Book review – Blair economical with the truth

2010-10-23 13:14

0ne of the most eagerly awaited memoirs of our times, Tony Blair’s A Journey, makes for very interesting reading for students of politics and international relations. No wonder it has flown off the shelves, and broken sales records in England and Canada.

But as I expected, the former British prime minister writes like all other recently retired politicians: very economical with the truth. It is perhaps the way to go. After all, life continues after politics. If you are going to kiss and tell, it may come back to bite you.

I had hoped the book would open an honest window into Britain’s foreign policy in Africa and the Middle East, and show what mistakes had been committed or how things could have been done differently. It doesn’t – except perhaps for ­calculated revelations on his relationship with Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, the invasion of Iraq and Britain’s ­involvement in Afghanistan.

It was under Blair’s leadership that relations with Harare collapsed to an all-time low, and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was smoked out and hanged. Blair offers only a brief insight into the workings of 10 Downing Street in trying to rid ­Zimbabwe of Mugabe. However, he does admit publicly for the first time that the idea of invading Zimbabwe did cross his mind. However, it was mission impossible because of the support Mugabe commands from his African neighbours.

Britain’s foreign policy in Zimbabwe largely failed, in my view, and under Blair it failed to topple Mugabe. One would have expected him to explain why sanctions alone had not helped to get rid of Mugabe and how Britain handled yet another crisis as a result of this failure – the influx of Zimbabwean asylum seekers into Britain. Now Britain has ­begun to send them back to the same country it claims has no human rights guarantees and which in essence is a no-go area.

I am even more disappointed that Blair offers next to nothing about Britain’s full involvement in the invasion of Iraq, a move that has cost the British billions and heavily tainted the superpower’s relations with the Middle East.

He insists that the removal of Saddam Hussein was ­unavoidable. In his own words: “I still believe that leaving Saddam in power was a bigger risk to our security than ­removing him and that, terrible though the aftermath was, the reality of Saddam and his sons in charge of Iraq would arguably be far worse.”

But at least he does admit that though they “knew” that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, “because he used them”, they were unable to find them. You would expect a close-ended apology after this or a frank admission at the very least, but here is what Blair says: “The intelligence turned out to be wrong ... We admitted it. We apologised for it. We explained it, even.

“The mistake is serious; but it is an error. Humans make errors. And, given Saddam’s history, it was an understandable error.”

Blair is scathing about his working relationship with his successor, Gordon Brown, even calling him “a strange guy”. “He was difficult, at times maddening,” he reveals. But he couldn’t afford to sack Brown and he explains why.

“I came to the conclusion that having him inside and ­constrained was better than outside and let loose or, worse, becoming the figurehead of a far more damaging force.”

But Blair’s criticisms of Brown have already been dismissed by allies of the new prime minister as unfair and one-sided, adding to concerns that these memoirs will pass for yet ­another rant from a recently retired politician with more to hide than to reveal.

But his revelations that he had considered invading ­Zimbabwe should confirm Mugabe’s long-held claim that ­Britain has wanted him out for decades, not to benefit the people of its former colony, but for its own gain.

It’s none the less a worthy read.

But don’t expect any explosive insights into his political life from the time he walked into Number 10 Downing Street in 1997.

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