The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   

Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: A story of inspired government, 1997-2007

Page 14 of 17
What's left?
Labour, and especially Labour's heartland, doesn't have the Tory back-story. It is genetically anti-colonial, anti-military and anti-American. The country was forcefully reminded of this when Nick Cohen's What's Left? was published in 2007. [[12]] Around 1997, what had been a softly-softly, nuanced Tory Foreign Office had to be depicted by New Labour as something much tougher (how else to proclaim a revolution?). The tenor of Blair's Bambi-period utterance on Ethical Foreign Policy was that Britain would abandon gunboat unilateralism and become a part of a consensus, part of the multilateral, multicultural, blue-beret UN worldwide peace and harmony initiative. On the whole, then, being "ethical" was broadly thought to be a matter of being nice, and not throwing one's weight around. It was at the quietist end of being ethical. It was entirely compatible with a strand of Toryism.

In the end, of course, Britain, even with its new ethical foreign policy, became a thoroughgoing partner of the US in its policy in former Yugoslavia. To do so, we had to abandon consensus: one cannot simultaneously have a US and a UN or EU view of what it is right to do. So it turned out that we would both behave ethically, and abandon almost the entire Bambi doctrine on how that was to be defined. In short, Tony Blair became right-wing in his foreign policy: he became a variety of Neo-conservative.

The change was seen at its most clear in a speech in Chicago in April 1999 entitled "The Doctrine of the International Community" in which he remarked: "The most pressing foreign policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people's conflict". [Link] There was a delicate dance going on: realism and respect for the sovereignty of nations on one side; some sort of over-riding human rights agenda on the other. President Bush was to go further, with his doctrine of "pre-emptive" action, first articulated in June 2002, but kept his perspective more obviously self-interested.

Blair the Bush-ite
After 9/11, in 2001, Blair was, surely, a fully signed-up Bush-ite. [[13]] He may have wished for more partners, more planning, more boots on the ground, more continuity with the existing regime's organisational structures, or whatever - we may never know. We know he argued for such things: but he may have been acting. In the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, he certainly believed that, however things might unfold, one had to pick a side. One might bring influence to bear, but the Bush administration was a juggernaut that was not being driven by Britain. As it hurtled along, the only decision was whether or not to be on board. I cannot fully decide whether this line of argument exculpates my own support for Bush, or Blair's. But it is an explanation for it anyway. It is worth stressing because it leaves the UK supporters of Bush rather little room for manoeuvre: we signed up for the second Iraq war knowing that its aftermath might well be poorly-managed and it certainly stood a chance of being catastrophic. There was some comfort to be had from the view that catastrophe was perhaps inevitable with or without the West's invasion. It is tempting to say that Blair fell for the neo-con line (and the invasion-lite version of it) in spite of face-to-face briefings with an army of advisers. But Blair's few supporters amongst the public came to share his conclusions similarly in the face of torrents of contrary opinion. The point is worth making because it is important that Blair's few supporters should accept that they (we) are in it with him.

The neo-con doctrine has important elements of Messiah Politics: at the very least it was a call to go beyond a shuffling, incrementalist, minimalist sort of diplomacy. It was premised on meeting fire with fire, on making a difference even at the expense of making a difference for the worse. It suggests that the right thing is sometimes brutal, uncertain, unpopular. For good or ill, this suited Blair's unique political take.

Surely, throughout the run-up to the Iraq war, any sensible person knew that Saddam Hussein was not a serious menace to the West, and probably not even a serious supporter of terrorism around the world. But he was a vastly important regional factor, capable, in every word and deed, of bolstering the medievalism under which the leaders of the Middle East shelter from the modern world, and deprive their people of liberty and well-being. It was a bizarre truth that only by regime change could the US demonstrate that it hated dictatorship. It is possible that doing so with a small occupying force at least might force intelligent people to accept that the US was not acting imperially. Only by acting, even if without UN authority, could the US show that it understood that the UN had become a pawn in the dictator's game plan.

In the event, in early 2007, things have gone badly in Iraq and only fairly well in Afghanistan. Iran and Syria and theocratic Islam look like the victors of the Iraq war of 2003 and perhaps of the Israeli-Lebanon conflict of 2006. Those of us - presumably including Mr Blair - who preferred to be with Mr Bush rather than against him have to face a daunting calculus. How many tens of thousands of Iraqis have to die before we accept that we made a mistake? Of course the answer depends to some extent on what class of good news will eventually unfold, and when. It also depends on what would have happened without it. An uprising somewhere in Iraq? The assassination of Saddam? A violent succession? The answers to such what-ifs can't be known and the answers to such moral sums are never certain and may be long delayed. The supporters of the Bush/Blair approach comfort ourselves that the arguments of many of those who opposed the toppling of Saddam were merely routine anti-Americanism and the old quietism of the super-realist and the super-idealist. But even that is awful: have all those Iraqis died because armchair warriors didn't like the Tory and Labour lefts?

Start • Previous |13 |14 |15 |16 |17 Next End