13 March 2004  
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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 not

‘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 it.

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 missiles.

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 and schools.

Simon Jenkins writes for the Times.

© 2004 The Spectator.co.uk