicism, yet his moral values and millenarianism appear to stem more from Low Anglicanism. His mother was a “strongly Protestant” Irishwoman, according to Blair biographer John Rentoul. Blair has claimed that he became a Christian while still at Oxford and is reputed to read the Bible every day (to which, his spin-doctors “revealed” after September 11, he has added the Koran).
There is a definite nonconformist and demotic ring about too much of Blair’s speechifying. For example, addressing the U.S. Congress in 2003, he said,
When The Star-Spangled Banner starts, Americans get to their feet, not because some state official told them to, but because whatever race, colour, class or creed they are, being American means being free.
Describing Blair’s reaction after he had been told about the London bombs, Coughlin writes:
His voice trembling with emotion, a clearly shaken Blair said it was “particularly barbaric” that the bombings had taken place “on a day when people are meeting to try to help the problems of poverty in Africa and the long-term problems of climate change and the environment.
And, in 2003, he told a colleague: “I am ready to meet my Maker and answer for those who have died or have been horribly maimed as a result of my decisions.” It is all very reminiscent of Thomas Macaulay’s remark that “There is nothing as ridiculous as the British middle classes in a fit of morality.”
This perfervid, Low Church, evangelizing sensibility crossed the Atlantic aboard the Mayflower and has united Bush and Blair (and previous presidents and prime ministers) more than political agreements or the lingering effects of Anglo-Saxon racial similitude. Reagan and Thatcher, Bush and Blair, Lite-Republicans and New Labour—all were shaped, or are still being shaped, by the demotic legacy, for better or for worse. It is this temperamental commonality—not white racism, nor oil, nor even temporary strategic coalescence—that really defines and drives the “special relationship” 230 years on and will continue to drive it, at least until Bush follows Blair to the $50,000-a-speech after-dinner circuit. It is greatly to be desired that future American and British leaders will preserve something of this instinctive solidarity—but that, next time around, they will use it for positive ends.
[American Ally: Tony Blair and the War on Terror, by Con Coughlin (New York: Ecco) 400 pp., $26.95]