The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Dear Tony Blair

Welcome, Mr. Blair, to SMU, to receive the John Tower Center’s Medal of Freedom. You join a distinguished list of recipients, including your predecessor Baroness Thatcher, Generals Colin Powell and Tommy Franks, and the first President George Bush. You will have a colossal turnout for the award ceremony. Unlike Lady Thatcher, you are doing a session for students, and I respect you for that. I will be teaching a class at the time, but my students will be free to hear you instead. Having people of your level of fame and achievement come to this campus is one of the great benefits of an education at SMU.

I think you can expect a love fest from your audiences here. That has been the case at similar occasions in the past that I’ve been able to attend. You may get some tough questions, but I’ll be surprised if people don’t fawn all over you. Since I cannot come to your student session and could not afford a ticket for the ceremony, I’d like to ask some tough questions of my own.

A bit of context is in order. I lived in your country for 17 years, teaching both at the University of Warwick and at the University of Cambridge. One reason I moved to SMU is that its history department offered intellectual possibilities that did not seem to be available in Britain. Another was the intense bureaucratization of British academic life, as true under your Labour Party’s administration as it was true under the Conservatives. A third is that being an American who studies American history, it became important to me to live and work here, a citizen as well as a scholar.

Nonetheless, I return to Britain frequently. I have family there, in several parts of the country. I will fly over next week, during spring break, my seventh round-trip since last August. I drive comfortably on the left, love good fish and chips doused in malt vinegar, and understand the niceties of “real ale.” I will admit that cricket still defeats me, but I think I appreciate your country’s ways.

That includes its knock-down politics. I’ve seen that firsthand, from the viewpoint of the Under Gallery in the House of Commons. I had the privilege of watching the Second Reading Debate on a major bill, the Protection from Harassment Act (1997), which was the fruit of my wife’s extreme hard work, during the administration preceding yours. Even somebody who has watched only C-Span knows that Parliament is no love fest.

So, with respect, I would like to pose a problem or two for you, in the manner of Question Time. It was entirely clear in the aftermath of Sept. 11 that the Taliban government in Afghanistan was closely tied to Al-Qaeda. On that basis, the evidence for intervention against the Taliban was strong. A broad-based coalition in support of such intervention did take shape, and you had a hand in that process, both as a diplomat and as the person who made the ultimate decision regarding British troops.

But the historical record shows quite clearly that though the Taliban fell without too much difficulty, it has not been eradicated. The record shows that once the Taliban was overthrown, very little effort was put into the reconstruction of Afghanistan. In effect, having trashed the country, the Western powers ignored it, providing precisely the environment in which poppy cultivation for the drug market could resume, where warlords could bicker with one another and, ultimately, where the power of a resurgent Taliban could wax.

The historical record also shows how much of a push you made for switchingWestern attention from Afghanistan to Iraq. Your definitive, multi-volume biography may well have a full volume on your efforts in that regard, following your chartered Boeing 777 around the globe. That volume will show you arguing against the positions taken by President Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder, and it will show you driving forward in defiance of a great deal of public opinion in Britain, and particularly within your own Labour Party.

It will show you ignoring the evidence that figures such as Hans Blix were presenting on the problem of whether Iraq actually possessed weapons of mass destruction, and the evidence that the secularist Ba’ath regime and the intensely religious leadership of Al-Qaeda had very little in common. Indubitably, that volume will take on the so-called British intelligence about yellowcake uranium ore from Niger, that Ambassador Joseph Wilson debunked and that formed the basis of the humiliation of your fellow Medal of Freedom winner Colin Powell at the United Nations.

That much, I think, is clear. It is much less clear how your future biographer will handle the long-term significance of the Iraq war. Who is to say? But when your successor-to-be Gordon Brown was interviewed on British television on your final New Year’s Day in office, any sophisticated viewer could see that he was distancing himself from your position. Now, of course, Britain is pulling out of Iraq.

So, Mr. Blair, with these points in mind (the diversion of resources so that Afghanistan was abandoned, the now-confirmed absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the false assertion by the Bush Administration that your government’s sound intelligence supported its war preparations, your refusal to see that President Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder were talking good sense as they opposed the build up to war), I would like to pose a question for you in question-time style. It goes like this: “Would the former Prime Minister agree that there was ample evidence for opposing the preparations for war in Iraq, that prior to the invasion of Iraq other public figures did see and appreciate that evidence, that abandoning Afghanistan led to the resurgence of the Taliban and to the spread of anti-Western feeling in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, and that whatever the eventual outcome, the war in Iraq recruited for Islamist militancy a great number of people who otherwise would have resisted its blandishments?”

I cannot be at your session. But I would be interested in your reply.

Edward Countryman is University Distinguished Professor of History. He can be reached for comment at [email protected].

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