Nothing to fear but fear itself
Simon Jenkins says that Tony
Blair’s Sedgefield speech was just another attempt by the Prime Minister
to scare us into believing that we are all in mortal danger. We are
‘And the clouds came flying through the air bringing winds and hurling
lightning and arrows, and it rained hail, fire and swords, and killed
a great number of people.’ So cried the Florentine monk Savonarola
of the coming Day of Judgment in 1492. The terrified citizens duly
rose and followed him into a disastrous alliance with Italy’s new
conqueror, Charles VIII of France. Four years later they had had enough
of Savonarola’s apocalyptic waffle, dragged him from his monastery
and hanged him.
Whenever I hear Tony Blair nowadays, I think of Savonarola. In his
passionate foreign policy apologia in Sedgefield last week, he declared
Britain to be ‘in mortal danger’, facing threats ‘different from anything
the world has faced before’. Mr Blair plainly sees his primary task
as no longer to improve Britain’s public services. Mankind is on a
path to destruction from which he alone can save it. The Prime Minister
is either terrifyingly right, or mad.
I grew up under what I regarded as a real threat to Britain. It was
from world communism, backed by real weapons of mass destruction —
literally thousands of nuclear missiles aimed at British cities. While
the threat was undoubtedly exaggerated by military hawks and ‘reds
under the bed’ fanatics, I accepted the need to be vigilant and spend
on defence. I was never a pacifist. I trusted my leaders and was right
to do so. There are Soviet maps in the British Library marking each
London borough in Russian.
I therefore resent Mr Blair, a former member of CND, telling me I
am ‘in mortal danger of mistaking the nature of the world’. I have
some knowledge of that world. Like many journalists, I have visited
Beirut, Palestine and Iraq and know that seething discontent in these
places can induce fanatical groups to acts of great cruelty. Mr Blair
is doing nothing to reduce that discontent and much to exacerbate
The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 apparently came as an
epiphany, a ‘revelation’, to Mr Blair. Yet he knew of al-Qa’eda and
previous attempts on the same and similar targets. September 11 saw
not ‘weapons of mass destruction’ but hijacked planes used as human
bombs against buildings alarmingly susceptible to collapse. It was
indeed the sort of incident much cited by proponents of Star Wars
technology, when ‘it only takes one to get lucky’. But Star Wars was
at least meant to protect entire cities from intercontinental nuclear
The technology of terror has in reality advanced little beyond the
1970s and 1980s. Suicide bombs have been used in the Middle East for
two decades. A small industry of consultants, insurers and mercenaries
seeks to persuade governments and corporations of the risk of sarin,
ricin and radioactive dust in confined spaces. Only one such device
has been successfully delivered, nine years ago in Tokyo. It killed
15 people. ‘Weaponising’ and dispersing biological, chemical and nuclear
agents remains exceptionally hard, which is why terrorists prefer
bombs. Daily life offers many risks, but that from terrorist attack
is extremely slight.
The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, recently demanded new powers to
detain would-be suicide bombers whose arrest might not hold up in
open court. But a similar judicial predicament faced those fighting
the IRA, when it was handled by special courts. The car bomb that
went off in the City of London in 1992 could well have been as lethal
as 9/11 had the IRA chosen a week day and used a better engineer.
Inept Western diplomacy in the Middle East may increase the risk of
bombings, but the threat is qualitatively no different from that of
paranoid fanatics and anarchists down the ages. Read Conrad.
Sensible British citizens offer the police support in protecting lives
and property. Whether this justifies a thousand body-armoured police
with automatic weapons in London’s streets I doubt. Bombs kill and
panic the panicky. But they do not undermine civilised society unless
that society wants to be undermined. The destructive potential of
these bombs is not remotely ‘mass’, nor is the threat comparable with
that of the Blitz or nuclear weapons. It is astonishing that we have
to tell the prime minister of the day that the British state is not
in serious risk of being toppled.
So what is Mr Blair on about? During the build-up to the Iraq invasion
in the winter of 2002, he told a Mansion House dinner that he ‘did
not want to do the terrorists’ job for them’ by exaggerating threats.
He promptly did just that. He had to prepare the country to join George
Bush’s invasion of Iraq. His means were pure Savonarola. Between December
2002 and February 2003 Downing Street was issuing ‘threats’ at a rate
of one a fortnight, backed by briefings from Sir John Stevens of the
Metropolitan Police and Mr Blair’s security official, Sir David Omand.
Each was subtly different, issued by Alastair Campbell at weekends
when news was light. I noted the following headlines, mostly in the
London Evening Standard: ‘Dirty bomb on London Tube’, ‘Killer Bug
Threat to London’, ‘Full Smallpox Terror Alert’, ‘Terror Threat to
Xmas Shopping’, ‘Muslim Festival Terror Threat’ and ‘SAM Missile Launchers
at Heathrow’. The smallpox terror alert involved ‘setting up 12 manned
regional smallpox response centres’ with hundreds of key personnel
actually vaccinated. This appears to have been complete rubbish. As
for the SAM launchers, the Prime Minister was said to have descended
to his Cobra bunker and ‘personally ordered’ tanks from barracks near
Windsor on to the M4 to ‘secure Heathrow’. The threat, if it existed
at all, was later said to have been directed at Gatwick.
If this was a nation in mortal terror, it was largely of the Prime
Minister’s own making. As John Kampfner records in Blair’s Wars, Downing
Street at the time was ‘in a state of continuous panic’. Joint Intelligence
Committee officials were in a perpetual ‘cognitive dissonance’ as
they struggled to find intelligence to Mr Blair’s liking, inflated
from Ahmed Chalabi’s now discredited Iraq National Council sources.
Mr Blair plunged into ‘heebie-jeebie’ politics to prepare public opinion
for war on Iraq. Hardly a week went by without some official saying
a terror attack was a matter ‘not of if but when’.
I recall that almost everyone then accepted that UN Resolution 1441
might one day imply military action against Saddam. He had to co-operate
with UN inspectors and that co-operation needed to be clear, given
Baghdad’s chaotic regime. Mr Blair also accepted as late as 25 March
last year, with the invasion in progress, that ‘had Saddam disarmed
he could have remained in place’. Last week Mr Blair repeated that
‘we went to war to enforce compliance with UN resolutions’.
We did not. What devastated Mr Blair’s argument — a thing he refused
to acknowledge at Sedgefield — was George Bush’s determination to
go to war after failing to get UN authorisation, and pre-empting the
UN’s inspectors. Mr Blair’s continued pretence that he was really
helping the UN is like a lynch mob claiming to be ‘helping the judge’.
He saw his duty as first and foremost to stick with America, as he
once put it, ‘to broaden her agenda’. That was his priority and that
led him to his present predicament.
Not since Suez has Washington so subverted a British prime minister.
There was no shred of evidence, even from loyal lawyers and intelligence
analysts, to justify Mr Blair joining Mr Bush in pre-empting Hans
Blix and his UN team. Mr Blix was a man whose work was later shown
by his successor, David Kay, to have been honest and thorough. There
was no threat to Britain justifying the pre-emption. Iraq had nothing
to do with any terrorist threat to Britain. It was the British bulldog
entered for the poodle class.
What Mr Blair did in Sedgefield was what a clever cab-rank lawyer
always does with a dodgy brief. He subtly altered the terms of the
case. He merged one issue, the ‘mortal threat’ from terror, into support
for America’s invasion of Iraq. He did not list terrorist groups in
Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and Pakistan on which his security services
should concentrate. He would have been forced to admit that many states
face similar threats — Spaniards from Basques, Indians from Kashmiris,
Russians from Chechens, and Israelis and Palestinians from each other.
Each requires graduated responses, mostly local and political. Instead
he conflated all the evils in the world in a vast Hieronymus Bosch
canvas, with only Britain and America among the ‘saved’.
Assessing external risk is a crucial part of a prime minister’s job.
Mr Blair declared last week that since the risk was ‘mortal’, he dared
not overrate it. He could not accept that exaggeration might be counterproductive.
He made no mention of antagonising those on whom terrorists depend
for financial, moral and human support. He saw no risk in fuelling
their celebrity with publicity. He could not see himself as a naive
pawn in the terrorists’ game.
Indeed he went further. Sedgefield was an astonishing extension of
Mr Blair’s global policy reach. He tore up his prudent 1999 Chicago
speech, made in the aftermath of Kosovo. Then he said that acts of
foreign intervention should adhere to strict rules, including ‘the
exhaustion of diplomacy’, military proportionality, new nation-building
and a ‘truly engaged national interest’.
He abandoned such caution in favour of unilateral regime change. He
claimed an urgent need to override any UN consensus and change international
law. He wanted what he judges to be ‘brutal and oppressive regimes’
to be attacked militarily even if not guilty of a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’.
This is wild stuff. Mr Blair equates such military aggression with
‘tackling poverty in Africa and justice in Palestine’. On such an
argument, Africans would be justified in declaring war on Britain
because British food subsidies impoverish African farmers.
I cannot believe that many even within Mr Blair’s entourage would
support this scale of ambition. The Bush doctrine of pre-emptive intervention,
supported by Mr Blair in Iraq, demands that the nation and its armed
services put total faith in the analytical and predictive skills of
their leaders. Evidence of those skills before Iraq is starkly absent.
After the mother of all invasions will shortly come the mother of
all memoirs, as insiders tell ‘the truth’ about Downing Street and
the White House last year. I sense it will not be nice.
My doubts over Mr Blair boil down to a question of common sense. His
speeches and actions on foreign policy are not those of a wise man
or one with any sense of historical judgment. Like Margaret Thatcher,
he relies on a small coterie of aides rather than the official machine.
But unlike her he cannot engage with that machine intellectually.
Anyone with a knowledge of history would not equate Hitler’s threat
with that of al-Qa’eda. Anyone who respects Western civilisation would
not think it ‘in mortal danger’ from gangs of Islamic fanatics. Any
sensible prime minister would know that abusing the integrity of spies
and lawyers is bound to reach the public ear sooner or later.
The singer George Michael spoke in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph
of attending the Blairs’ celebrity dinner in their home in 1997. He
came away disconcerted, he said, both because of the amount of religion
talked and because Mr Blair ‘did not seem the smartest man at the
table’. Other Blair guests have reached similar conclusions. Were
Mr Blair to confine his great presentational skill to domestic politics,
his judgments might pass muster. Instead he is playing the oldest
trick in the leadership book, roaming the world in search of dragons.
Mr Blair wants to play Richard the Lionheart against ‘the menace of
Islamic extremism’. He wants to be Churchill warning that the current
war is not over, but is only ‘the end of the beginning’. He craves
to be a war leader. But he is no Richard and no Churchill and this
is no war. His self-image has led him into a mire of dodgy dossiers,
dodgier law, scare-mongering, spin and sanctimony. The British Prime
Minister is simply out of his depth. He should stick to hospitals
Simon Jenkins writes for the Times.
© 2004 The Spectator.co.uk