The hand of history. Tony Blair sees himself as a leader of nations. But from as early as the Kosovo conflict, hubris, naivety and a lack of attention to detail have characterised his foreign policy - and nowhere more so than in his catastrophic handling

Blair's Wars

John Kampfner <em>Free Press, 367pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0743248295

John Kampfner examines what Tony Blair's wars in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq tell us about the Prime Minister. He bases his account on interviews with a wide range of actors, including authoritative sources at the Foreign Office, No 10, France and the United Nations. As I read the book, I thought I could detect a self-promoting gloss from some of the interviewees. But the large variety of sources prevents this from distorting the fundamental accuracy of the account.

Kampfner's revelations - that Blair committed the UK to support George Bush in military action in Iraq as early as April 2002 and that Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, sent a personal memo just before the war suggesting that the UK could avoid military action - have already made headlines. But the value of the book goes deeper: it argues that Tony Blair developed a deeply pro-American policy from 1997 onwards. As one cabinet minister said: "Supporting the Americans is part of Tony's DNA." But, critical as the book is, it gives a more coherent account of Blair's foreign policy, I think, than the reality. I suspect that David Manning, his foreign policy adviser and a highly experienced diplomat, has provided a rationalisation for a series of disconnected decisions in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

According to Kampfner, Blair - who showed no interest of any kind in foreign policy prior to becoming Prime Minister - set out from 1997 on a road that led to war in Iraq. In the one foreign policy speech he made during that year's election campaign he said: "Century upon century, it has been the destiny of Britain to lead other nations . . . That should not be a destiny that is part of our history. It should be part of our future . . . We are a leader of nations, or we are nothing." The contributions that party officials made to the speech, on controlling the arms trade and on Britain's development commitments, were hardly mentioned. The officials did, however, manage to remove the line drafted by Jonathan Powell which proclaimed: "I am proud of the British empire."

Kampfner also tells us that after Blair fought the 1982 by-election in Beaconsfield, during the Falklands crisis, he commented to a friend that "wars seem to make prime ministers popular". The question that I and all others who saw 1997 as a turning point have to ask is whether - when Blair made these endless gestures to the right - we were right to believe he was trying to appease the Daily Mail, Sun and Telegraph so that we could move forward with the Labour Party. Or was this the true Blair? In his foreign policy press conference a few months before the general election, he deliberately generated the headline "I will press the button"!

One close aide put it like this: "Tony is the great persuader. He thinks he can convert people even when it might seem as if he doesn't have a cat in hell's chance of succeeding. Call him naive, call it what you will, but he never gives up. He would say things like 'I can get Jacques [Chirac] to do this' . . . or 'leave Putin to me' . . ." And one senior French official said: "We get the sense that he needs to be appreciated, to be seen to be at the heart of the action all the time. There is not a single problem that Blair thinks he cannot solve with his own personal engagement - it could be Russia, it could be Africa. The trouble is, the world is a little more complicated than that." This mixture of hubris, naivety and lack of attention to detail seems to me to capture Blair perfectly.

Early on, Blair irritated other European leaders with his tendency to hector. He relished the international stage and adopted a pro-arms sales position, closely aligning himself with British Aerospace from the very start of his premiership. His first foreign-policy speech as Prime Minister, at the Lord Mayor's banquet in 1997, trumpeted the UK as the bridge between the US and Europe: "When Britain and America work together . . . there is little we cannot achieve." He was also almost the only world leader who defended Bill Clinton's August 1998 cruise missile attack on a factory in Sudan as retaliation for the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that same month. Yet another sign of things to come was the dossier, presented to MPs on 12 November 1998, entitled Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction, which led to the withdrawal of the weapons inspectors and the joint US/UK bombing of Iraq in Operation Desert Fox.

The account of the Kosovo conflict claims that Blair read up on Bosnian history after he became Prime Minister. I have my doubts about this; he rarely brings much sense of history to his arguments. The Kosovo campaign was supported by Nato and leadership was left mostly to the Foreign Office. But it was in Kosovo that Blair got his taste for grandstanding over conflicts. His spin irritated even Clinton. We also heard Alastair Campbell's awful tabloid hyperbole, put into Blair's mouth: "No matter how many times you see these scenes on TV, nothing prepares you for the stench, the all-pervading air of fear, or the awful stories that pour out. They come from women who have been raped, from old men who have seen their daughters violated . . ." I had been to those places, and found no such stench. I also found the displaced Kosovars proud, dignified and reluctant to talk about their suffering. But the soundbites up until now have served Blair well - hand of history on shoulder, smile on face of Iraqi children and so on.

The chapter on Sierra Leone and Africa is very limited. The reality is that we slipped into Sierra Leone in order to evacuate our nationals. Then Blair agreed that it would be shameful to withdraw and allow the legitimate government to be displaced, so some UK troops remained. It was not a war. The major action in rebuilding Sierra Leone came from the UN, the Department for International Development, and a small group of UK troops who worked to give backbone to the UN peacekeepers and to train the new Sierra Leonean army. But it is true that Blair sent messages to ministerial meetings that he wanted a success in Sierra Leone. He was not involved in the detail, but the message from No 10 helped to ensure the Foreign Office focused its effort at the UN.

The book is at its most devastating when it gets on to the Bush/Blair relationship and the route to war. It is clear that by then, Blair's second-term hubris had kicked in. We are told - by an obvious source - that Blair turned to Peter Mandelson at a meeting to discuss strategy on the Bush administration and said: "We've got to turn these people into internationalists." At the first meeting with the US president, "It wasn't quite that Tony had the upper hand, but he had established himself as the key international statesman." By his second term, Blair had deliberately concentrated power in No 10, including power over foreign policy. He dumped Robin Cook as foreign secretary - Cook had too much of an independent view - and he grew fixated on the relationship with the US. After 11 September, Blair apparently expressed fears to his aides that Bush "didn't seem in control of events". It seems he felt it was his duty to lead the new president through the crisis! But Manning developed a strategy for Blair: "At the best of times, Britain's influence on the US is limited. But the only way we exercise that influence is by attaching ourselves to them and avoiding public criticism whenever possible."

And thus Iraq unfolds - hubris, naivety and lack of attention to detail. It is the tragedy of the Blair premiership. It has despoiled the Labour Party and the British constitution, and increased the suffering of the people of Iraq and the instability of the Middle East. I strongly recommend Blair's Wars to anyone who wants to try to understand how Blair persuaded himself into making the catastrophic mistakes of his Iraq policy.

Clare Short is MP for Birmingham Ladywood