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Book Review: 'A Journey: My Political Life'

Tony Blair covers the Iraq war, George W. Bush, Princess Diana and more in his wide-ranging and frank biography.

September 02, 2010|By Tim Rutten | Los Angeles Times
  • Former British prime minister Tony Blair's memoirs.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair's memoirs. (Random House / EPA )

Former British prime minister Tony Blair's memoir "A Journey: My Political Life" is a political biography of unusual interest.

As a book, it's unusual because he wrote it himself, which makes this volume unique among the English-speaking world's recent political autobiographies. It also gives "A Journey" a disarming frankness that a professional collaborator almost certainly would have manicured away, along with anecdotes that are unintentionally self-revealing. There are also the extraordinary circumstances surrounding its publication. Blair reportedly received an estimated $7.5-million advance for his memoirs, but advance interest appeared slight. Then came the announcement that he will donate all proceeds to a charity for wounded British military veterans. Amazon UK now says "A Journey" appears set to become its bestselling political memoir ever.

Clearly this guy did not successfully fight three British general elections without a flair for getting attention.

The book's nearly simultaneous launch in Britain and the United States this week also signals Blair's desire to be regarded as a transatlantic figure. Blair expresses not only his deep regard for Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but also the fact that, during his 10 years in office, he "came to love America." His memoir, he writes, "is a story about America, as well as, evidently a history of my time as British PM."

Given the donation of this memoir's royalties to Britain's Iraq war casualties, a great deal of attention is likely to focus on Blair's second thoughts concerning those conflicts. To put it concisely, he doesn't have any. "I have often reflected as to whether I was wrong," he writes. "I ask you to reflect as to whether I may have been right." He continues to argue, convincingly in this reader's mind, that the Afghan action was a war of necessity to uproot the perpetrator of 9/11 — Al Qaeda — and its Taliban sponsor, though he does admit he underestimated the depth of Afghanistan's failure as a nation. In the case of Iraq, he argues that after 9/11 it simply was irresponsible to take the chance that any government sharing any part of the terrorists' views or goals wouldn't obtain weapons of mass destruction, and that the intelligence agencies reported Saddam Hussein was about to do that. That was wrong, he admits, but insists there was no way to know that at the time.

As Blair puts it, paraphrasing a U.N. weapons inspector, Hussein "thought the U.S. and its allies were bluffing when we threatened force and actually we were sincere; and we thought he genuinely had weapons of mass destruction when actually he was bluffing." A great deal of death and destruction followed from that mutual miscalculation.

One of the things that emerges from Blair's account of that period is his genuine affection and regard for Bush, whose calm, focus, lack of pretense and security in his own skin the prime minister found particularly impressive. He praises him, as well, for "integrity" and "political courage." Dick Cheney, who "was unremittingly hard line," struck him otherwise. "[I]t's virtually impossible to have a rational discussion about him," Blair writes. "To those on the left, he is, of course, an uncomplicated figure of loathing. Even for the middle ground, they tend to reach for the garlic and crucifixes. You have to go pretty far to the right to find Dick's natural constituency."

After 9/11, according to Blair, the vice president felt that the United States needed to prosecute the war "with terrorists and rogue states that supported them" in a total fashion. "He would have worked through the whole lot, Iraq, Syria, Iran, dealing with all their surrogates in the course of it — Hezbollah, Hamas, etc. In other words, he thought the world had to be made anew.... Of course, the attitude terrified and repelled people. But it will be obvious from what I have written that I did not think it was as fantastical as conventional wisdom opined."

British readers may be interested to see just how much Blair's conduct during that period — his resolve to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the United States — was influenced by his belief that contemporary Britain's standing in the world was inextricably linked to its special relationship with Washington. "All I know was that I did what I thought was right," he says. "I stood by America when it needed standing by. Together we rid the world of a tyrant."

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