Hyped reasons for war obscure Blair's good reasons

LONDON — LONDON - History may one day record that maybe the most honest speech about why we invaded Iraq was given by Prime Minister Tony Blair, addressing the filing cabinets in an empty hallway just outside his office at No. 10 Downing St.

The moment is recounted in Peter Stothard's terrific book 30 Days. Mr. Stothard, the editor of The Times Literary Supplement, was allowed to follow Mr. Blair around in the 30 days immediately before and after the start of the Iraq war. His book is a daily diary. On March 13, six days before the British Parliament would be asked to vote for war, Mr. Blair was stewing in his office, worrying about whether he would win the vote.


Mr. Blair knew the real and good reasons for ousting Saddam Hussein: First, he was a genocidal dictator, who aspired to acquire weapons of mass destruction - even if he did not have them yet. And second, removing him and building a more decent Iraq would help tilt the Middle East onto a more progressive political track and send a message to all the neighboring regimes that Western governments were not going to just sit back and let them incubate suicide bombers and religious totalitarians, whose fanaticism threatened all open societies. These were the good reasons for the war, and Mr. Blair voiced some of them aloud that day.

As Mr. Stothard recalled the scene outside Mr. Blair's office: "The prime minister takes a walk out into the hall and stands, shaking out his limbs, between [his political adviser] Sally Morgan's door and a dark oil painting of Pitt the Younger. ... Morgan is away from her desk. [Mr. Blair] looks into the empty interior as if the answer to the latest state of the vote count will emerge from her filing cabinets nonetheless. He comes back out, disappointed, and looks around him. 'What amazes me,' [Mr. Blair says,] 'is how many people are happy for Saddam to stay. They ask why we don't get rid of [the Zimbabwean leader Robert G.] Mugabe, why not the Burmese lot. Yes, let's get rid of them all. I don't because I can't, but when you can you should.'"


Alas, Mr. Blair never really made this case to his public. Why not? Because the British public never would have gone to war for the good reasons alone. Why not? Because the British public had not gone through 9/11 and did not really feel threatened, because it demanded a U.N. legal cover for any war and because it didn't like or trust George W. Bush.

Yes, what takes me aback here is the degree of European-style anti-Americanism and anti-Bushism in Britain - which Mr. Blair's personal and overt pro-Americanism has disguised. "Blair had a real George Bush problem," says John Chipman, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "George Bush is disliked by a large segment of the British public. He offends the European sense of nuance. The favorite European color is gray, and the only colors President Bush recognizes are black and white. So in supporting the war, Blair was not just going against European public opinion, he was going against his own."

That intensified Mr. Blair's need to find a trump card, one that would provide U.N. cover and convince his people that he was taking them to war in Iraq because of Mr. Hussein's threat to Britain, not because of Mr. Bush's obsession with the Iraqi dictator.

So what Mr. Blair (and Mr. Bush) did was to make a war of choice - but a good choice - into a war of necessity. Because people in democracies don't like to fight wars of choice. To make it a war of necessity, they hyped the direct threat from Iraq and highlighted flimsy intelligence suggesting that Mr. Hussein was not just a potential problem, but an immediate, undeterrable threat to the British and U.S. mainlands. This was so, they argued, because Mr. Hussein retained hidden stocks of weapons of mass destruction, in violation of U.N. resolutions, which he could deploy at any minute.

Unless real WMDs are found in Iraq, Gulf War II will for now and for years to come be known as "the controversial Gulf War II" - and the hyped reasons for the war will obscure the still good ones. Only future historians will be able to sort out this war's ultimate validity. It is too late or too early for the rest of us.

It's too late, because no one will ever know what Mr. Hussein would've done had Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush not acted. And it's too early, because the good reasons for this war - to unleash a process of reform in the Arab-Muslim region that will help it embrace modernity and make it less angry and more at ease with the world - will take years to play out.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.