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The Blair witch hunt

Britain’s Tony Blair is being scrutinized for prewar intelligence that suggested Iraq was pursuing weapons of mass destruction. How will this effect him and his senior partner in Iraq, George Bush? Brave New World.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair might be excused for wondering how President Bush, his senior partner in the Iraq war, manages to ride high above the accusations that prewar intelligence estimates of Iraq were twisted to drum up war fever. After all, no British troops have died in postwar guerrilla fighting and the vast majority of suspect intelligence came from U.S. agencies. Yet Blair finds himself besieged by allegations — echoed by Democrats in Washington — that the war pre-empted a threat that both Bush and Blair knew to be very remote. Could this be the beginning of the end for Blair? And what does it portend for Bush?

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something,” said Woodrow Wilson, a president who made his enemies trying to change the dynamics of peace after World War I. Apparently, Wilson’s saying applies to regime change, too.

Blair’s government is now under investigation for allegedly misleading parliament, which ultimately voted to sanction British participation in the war, about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Like Bush, Blair and his chief ministers made accusations about Iraq ahead of the war based on “intelligence findings” that turned out to be somewhat more pessimistic (or optimistic, depending on your view) than postwar events so far have been able to back up.

Also like Bush, Blair leveled at least some charges against Saddam’s Iraq based on intelligence so shoddy that real questions about the competence of Britain’s MI-6 and America’s CIA again have been raised. In Britain, a dossier “documenting” Iraq’s pursuit of nuclear weapons turned out to be a plagiarism of an American student’s 12-year-old doctoral thesis. In America, charges that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger were based on intelligence documents that had already been exposed as forgeries by U.N. inspectors. In both cases, embarrassing mea culpas were issued that have fueled speculation that Bush and Blair agreed to “cook the books” in order to justify a war that they could not win support for in the United Nations.

Cast in the most egregious light — that Bush and Blair lied outright — the charge certainly has the potential to stoke public outrage and encourage investigations that could hurt them politically. But observers of the cynical nature of politics on both sides of the Atlantic tend to believe there will be no appetite, even among opposition parties, to press these arguments home.

The idea that they invented a case against Iraq “is a virtually unprovable assertion,” says an aide to a Democratic senator who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Anyone who has sat in on a closed intelligence hearing knows that the volume and variety of what is out there will bolster just about any reasonable argument. And, look, we’re talking about a guy [Saddam Hussein] who was a proven WMD bandit. The administration’s case may have been wrong, and it’s too early even to say that, but I don’t think you’ll ever show that the case against Iraq was built on thin air.”

The feeling in Britain is the same.

“The great strength of Blair’s position is that nobody’s worked up about it outside the middle-class professionals that read the Independent and The Guardian,” says Anthony Howard, a political analyst for The Times of London and a former Washington correspondent for The Guardian’s sister paper, The Observer. “Though there was a great head of steam opposing the war, the basic feeling now, I think, is that Saddam had it coming and bloody good show that he’s gone. The working man, and that’s Tony Blair’s real voter, tends to think it’s a good thing he was toppled.”

At the most, Howard suggests, Blair’s chief spokesman, Alastair Campbell, might be offered up as “a ritual sacrifice.”

“The case against Blair has as much to do with resentment of what he’s accomplished as objections to what he did in Iraq,” says a European diplomat in Washington. “Labor’s a big party that went through big changes under him, and a lot of the party sees Blair as a sellout.”

A question of will
Political grudges notwithstanding, so far there is no solid indication that evidence was fabricated with the exception of two egregiously stupid errors that intelligence agencies already have acknowledged. Indeed, it might be worth considering for a moment why, if these two men went to all the trouble rigging prewar intelligence, would they not have ensured that some good-natured Iraqi exile group planted evidence of weapons of mass destruction inside Saddam’s former realm afterward.

“The overwhelming conclusion I see,” the Democratic Senate aide says, “is that Bush and Blair both really expected to find what they said they’d find.”

No one who seriously follows politics in either country expects political leaders to shrink from using evidence, whether it is statistical, anecdotal or classified, in a way that maximizes the argument for their preferred course of action. In one sense, the very accusation itself is a form of deception — a willful decision to pretend things in Washington and London don’t work the way they actually do. This, after all, is why polls commissioned by presidential campaigns are considered less reliable than those commissioned independently. The presidential campaigns tend to get the numbers they pay for.

Nothing new
Examples of this abound. Look at the chicken-and-egg revisionism over Reaganomics: Democrats will quickly note it produced the highest deficits in American history while Republicans cite it as the engine of the revival of the American economy. From that same era, Republicans who point to the Reagan defense buildup as the chief cause of the Soviet Union’s demise are quickly confronted with the uncomfortable fact that the buildup began under Jimmy Carter two years before Reagan took office and that Carter’s “out-year” figures for a second term were nearly as large.

Nor would this be the first time a president “cooked the books” to get his way in foreign policy. John Adams, trying to avoid war with France in 1797, concealed evidence of what became known as the XYZ Affair, which featured France attempting to extort money out of the American treasury before it would agree to negotiate with American diplomats. McKinley launched the Spanish-American War based on the sinking of the battleship Maine, an event blamed on Spain but which, today, even the U.S. Navy’s own official history admits is unsolved. For those who demand more contemporary examples, both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon encouraged gross distortions of the real situation in Vietnam, and presidents of all stripes during the Cold War happily exaggerated the military power of the Soviet Union to buttress the case for higher defense spending.

Some Democrats in Washington and disaffected former cabinet officials in London will try to push for more substantive probes into what these two leaders knew before the war. These mavericks will have some help from intelligence agencies in both nations, tired as they are of being the fall guy when terrorists strike or wars go awry.

But while the “smoking gun” of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction has failed to turn up, it is equally true that advocates of the “lies and deceit” theory lack one of their own. And without that smoke, there isn’t likely to be much of a fire.