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Blair’s U.S. Visit

July 17, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Late this afternoon Prime Minister Blair and President Bush met with reporters at the White House.

REPORTER: Mr. President, others in your administration have said that your words on Iraq and Africa did not belong in your state of the union address. Will you take personal responsibility for those words? And the both of you, how is it that two major oil leaders such as yourselves have had such a hard time persuading other major powers to help stabilize Iraq?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: First, I take responsibility for putting our troops into action. And I made that decision because Saddam Hussein was a threat to our security and a threat to the security of other nations. I take responsibility for making the decision, the tough decision to put together a coalition to remove Saddam Hussein, because the intelligence, not only our intelligence, but the intelligence of this great country, made a clear and compelling case that Saddam Hussein was a threat to security and peace. I say that because he possessed chemical weapons and biological weapons.

I strongly believe he was trying to reconstitute his nuclear weapons program. And I will remind the skeptics that in 1991, it became clear that Saddam Hussein was much closer to developing a nuclear weapon than anybody ever imagined. He was a threat. I take responsibility, for dealing with that threat. We are in a war against terror, and we will continue to fight that war against terror. We’re after al-Qaida, as the prime minister accurately noted, and we’re dismantling al-Qaida.

The removal of Saddam Hussein is an integral part of winning the war against terror. A free Iraq will make it much less likely that we’ll find violence in that immediate neighborhood. A free Iraq will make it more likely we’ll get a Middle Eastern peace. A free Iraq will have incredible influence on the states that could potentially unleash terrorist activities on us. And yeah, I take responsibility for making the decisions I made.

TONY BLAIR: Let me just say this, on the issue to do with Africa and the uranium: The British intelligence that we had, we believe is genuine. We stand by that intelligence. And one interesting fact, I think people don’t generally know, in case people should think that the whole idea of a link between Iraq and Niger was some invention. In the 1980s we know for sure that Iraq purchased around about 270 tons of uranium from Niger, so I think we should just factor that in to our thinking there.

As for other countries, actually other countries are coming in. We have in with us now round about nine other countries who will be contributing or are contributing literally thousands of troops. I think I have a right to say the polls in their sector are somewhere in the region of 20 different countries offering support and I have no doubt at all we will have international support in this.

Indeed, to be fair, even to those countries that opposed the action, I think they recognize the huge importance of reconstructing in Iraq. And it’s an interesting thing. I was at a European meeting just a couple of weeks ago where, as you know, there were big differences between people over the issue of Iraq. And yet I was struck by the absolutely unanimous view that, whatever people felt about the conflict, it was obviously good that Saddam was out, and most people now recognize that the important thing is that we all work together to reconstruct Iraq for the better, so that it is a free and stable country.

KWAME HOLMAN: The prime minister and his wife were scheduled to have dinner with President and Mrs. Bush before leaving Washington later tonight.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, an assessment of today’s events and how the intelligence flack over Iraq has affected Tony Blair’s domestic political standing and the Bush/Blair relationship.

For that, we turn to Raymond Seitz, a retired foreign service officer who was U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain from 1991 to 1994; Peter Stothard, the former editor of the Times of London; he recently authored “Thirty Days,” his account of a month of exclusive access to Blair from March 10th through April 10th of this year; and Robin Niblett, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He’s written widely on transatlantic issues.

Welcome to you all.

Peter Stothard, we just saw a vigorous joint defense of their decision to go to war between these two leaders and their use of intelligence. Will this performance do anything, do you think, to silence Prime Minister Blair’s critics at home?

PETER STOTHARD: No, I don’t think it was intended to do that at all. It’s not the kind of speech that I think will sound well or go down well in England or indeed in Europe. That particular kind of progressive case, which says that we’ve got nothing to learn from history and that when the American power’s gone the way the British power, all that you have left is democracy and freedom and the legacy you left behind, is a highly progressive, optimistic way of thinking about the world. I think it’s a very sympathetic case. He delivered it very powerfully. But if you say that to a Frenchman or a German or a lot of Labor Party people in England, they just shrug and say, “Look, you know, our experience tells us that history tells us a lot, and the world just does not work like that.” This was not designed as a speech for Europe.

MARGARET WARNER: Raymond Seitz, explain the nature of the criticism of Tony Blair back in Britain and why he appears to be in politically hotter water perhaps than President Bush.

RAYMOND SEITZ: I think the prime minister was already having difficulty domestically before this war came along. And I think there are actually two elements to it: The first is that there was criticism of the prime minister for having… for issues of style and some of substance, domestic issues, et cetera, within his own party. And there had also been growing up over the last couple of years a kind of more general discontent with the United States, a sense of the United States being too assertive, being too arrogant, being too aggressive, et cetera. And these two strands I think sort of crystallized around the issue of Iraq. And the prime minister was absolutely four square and straight forward in supporting the United States in all of this, but it was clear that he was getting well out ahead of his party and well out ahead of domestic political opinion.

That, in turn, made it even more imperative for him to have a rock-solid case for prosecuting the war. And that brought on the focus on weapons of mass destruction and on to all of these intelligence issues. It was — if you were in Britain at the time, it was a kind of different war being fought than the one that we saw in the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you agree with that, that the rationale that Prime Minister Blair used more heavily focused on the weapons of mass destruction issue and that, therefore, he is in politically… and I’m asking Robin Niblett this, for those of you who are on remote here– that it made him more vulnerable to these intelligence flaps that have erupted towards the war?

ROBIN NIBLETT: Tony Blair needed U.N. support and the only way to get U.N. support was too make the case very strongly on the weapons of mass destruction side. I think instinctively he would go more for the moral side and he’s returned to that now. He’s returned to the case — the 300,000 bodies buried in mass graves, the freedom, the liberty that became the big issue in the speech today, that history will judge us favorably, he’s moved in that direction because, in essence, he’s had to move back to safer ground.

MARGARET WARNER: Robin Niblett, explain more about this intelligence controversy involving the report that President Bush cited in the state of the union that Iraq tried to acquire uranium from Niger, and he cited the British in his speech. Now, the White House is distancing itself from the comment, as we saw, yet we just heard Tony Blair said he entirely still stands behind that. What’s behind that difference?

ROBIN NIBLETT: Well, it’s a mess, unfortunately. And it’s convoluted, as well. The problem that we’ve had is that the British have used sources that have been different to those — the ones the Americans have had on the issue of uranium from Niger. The British clearly received some information from third-party sources that they did not therefore feel at liberty to share with the United States as to a kind of desire probably on the Iraqi side to find out whether they could again acquire yellow cake, uranium ore from Niger.

On the U.S. side, on the other hand, there’s been a totally different debate. There, the whole issue has been over forged documents, which purported to show that there had been an effort to do so. So on the one side, the United States have been proven, unfortunately, these documents were forgeries, just at a time when the British have been focused on a totally different source of exactly the same different accusation. So in a way we have the two sides at the moment, the U.S. side, including the British accusation in the state of the union speech at a time when the United States and the State Department and probably the terrorist community felt that that wasn’t a strong accusation, one that should have been used, so it is a very complex problem. The real problem for Tony Blair is that he didn’t need this one. He had his own problem with this 45-minute accusation that in essence within 45 minutes Iraqi forces would be ready, and just as he -

MARGARET WARNER: Ready to use chemical or biological weapons.

ROBIN NIBLETT: Chemical and biological weapons. So as he’s been trying to deal with that one and a scandal with the BBC and so on, suddenly he gets blind sided by the United States on what seem to be political reasons, ditching the British intelligence source to one side because of what, in essence, were forged documents, had nothing to do with the British source.

MARGARET WARNER: So Peter Stothard, did the – what the White House has said in the last week or so just – has that been damaging then to Blair?

PETER STOTHARD: I don’t think this particular point is particularly damaging at all. In the scale of things the thing will be quite quickly forgotten. The thing that’s really important about the intelligence argument is that the doctrine that Bush and Blair both set out very clearly today of preemptive action against terrorists who are beyond the pale of civilization depends absolutely on the publics in Britain and America believing what their leaders say about – about these threats.

So if you disagree with the Bush/Blair doctrine, absolutely the best thing you could possibly do is to damage the credibility of intelligence data and leaders’ reliance on it in the public mind. I think the leaders have got quite a lot to learn. Bush and Blair have got to be a lot more careful in the future about how you put this kind of material into the public domain, if at all. But equally I think the enemies are choosing the soft underbelly of the Bush-Blair argument in an attempt to kick it to the floor.

MARGARET WARNER: Raymond Seitz, what impact do you think this controversy will have on the Bush-Blair alliance? And we heard it re-expressed today, determination to confront terrorism. Do you think it undermines it, either because it undermines Blair’s effectiveness… or just undermines the whole credibility of their contentions based on intelligence?

RAYMOND SEITZ: I wouldn’t exaggerate that. I think it’s actually more of a problem for the prime minister than it is for the president. For the president it’s a kind of embarrassment because he said it in the state of the union address, but I think it will rapidly pass here.

In Britain, it’s a different kind of issue. Peter was alluding to that. It’s different kind of issue because there have been other accusations, not related to this about too much press manipulation, too much spin, that sort of thing and I think in your report you refer to a poll that came out today in Britain that 54 percent of the people wouldn’t believe what the prime minister had to say. And I think this prime minister, therefore, has a serious credibility problem, which I don’t think is an issue for the president.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think, Ray Seitz, that this whole controversy will affect the Bush-Blair relationship in any way?

RAYMOND SEITZ: No. Again, I don’t think so. Both of these men have gambled for very, very high stakes. And I think that they recognize that the likelihood of the gamble ultimately paying off, ultimately having seen to have been a wise thing for them to do will very much depend on their ability to keep a very close relationship in the months and years ahead.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s your assessment, Mr. Niblett, of the Bush-Blair relationship and whether this is in any way damaging to it?

ROBIN NIBLETT: Well, I like being kind of joined at the hip and the mind. I think they’re joined at the mind but not at the hip. I think they share a similar and almost moral and common vision of where they want to take the world. Prime Minister Blair really made an effort this evening to lay out– and this was a fantastic opportunity for him in both Houses of Congress — to lay out an almost Churchillian vision.

The Iron Curtain in ’45 – now it’s weapons of mass destruction and new world order. It was a very ambitious speech in that sense. And what is remarkable is at the core of it is the same vision and the same belief that George Bush has, that the combination of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism is lethal to the future of the world, they’re united by that. They’re united, also, as Blair said, by the fact that the United States and Europe have to act together if they go anywhere else. He used the pulpit of the Congress to take a swipe at Jacques Chirac with his view of a multi-polar world order. And there can be only be one pole in Prime Minister Blair’s view, which is the United States and Europe together.

I think the problem that I’d agree with Peter in the end, is that what he said which will go down badly I think in the U.K., is the task is yours in the United States, to achieve liberty and our job is to be there with you. Well, that doesn’t say much for leverage and that doesn’t say much for influence and the folks in Britain are looking back there for what can Blair get out of Bush, prisoners, technology, jobs, whatever it might be — the Arab-Israeli peace process in particular. Until those are delivered, it’ll look like an unequal relationship and Blair will be in the weaker position.

MARGARET WARNER: Peter Stothard, he was quite clear today, or at least in suggesting what he wants from the United States, an on-going commitment in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Middle East.

PETER STOTHARD: Yes, and he went beyond that, too, didn’t he? Talking about, “okay, you don’t like Kyoto, but we have to find some way beyond that for dealing with environmental problems that are global, which will impinge badly upon the United States’ interests.” He also was very tough on the trade issues that basically not allowing people into your markets was one of the very things which was keeping your values at home and not exporting them in the way that he says America should. We can’t export the values all the time at the barrel of a gun. You have to work through diplomacy, you have to work through trade, you have to work through consideration of other people’s concerns about the environment, and although it was a kind of speech designed to get a lot of applause in America and did get it, there was quite a sort of tough kicking around the edges and he will hope that went home, too.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me go quickly to Ray Seitz. Briefly explain the prisoners issues that Robin Niblett referred to because right at the end of the press conference, they did both pledge to work on that tonight.

RAYMOND SEITZ: Can I just make one comment about what Robin said about taking a swipe in terms of Chirac. There was also another swipe in that speech, which was when he said to the Congress, “don’t give up on Europe.” And although I think it probably could have been expressed a little more forcefully, I think what he was really saying to the Congress was that, you have to go along with European allies, you can’t just brush people aside if you want to achieve your objectives long term. So I think there was a sort of a double swipe in all that.

The issue on Guantanamo is, I think, easily understood if you reverse the position and that if the British were holding sort of offshore somewhere nine American citizens and then said they were going to subject two of those citizens to a military trial, how would we react to that? And I think that that probably is self-evident.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Seitz, I hate to interrupt you, I really apologize, but we’re out of time. I apologize. Thank you for joining us. Thank you, all three.