Book Review

Tony Blair's fierce defense of his political life

Tony Blair's autobiography goes on sale Wednesday, amid protests over his participation in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
By Leonard Downie, Jr.
Sunday, September 5, 2010


My Political Life

By Tony Blair

Knopf. 700 pp. $35

Toward the end of this well-written and perhaps unintentionally self-revealing memoir, Tony Blair, who was Britain's prime minister during an eventful decade from 1997 to 2007, insists he is "trying valiantly not to fall into self-justifying mode -- a bane of political memoirs." But he has done just that.

He vigorously defends his close, unpopular partnership with President George W. Bush in the prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He laments resistance by the British people, his own Labour Party and the hostile news media to major changes in Britain's economic, education, health-care, law enforcement and social policies. And he blames his longtime rival and politically doomed successor as prime minister, Gordon Brown, for undermining him and the centrist "New Labour" transformation of their party and government that was Blair's career-long quest.

Blair does not tell readers much about himself directly. He writes nothing about his parents, childhood or schooling, and little more about his wife, Cherie, a lawyer, or their children, beyond passing references to life in Downing Street. A questionable real estate deal involving Cherie serves primarily as grist for Blair's bitter feud with the editor of the conservative Daily Mail newspaper. And he mentions little about the Christian faith that has played a large role in his life.

Instead, Blair reveals himself through his thrusting political ambition, his rationales for decisions, his preoccupation with public image and his determination to play a prominent role on the world stage. "I always reckoned that even the ones who didn't like me (quite a few) or didn't agree with me (a large proportion) still admired the fact I counted, was a big player, was a world and not just a national leader," Blair writes. "Our [British] leaders should stand out, and if not cut a dash, at least make an impact."

World events -- particularly the wars in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq -- dominated much of Blair's 10 years as prime minister, as they do this book. Blair roots his philosophy on the use of military force in his response to Serbia's murderous ethnic cleansing of Muslim Albanians in the province of Kosovo in 1999. He portrays himself as "extraordinarily forward in advocating a military solution," rather than "a deal" with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, thereby putting "the most colossal strain on my personal relationship" with President Bill Clinton. Milosevic finally agreed to withdraw Serbian forces after Clinton moved closer to joining Blair in committing ground troops to the conflict. "Why was I so keen to act?" Blair writes. "I saw it essentially as a moral issue."

Similarly, in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Blair states a "moral case for action" in partnering with the United States in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "It was also in our national interest to defeat this menace," he adds, "and if we wanted to play a major role in shaping the conduct of any war, we had to be there at the outset."

In particular, Blair argues a moral case for removing Saddam Hussein in Iraq because of the suffering of Iraqis under his rule. He reiterates his support for continuing to fight insurgents and terrorists there and in Afghanistan, militants who he says are backed by al-Qaeda and Iran, "an enemy doing as much wrong as it can to prevent us from doing what is right."

He separates himself only from former vice president Dick Cheney, who, he writes, "would have worked through the whole lot, Iraq, Syria, Iran, dealing with all their surrogates in the course of it -- Hezbollah, Hamas, etc." And he portrays himself as busily helping Bush -- in numerous notes, phone calls and visits -- to carefully consider his war strategy and to seek international and U.N. support.

Blair insists that his government never knowingly misled the British people about Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq war -- the intelligence was simply wrong. "There was no big 'lie' about WMD," he writes. "You can examine the intelligence I had received on various government websites."

He acknowledges a serious mistake (an assessment that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes) in an intelligence dossier his government released before the war. But he angrily denies that any of his aides "sexed up" the dossier, as alleged by the BBC. The ensuing controversy resulted in the suicide of a government intelligence expert, the resignation of two top BBC executives, an unbridgeable breach between Blair and the British broadcasting giant, and his unshakeable sense of persecution by much of the British news media.

"The intelligence was wrong. We admitted it," Blair writes about the dossier affair, which stoked British antiwar and anti-Blair sentiments. "Given Saddam's history, it was an understandable error. But it leads to a headline that doesn't satisfy today's craving for a scandal. A mistake doesn't hit the register high enough. So the search goes on for a lie, a deception, an act not of error but of malfeasance. And the problem is, if one can't be found, one is contrived or even invented."

Blair even regrets one of the historic achievements of his government: the passage of Britain's first Freedom of Information Act. "The truth is that the FOI Act isn't used, for the most part, by 'the people,' " he complains. "It's used by journalists. For political leaders, it's like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, 'Hey, try this instead,' and handing them a mallet."

In the end, as he was deciding to resign and hand over party and country to Brown, Blair believes he should have defined leadership "not as knowing what the people wanted and trying to satisfy them, but knowing what I thought was in their best interests and trying to do it." For anyone who wants to know what that may be, Blair's book is filled with his domestic and foreign policy prescriptions for Britain and the rest of the world.

This is a notably wistful memoir. "It has never been entirely clear," Blair concludes, "whether the journey I have taken is one of triumph of the person over the politics, or of the politics over the person."

Leonard Downie Jr., a former London correspondent and executive editor at The Washington Post, is a vice president of The Post and a professor at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.

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