Legendary British Author John le Carre on Why He Won't Be Reading Tony Blair's Iraq War-Defending Memoir

23 Sep 2010

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David Cornwell, the legendary British novelist who writes under the name John le Carré, is interviewed by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now in London. A former British spy, his books include The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and The Constant Gardener. On the heels of the publication of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Iraq war-defending memoir, A Journey, le Carré explains why he refused to interview Blair and why he won’t be reading his memoir.

Find the transcript of this excerpt of their discussion below.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road here in London, and much of Britain remains abuzz over the publication of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s memoir A Journey. In the book, Blair has continued to defend the 2003 US-British invasion of Iraq as justified. The memoir broke sales records, but Blair was forced to cancel a recent book signing in London over fears of a large turnout from antiwar protesters. The cancellation came just days after three people were arrested for throwing eggs and shoes at Blair as he arrived for a book event in Dublin. 

Well, on Sunday, I had a chance to interview David Cornwell, the legendary British novelist who writes under the name John le Carré. He’s a former spy with the MI5, which we’re broadcasting just across the Thames from, and the MI6, which is just down the river. These are the British equivalents of the FBI and CIA. Le Carré began writing novels in the early '60s. His books include The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and The Constant Gardener. John le Carré's latest novel, Our Kind of Traitor, will be published soon in the United States. 

In the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, John le Carré was a fierce critic of President Bush and Tony Blair. In January 2003, he published a widely read essay called "The United States of America Has Gone Mad."

We’ll broadcast our full interview with John le Carré soon, but today we thought we’d share an excerpt of his comments about former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. I asked John le Carré if we would go to—if he would go to one of Tony Blair’s book events. 

JOHN LE CARRÉ: No, I wouldn’t, nor would I buy the book. At the last election in which he stood, I was invited by The Guardian newspaper to interview him. And after much thought, I declined, because I did not see how I could lay a glove on him. And I’ve asked some pretty heavy-hitting journalists what questions they would have asked, in retrospect, that might have unseated him a little, that might have thrown him. And they said, almost with one voice, there’s nothing you can get passed him, there’s no way of doing it.

I think I would have asked him one question, perhaps, and I’d have asked it repeatedly. I’d have asked him about his faith, because we were told, when journalists asked about Blair’s faith, the reply was, "We don’t do God here." Well, of course, he does do God, and he reports that his actions have been put before God and confirmed, as if somehow God has signed a chit for him. I think that the question of somebody’s religious faith is absolutely central to what we think of them, if we are members of the electorate. We have to know. If it is, for example, somebody’s conviction, widely held among Christians in the United States, that the second coming of Christ is not possible 'til the Greater Israel is established, we need to know that. That's an important political perception. In Blair’s case, I would have asked him that question, and I’d have pressed him on it. I’d have asked him whether God had ever restrained him. I find it very strange that we elect a politician who then claims to serve a higher deity who guides him: "I did what I believe is right." Well, will you tell us, please, how that relates to the Christian ethic? Do you believe in war first and negotiation afterwards? Exactly how does this work?

And the second question I would ask him is the really painful one, which I could not have asked if I hadn’t gone on my own journey. Have you ever seen what happens when a grenade goes off in a school? Do you really know what you’re doing when you order shock and awe? Are you prepared to kneel beside a dying soldier and tell him why he went to Iraq, or why he went to any war? I think that if anything has happened to Europe since 1945 that defines it, it is collectively Europeans do not believe in war anymore, until it comes as an absolute last resort, and then they’re going to do it rather badly.

The United States, I think, still sees war as a necessary part of its existence. It’s impossible to maintain the military on that scale, a Pentagon on that scale, without turning it over. You’ve got to have officers who are experienced in command and control. You’ve got to have troops who have been bloodied. So, we were, in that sense, at odds. I was, as a European. I was at odds with the whole notion of a preemptive strike. And I think many Europeans have that in common, of course with very many Americans, too, feel the same. So I would have tried to challenge him in that area.

And as I think I said earlier in the interview, for me, there are very few absolutes about human behavior. But I think a leader who does take his country to war under false pretenses is simply not an acceptable person. I don’t think that we should be weighing the rights and wrongs of that. It seems to me to be quite simply wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you could interview President Obama, what would ask him?

JOHN LE CARRÉ: What he reads. What I would ask him?

AMY GOODMAN: And what is your assessment of him? And has it changed since he became president?

JOHN LE CARRÉ: Well, we—you know, I think all decent people wept with pleasure when he was elected. And so, that faith in him will die only slowly. And there is a lot of evidence that he’s done a lot of things that are amazingly good. I mean, he has advanced on the health front. I think his opening speeches to, for example, the Muslim community in—was it Cairo? I think—I mean, those early statements of intent were magnificent. And I suppose the sadness at the moment is that we see them, in practice, being diminished. But I certainly haven’t given up hope. So I would ask him whether he still hopes, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: British novelist John le Carré. I spoke to him in London on Sunday.

This transcript was first published by Democracy Now.

You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/276.19.

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