Magazine article The Spectator

Tony Blair and George Bush Have Made Osama Bin Laden's Task a Lot Easier

Magazine article The Spectator

Tony Blair and George Bush Have Made Osama Bin Laden's Task a Lot Easier

Article excerpt

Spring has come late this year, punctuated by news of three horrible, doom-laden terrorist atrocities: the bombing of Shia worshippers in Iraq and Pakistan, the slaughter in Madrid, and the Israeli assassination of the Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

In Westminster there is an air of grim expectation. People's habits are starting to change. I know one media couple who no longer travel together by Tube, a precaution in case they leave their children orphaned. A well-known political correspondent has taken to driving to work, rather than going by train. Bomb scares now routinely delay commuter traffic into town. The looming Easter recess will see the erection of a bullet-proof glass barrier between the Strangers' Gallery and the Chamber. A 15-foot prison wall is reportedly set to go up around the Commons, replacing the familiar iron railings. Inside, MPs bleakly speculate on where the terrorists might strike. A pub? A football match? A high-street store? Machinegun-toting police patrol the streets of Westminster, braced for carnage.

Curiously, Downing Street feels vindicated by this new air of menace. Tony Blair made this sentiment explicitly clear after Madrid. He insisted that the bombing showed why he has been right to fight what he likes to term his 'war against terror'. He is polite but witheringly contemptuous about the anti-war party. He likes to accuse it of failing to understand the problem posed by modern terrorism. From time to time Tony Blair makes the derisive claim that opponents of the war deserve comparison with the appeasers of Munich in 1938; that they are well-meaning but naive. By extension he becomes Winston Churchill, the brave war leader, the only man courageous enough to voice the truth.

And Downing Street does indeed calculate that when the bombs do come, the British people will not respond as the Spanish did and turn on their war leaders. It reckons that we are made of better stuff than that, and will face al-Qa'eda with the same stoicism and courage with which we endured IRA attacks for the last few decades. No. 10 may be right. There is a problem, but it is not the morale of the British people. It lies with the increasingly dubious credentials of the government's own anti-terror proposition: above all Tony Blair's emphatic claim, spelt out with great clarity in his speech in Sedgefield three weeks ago, that the invasion of Iraq and the war on terror are identical.

Any demonstration that the two are distinct would make a nonsense of the Prime Minister's case. Hence the importance of this week's testimony from Richard Clarke, the White House counter-terrorism chief under President Clinton and President Bush. Clarke's claims are wounding to Bush, even more damaging to Tony Blair. He asserts, and is in a position to know, that the Bush administration was obsessed with regime change in Iraq from the very start. Clarke suggests it saw September 11 as a convenient excuse to topple Saddam, and regarded pursuing al-Qa'eda as little more than a secondary objective.

Clarke's claims chime easily with Ron Suskind's book The Price of Loyalty, published earlier this year, in which the former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill remembers how an Iraq invasion was discussed very shortly after Bush arrived in the White House. Clarke makes sense of much that was puzzling about the decision to invade Iraq: the absence of links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'eda; the neglected warning from the Secret Intelligence Service (concealed from the British people till after the war) that an invasion would increase the danger of terrorism; above all the false-hoods spread by the British and American governments about WMD. …

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