Inside look at Blair and the Iraq war

Journalist Peter Stothard spent 30 crucial days with British Prime Minister Tony Blair leading up to and during the war with Iraq. During that time he had special access to the meetings at both 10 Downing Street and Camp David. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell talked with Stothard about his book “Thirty Days,” the political damage President George W. Bush caused Blair, the Bush-Blair relationship and the fallout over weapons of mass destruction. Below is an edited transcript of that interview.

Andrea Mitchell: You had an extraordinary experience during the 30 days leading up to the war. You were basically a fly on the wall with the prime minister as all of this was playing out.

Peter Stothard: Yes. I just stayed in the background, and watched him as he spoke to President Bush on the phone. Spoke to Arafat. You know, sort of told the Polish prime minister that he wouldn’t get beaten up by the French and he and George would protect him.

Mitchell: What can you tell us about Tony Blair and George Bush? How special is this special relationship between these two leaders?

Stothard: Well, I think Blair kids himself in a way that British prime ministers sometimes kidded themselves. All British leaders would like to think that they were very, very special to the president of the United States. Blair, I think, did have a very personal relationship with Bill Clinton.

I mean, they were like buddies. You watched them together. They sort of had their arms around each other and they were chatting and the kind of — they would go drinking and have dinner together and it was all very friendly. Blair and Bush are not like that. It’s business-like.

When I watched them at Hillsborough Castle, there was always like a kind of yard of the world’s biggest rhododendron tree between them.

They were talking and gesticulating. But there in no sense is to say — you know, kind of friendly, informal relationship. And I think Blair is quite realistic about that.

Mitchell: Yet at the same time, Tony Blair has put his political career, past and future, on the line because of what was initially an American imperative. Get Saddam Hussein. Why would he take that chance for an American leader with whom he doesn’t share basic values?

Stothard: Because I think he does share some basic values. I think post-9/11, Blair was very quick to realize there was this great new threat to what he would call his generation. Blair liked to think about his generation. So he thinks of Blair and Bush are the same generation. They can respond to these same challenges.

OK. They come from different backgrounds. But they do see the world in the same sort of way. So I think he decided that Bush was right. That Bush was going to attack Iraq anyway. So the choice was not between Iraq not being attacked and it being attacked, but whether or not Iraq would be attacked by America alone or by America with its allies.

Blair’s fundamental belief is in, is in the danger of the world splitting apart.

Mitchell: He was willing to go against his own public. And certainly European public opinion. Rather than take what some might have thought would be the easier way out. Go with Chirac, go with Schroeder. Go with Europe and popular thought.

Stothard: Yeah. It would have certainly been an easy way out. I mean, the day I arrived in Downing Street, you know, the thousands of people sort of around the gates, shouting and screaming. Calling him a war criminal. He was going on TV. Being beaten up and slow hang-clapped.

You know, his party was against him. His — most of his Cabinet — were very, very solemn. And they supported him because they kind of had to. His advisers, even. Even the most loyal team of advisers. Although they would maneuver him and manipulate him to get the policies through, a lot of them had really serious doubts about it.

But the prime minister had decided. And now of course he’s paying a — a high price for having taken that decision to back the president. But he backed because he believed it. And that’s the kind of guy Tony Blair is.

Mitchell: At one point early in the game, when he was about to go on television, and as you described it, protesters were surrounding on all sides, at one point he asked one of his advisers, “How should I start this?” And what was the response?

Stothard: (Laughter) The response from one of the advisers was, “How about, ‘My fellow Americans.’ ” And there was kind of laughter in the group. Sort of dry sort of acid laughter in this little group of — group of us preparing for this — for this broadcast.

Mitchell: These are the times when Blair was being criticized for being too much the puppy dog of America.

Stothard: Yeah, and Tony Blair wasn’t amused by that — by that at all.

Anymore than he was amused when we were doing the — preparing for the — the press conference on the Middle East roadmap. And Dallas De Campo came in and said, “Now, President Bush … he doesn’t think — he doesn’t think your speech is any good.”

And again quite a little bit of rather brittle laughter amongst the crowd. But Tony Blair not at all pleased. Because it’s a real sensitive issue in the nation that everything he did was just doing it on American orders.

Mitchell: Wasn’t it a big risk that Tony Blair, having adopted this policy was going to be perceived as sort of a tool of America. He realized that risk early on.

Stothard: Yeah, he realized that risk. I know now he was telling people — maybe even telling the queen like nine months ago that he could lose his job on this. I mean, the thing about Tony Blair is that he’s very haunted by this ghost of Bill Clinton.

I mean, he had decided that if he believed something was right and it was in the British interest and in the international interest, you know, figured with his idea of the world, particularly post-9/11 world. He was going to do it. If he lost his job doing it, that was better than just sitting there not doing it and thinking afterwards, well, perhaps I should have used my power for something.

Mitchell: Because Bill Clinton has confided to him that he feels he didn’t use his power when he had it.

Stothard: He has quite a close relationship, really, between Clinton and Blair — between the Clintons and the Blairs. I mean they talk a lot. They talked a lot before Blair was in power. About the third way and their very high ambitions, their sort of new kind of politics. And they’re close, those guys. Very close in that sense of, “You know, why — why did you get into politics? What do you do it for? And what are you going to feel good about when history is looking at you?”

Mitchell: Tell me about some of the moments with George Bush. First, Camp David. That had to be an unusual experience for a journalist.

Stothard: Yeah. (Laughter) It was strange being in the American president’s sort of holiday camp. And most of the British side remember it for all the kind of accidents on the first night.

Mitchell: The golf cart?

Stothard: Yes. Well, the golf carts, you call them, yeah. On the first night one of Blair’s closest aides pretty much ran down — nearly ran down — one of the president’s dogs. And then on the second day — (Laughter) one of the aides crashed one of the carts into the Secret Service cart.

Mitchell: When do you — when do you think they had their real understanding that they were going to war? How many months earlier?

Stothard: I think it built up over conversations over the past nine months. I don’t know how detailed the deal was. But I think the sense that Bush said we’re definitely going to go, and Blair said, “Well, look. I really do think that it would be the most degree of international support you can get for this, it will be better — not just you know, for the world, but for you.” And I think that was what the discussion they had involved — how you got the U.N. involved.

You know, and he said, “Look, I will be with you,” I think. Now we got no proof of that. But that’s very much the kind of view in London. That he said he would be with you, come what may, but you do everything you possibly can to get the maximum possible international support for this. And one of the questions being asked in Britain ever since is whether or not enough effort was made to get that support.

Mitchell: Tell us about the night that a call came from the White House to one of Blair’s closest advisers, Alistair Campbell, and the word was that war was imminent.

Stothard: Yeah, that was an extraordinary moment. Blair had just given this big speech in the House of Commons. This was a speech in which his whole prime ministership depended — to try and persuade the British MP’s who didn’t like the war any more than the British people. They should vote for it.

And we got back and he was, you know, feeling reasonably pleased with himself and there’s two calls. One from his wife, Sherry. Which presumably said, “Congratulations, darling.” And the other was from the White House, saying, “Yeah, can we go now?” And there was a kind of very, very brittle conversation. The British couldn’t really believe this.

And, because you had special forces under Iraq who had sort of embedded journalists with them. And suddenly there was this prospect of — while debate in British Parliament was still going on, while it could still be lost, that the news would come back to London that the Americans had already started the war. And that could have totally tipped the balance. It made Blair a laughingstock. So Alistair Campbell, very low key, said, “I think if you could just wait until we get this little thing out of the way first, it would be a good idea.” (Laughter) You know.

Mitchell: And the other end of the phone was Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director.

Stothard: Yes, I think so. Yes.

Mitchell: And he was saying that they had intelligence and a possible chance of getting Saddam?

Stothard: Well, one of the things about being a fly on the wall of course is that you only see and hear what one side is saying. But that seemed to be — there was certainly some action that they wanted to take and alert us to.

Mitchell: How did you first meet? How were you first introduced to George Bush?

Stothard: I was at Camp David. And I come up in the buggies. The — sorry, these golf carts. I must get my language right. I come up in these golf carts, and they were a bit bestraggled, because they’re all the golf carts, they’re electric. And they don’t all move at the same pace. It depends how much electric charge you’ve got.

And so mine, I think, was a rather low-grade golf cart. And so we got there a bit late. And the President was already there. The prime minister had gone off to get changed. And Alistair Campbell called across the floor, he was 10 yards away. Slightly surprised me. And he said, “George, here. There’s someone here I want you to meet.”

Mitchell: He called the president of the United States George?

Stothard: He did indeed call the president of the United States George. And the president looked perfectly pleased about that. He said, “He’s a journalist, but he’s not a bastard.” (Laughter)

Mitchell: And that was your introduction.

Stothard: That was my introduction to the president of the United States and with that recommendation from Alistair Campbell the president and I had a good, long talk.

Mitchell: And did you talk to him about the decisions — having gone to war and what was going to take place? British troops were under fire.

Stothard: We were talking mainly about what was going to happen after afterwards. I have to say that the president was very keen to tell me about his respect and friendship with Tony Blair. I mean, he was, I think, very impressed. I mean, he said this.

But I mean, it was clear — seemed very sincere to me that — whereas other world leaders had sort of said they were going to support him, particularly the German chancellor. And not doing so because the German people didn’t like it. Tony Blair had said he was going to support him and stuck with it against spectacular odds and spectacular opposition.

And I don’t know the president of the United States well, but it did seem to me that — that was something that really struck home with him. I mean, that was gold dust as far as he was concerned. That degree of sticking by your word when you decided to do something and said you were going to do it.

Mitchell: To George Bush, loyalty is the chief virtue.

Stothard: Yes. And it was dangerous for a British politician — British prime minister — because loyalty to another leader is not something that probably any country sort of prizes in its own leader.

And I don’t think he’s under any illusions about other things that he and George Bush agree on. But they did agree on this. And they’ve come together, and it seems to me they may well stick together.

Mitchell: Let’s talk about Hillsborough and what you witnessed there after George Bush said some things about the U.N. at the news conference.

Stothard: Yes, this was a strange day at Hillsborough — the queen’s castle in northern Ireland. And it’s full of pictures of Charles and Di and, you know, pictures of the queen in middle age. And it’s all sort of fusty, English furniture. And so, when the White House arrived, the White House takes over everything. You know, so I mean, nothing is the queen’s or British anymore. The whole thing basically becomes a little bit of America

So there’s already this sort of edginess on the British side about this. But the sensible ones realized that all they wanted to get out of the president on that day was for him to commit himself to a vital role for the United Nations in Iraq. So they didn’t really mind how much the Americans sort of took over the — the sofas.

And so Blair and Bush went off for this war. Came back very happy. Vital role. And I think — Condoleezza Rice and other of the members there sort of accepted this. But when we had the press conference, I think, from the point of view of Condoleezza Rice, the president got a little bit carried away. And he mentioned this vital role for the U.N. about eight times.

And, so when we came back into this very English sitting room, everybody was sort of — together. It was quite clear she wasn’t really very pleased at all. And she was sort of wagging her finger, and he was sort of wagging his finger at her and I thought, “Oh, this is kind of interesting.” Because this is a president who obviously is prepared to have very vigorous arguments.

Mitchell: The national security adviser was wagging her finger at the president of the United States?

Stothard: Yeah. Absolutely. And then he eventually, sort of, he went into a sort of corner of the window. And the president had to say, “Ease it, Condi, ease it.” Once he said “Ease it, Condi, ease it,” then she eased it and it stopped.

But it was, it seemed to me, to show he was a rather good lad. I mean, rather than this idea that he’s surrounded by people who don’t, you know, sort of raise their voices. Here was somebody who was obviously quite prepared to tell him that she thought that he got the tone of this, if not the substance, a bit wrong.

Mitchell: Did she raise her voice with him?

Stothard: I don’t want to make too much of this. But yeah, she was clearly displeased. And of course it was her job then to go outside and make a lot of mobile phone calls back to Washington, making sure that the Pentagon didn’t, as it were, get the wrong language. I think the last words I heard from her in Hillsborough were the president has said this, and we must all use the same language. And, I think she was very confident that they would.

Mitchell: Now, Blair comes to Washington and he’s going to receive a medal this year, and all of the rest. Yet at the same time, the Americans seem to be blaming the British for the original intelligence that got caught up in this whole controversy over uranium from Niger.

Stothard: Yes, it’s a very peculiar affair, this — all this analysis of intelligence after the war. As far as Niger’s concerned, the British stand by their story, as we say in the newspaper trade. I mean, they are convinced that their intelligence was correct. And they’re standing by it.

But I mean, that’s just a small part of this extraordinary battle that’s going on. Mainly with people who hated the war in the first place. All finding ways to get at the prime minister. And trying to say that he’s deceived them. I think one of the things that they want to do is to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

Because if you’re opposed to the war and if you’re opposed to this Bush/Blair doctrine, the best thing you can do is to reduce heavily the credibility the people of Britain have for intelligence data. Because if you can have pre-emptive strikes on people who haven’t moved tanks across your borders, then you’re always going to have to say, “Well, look, we have intelligence data that this kind of stuff is happening.”

And so the undermining of the credibility of intelligence data is enormously important in Britain, at least for people who say, “Well, you know, Tony Blair did what he wanted to last time, but thanks, we don’t want any more.”

Mitchell: Well, when you were at number Ten, and before the war, did you hear a lot of argument back and forth or discussion about how good is the intelligence? Where are the weapons? Is our dossier credible or not?

Stothard: Well, by the time I got there, putting together that dossier had happened. And I was at Hillsborough again, you know, when we were waiting for Bush to arrive. And it was quite a tense moment. And there was three of Blair’s closest security people sitting around a television in the back kitchen. And they’re watching some American TV news about the discovery of weapons of mass destruction, or the possible discovery.

And they were discussing it and saying, “Well, that could be true and that’s not true. But that will certainly be true one day.” And it was absolutely clear to me that the most senior intelligence people in British absolutely believe that these weapons are there.

And I went back to Downing Street the other day. And just before I came here. And they’re still absolutely convinced now. I don’t know. But I have to tell you, they — they are convinced that these weapons exist.

Mitchell: Do they resent the fact that the defense from the White House about the inaccurate intelligence, the accusation of inaccurate intelligence, the admission from the White House is, “Well, it’s not our fault. We got that from the British.”

Stothard: I don’t think in the scheme of things the British are going to resent that. The British are very realistic about that. I mean, you know if you were very sort of hoity-toity and — you know, you could say, “How dare they say that.” But after all the State of the Union Address did attribute it to British intelligence in the first place.

Their most important issues are, you know, what’s going on in Iraq right now. How it’s being run. How the Middle East peace is being advanced. And all the issues that Blair will be bringing to Washington to talk to the president about.

Mitchell: But Blair is in the middle of his own controversy over whether the two dossiers were sexed up, were dodgy, were plagiarized from the Internet.

Stothard: Yeah. Yeah.

Mitchell: He’s got a big problem.

Stothard: Yeah, he’s got a big problem. And he’s finding out a few things about the way in which he runs Downing Street. I mean, the prime minister of Great Britain is an immensely powerful man. More powerful in his ability to do what he wants than the president of the United States, as Bill Clinton would often say to Blair.

And so I think people are realizing there is a very small number of people in Downing Street doing a very, very large number of things. And sometimes cutting corners. And the checks and balances which you have on the American presidency don’t exist on the virtual British presidency that Tony Blair and to some extent Margaret Thatcher have developed in recent years.

And I think you know, we’ll see over the years a lot more talk now about exactly, you know, how we run ourselves. And you know, is it right that the kind of people who can produce dodgy dossiers in a hurry you know, for the papers, and then find these dossiers being waved about by Colin Powell and in Parliament. Now, was that done quite as coolly and as smoothly as it ought to have been? I think we’ve already decided it wasn’t.

Mitchell: Did you ever witness Bush and Blair arguing over the role of the U.N. or whether they were proceeding too quickly or not quickly enough—

Stothard: No.

Mitchell: The pacing and timing of the war.

Stothard: You know, there was a very vigorous exchange which I witnessed at a certain distance, but it was always stuck in my mind. And it was at Hillsborough Castle again against an iron gate. And behind them, was a spectacular rhododendron tree. The biggest rhododendron tree in the world.

And Bush was one side. Blair was on the other. And Bush was speaking — making these great big hand gestures — as though had this great big plan. This huge sort of notions of the promotion of democracy and values. And, which is the way in which the British see the American way of thinking. This very big picture.

And Tony Blair was doing these little step-like movements, as though saying, “Look, you know, we’ve got a certain amount of experience and some of this kind of thing. And look, if we just go one step at a time, one step at a time, then — then we’ll get a much better result.”

And it was a vigorous and very lengthy exchange against one of the most beautiful backdrops that politicians have (Laughter) — could speak against. But I think it did show very clearly the different approaches with these two men.

Mitchell: There was a moment also at Hillsborough when you described some relief, when they realized they could get past the formalities of their relationship.

Stothard: Yeah, Hillsborough is, as I said, we call it Hillsborough Castle, but it’s really like a sort of little country house. And it has sort of bedroom corridors upstairs. Everybody very, very huggermugger. And the president was a yard or two away from here. And he dashed into a room where the American side kept all these gold, wrapped boxes.

And he brought out one box and gave it to a member of the British team, who was retiring. And then he went — dashed straight back. And came to the door with another box. And he saw Tony Blair and he said, “Look, I’ve got a gift for you, but I’m not going to hand it over. You know, we’ve got to stop giving this gift thing. And I’ve got a gift. It’s a bowl. But you’re not having it.”

And Blair, you might have thought he might have wanted a bowl. But no, he looked really pleased. I think he thought it’s a good idea that the relationship between the prime minister and the president of the United States did not depend on handing over top-of-the-range porcelain anymore.

Mitchell: Did Tony Blair want to wait longer, give the inspectors more time — see if they could still get that second resolution or was he willing as always to just follow the tent and go for it?

Stothard: I think he would have liked more time. That was the argument that he was most vulnerable on. Both within his own Cabinet, within his own advisers and outside. You know, why can’t we give it just a little more time. And the only honest answer to that was because the Americans are going to go.

Mitchell: Let’s talk for a moment about the French. There was a moment in Brussels where things were really tense between Tony Blair and Jacque Chirac.

Stothard: Yes. It was a very, very rough day. It was the day that the first British casualties took place — were suffered. We had a pretty sort of difficult breakfast in the British ambassador’s office. Working out, you know, how we’re going to deal with how the prime minister was going to deal with this. And particularly how the French were going to deal with this.

Mitchell: So the tension between Tony Blair and Jacque Chirac, it got pretty personal? Looked that way.

Stothard: Yeah. When Tony Blair goes into his sitting room in the morning and the first thing he sees is a picture of Jacque Chirac and his little baby Leo, when Leo was born. And you know, they were that close. You know, they were friendly and thought of themselves as friends. And Tony Blair thinks of himself as the great European.

So when we’re in Brussels and the first British casualties were suffered, and Chirac was there in the same building. There was great, great tension as to how this was going to be handled. You know, were the French going to sort of say they were sorry to hear of this? Were they going to kind of ignore it? Was it going to be a complete chill? Was it going to be a kind of handshake that the — the British describe as in the garbie.

You know, one of those handshakes where you don’t really, barely shake the guy’s hand at all?

Mitchell: And Jacque Chirac never expressed condolences?

Stothard: Well, eventually at one of the later meetings, he pushed over a bit of paper. We were told that this was his condolences. So that sort of eased it a bit. And then up in this very, very exclusive bit of the — the building in Brussels, very few people around, sure they’re looking very, very nervous on behalf of the Germans. They’re always very anxious about Anglo-French relations.

And Chirac just sort of moved towards Tony Blair. And then he kind of moved away again, as though the moment wasn’t quite right. And then he kind of moved back and almost by the force of gravity just pulled Tony Blair away.

And you could almost hear the sort of sighs of relief around the building that looked as though perhaps they were going to sort of at least say some sensible calm things to each other. It’s a bit like a husband and wife who have had a row at a dinner party and sort of gone outside to sort it out. And maybe people — everybody — looking out the window to see how they’re getting on.

And they spoke for about five or 10 minutes. And it seemed clear that at least a certain sort of normality had returned. And a great deal of relief about that.

Mitchell: Did you get the sense that one of the things that Blair exacted from George Bush was a commitment to the Middle East peace plan? You know, we’ll go to war with Iraq, but you’ve got to do more about the Middle East?

Stothard: Yes. I don’t think he would have seen it as kind of exacting a deal as such. I mean, it’s very much Blair’s views — as well as zapping your enemies, if you’re the United States.

There’s no point in just zapping terrorist bases around the world or terrorist states. You’ve got to do a lot more than the American have hitherto done to move the causes of this unhappiness. And I think he’ll say this when he comes to Washington this week.

Mitchell: With all this criticism in Great Britain that Blair is too much under the thumb of George Bush, how will it play to have Blair speaking to a joint session of Congress?

Stothard: Well, he’s only here for a very, very few hours. And, no, I think it is a bit of a risk. I don’t think it will go down particularly well. And it’s not the audience that he would most — needs to play to at home at the moment. But then Blair has shown himself. You know, he’s a very, very loyal ally to George Bush. I mean, they believe in the same things. They believe in the same important things. And I think you know, Blair is not going to be at all apologetic when he comes here. He will make a very tough speech on how right this war was, and how important the values for which he was fought — on how vigorously those have got to be expressed.

Mitchell: Did you get the sense from Blair and his advisers that — especially because of his past closeness with Bill Clinton — did anything about George Bush surprise them?

Stothard: I think they were surprised at how open he was. I mean, I think a lot of people in Britain who see George Bush as a man with a very closed mind. And I think there are certain that they’ve seen while they were with him. And also heard. I mean, the AIDS initiative and other things which have led them to think that perhaps he’s more open to persuasion. That he’s more open to argument than perhaps some of his critics in Europe would think. And so okay, he may be open to a little argument from the near conservatives, but perhaps he’s open to other people’s arguments too. So I think the standing of the President amongst the people around the prime minister is really much higher at the end of this process.

Andrea Mitchell is chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News.