There’s a case to be made that Tony Blair is the most important figure in the development of the concept of “humanitarian intervention” since the end of the Cold War. When adumbrating his doctrine at the Chicago Economics Club in April 1999, Blair made very clear that this was no wild-eyed utopianism. “If we wanted to right every wrong that we see in the modern world then we would do little else,” Blair said. “We would not be able to cope.” He laid down clear criteria, namely that it was a last resort and that it was also in our interests. He was speaking at that time of the NATO rescue operation that put a halt to Slobodan Milosevic’s attempt to forcibly-deport the Albanians from Kosovo, and reversed the ethnic cleansing. This was not simply humanitarian: the precedent of unpunished ethnic cleansing was a clear and present danger and the destabilising effects of such a refugee flow on the whole of Europe, including frontline NATO States like Italy, was intolerable. In short, don’t be afraid to do the right thing even if it’s in your own interests. And since there will always be unforeseen consequences to any foreign policy, knowing you did the right thing makes them easier to deal with.
Blair in that speech was also very clear that while the West had finally dealt with Milosevic, there was another appointment waiting for us in Baghdad. The war Saddam Hussein started after annexing Kuwait had never ended: legally, politically, morally, and militarily we were still engaged. The uneasy status quo after the ceasefire could not last and the regime was growing more aggressive and defiant. (Blair was speaking just a few months after the weapons inspectors had been expelled from Iraq; they would not return until 2002 when Allied troops were placed on Iraq’s borders).
It is worth remembering this history because Blair not only leant on President Clinton to intervene in Kosovo, not only said he would commit ground troops to the Afghan campaign even if President Bush would not, but was speaking about the dangers of Saddam’s Iraq when George W. Bush was running for President on a platform of a “humble,” quasi-isolationist foreign policy that condemned nation-building. The later taunts that he was a “poodle” are historically illiterate, as well as unforgivably childish.
Blair will be remembered by most for his role in the Afghan and Iraq wars. Afghanistan was a clear case of self-defence, and Iraq a less clear case of pre-emptive self-defence. The hullaballoo about spreading freedom in the region has always struck me as weird and a bit ignorant: the primary motive for the invasion was to prevent the next attack, which would have unleashed some very ugly calls for heavy-handed State security measures in the West, and having removed the regime the Western democracies have no choice but to leave in place some form of representative government. That about a fifth of Britons believe Blair a war criminal testifies only to the deep unseriousness of British politics at the present time, where the contest for saying the most outlandish thing has led to fourth-rate populist demagogues being treated with respect by the BBC and the Guardian.
In the years since being in office, however, things had begun to go wrong. There was something a little too expensive about his appearances and when he was hired on as an “advisor” to the tyrannical government of Kazakhstan, the decline into another jet-setting, money-grabbing ex-PM seemed complete. Nick Cohen, an old supporter, noted that there had always been a “Left” and “anti-totalitarian” case for Blair, but said he had now become “a George Galloway with a Learjet at his disposal.” That was too harsh. Blair has never saluted Nursultan Nazarbayev for his “courage” and “indefatigability,” for instance, as George Galloway did when he met Saddam Hussein. There was also the matter of Blair’s continued seriousness about the Middle East: he supported all necessary means of disarming the Iranian theocracy, and realised that salvation for the West and the region lay in the downfall of Bashar al-Assad and Ali Khamenei.
But Blair did utterly disgrace himself in the wake of the coup d’état in Egypt last July. It was one thing to analytically say that the coup and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood was the least bad option—he was hardly alone in that judgment. It was quite another to go and fawn on the new Egyptian dictator. For reasons I have explained elsewhere, Blair was completely wrong that the military represented a hope for stability or progress in Egypt and the merciless conduct of the military, killing more than 1,000 people in six weeks, should have been the clue that these were not people to ally with.
It was then with some trepidation that one turns to Blair’s speech at Bloomberg yesterday. The short version is that it is a lot better than the press has given it credit for as a conceptual matter—that Islamic militancy is a large and growing problem—but it is wrong in many of the specific policy recommendations.
One of the things that got a lot of coverage was Blair having ostensibly said that the West should ally with Russia to face the greater threat from jihadism. Blair does indeed say that the West has a “complete identity of interest” with Moscow on this matter. But he does not even hint that this means there should be less focus on Ukraine; a narrow but deep distinction. It is still cretinous however: what is his answer when Moscow stages provocations so it can flatten Chechnya, or intentionally radicalises the insurgency in Chechnya? During the Cold War, far too many dictators got away with far too much by simply being “our son of a bitch“. Sometimes compromises with dictators are needed for short-term exigency—Mrs. Thatcher with Gen. Pinochet in the recovery of the Falkland Islands, say, or the unlovely Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan to strike at the Taliban/al-Qaeda regime in Afghanistan—but it should not be a habit.
Blair takes a well-deserved slap at Saudi Arabia, noting the “absurdity” of multi-billion-dollar security agreements against the effects of “an ideology that is being advocated” by the very States such arrangements are made with. But Blair gets himself confused on the success of this proselytisation: saying at one point the “majority of people” in in the Arab world “embrace the modern world” but then later notes that majority-rule in Arab countries will mean a “quasi-theocracy”. The latter is the truth of it. But it is for this exact reason, as argued by Reuel Marc Gerecht, that we have to support democracy: the dictators who claimed to be the bulwark against radicalism were its incubators, especially the three pillars of Pax Americana: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. “[M]ajoritarian governments ruled by authoritarian Islamists” will be the outcome in the short-term, but it will open the space for the debates that were beginning in the late 19th century that were cut off by dictatorship, it will stop the mosque being the only outlet, and it will make people take responsibility for their beliefs that the Holy Law should be implemented. It might even make them think twice about whether “Islam is the Solution“.
Blair is also still thoroughly wrong on Egypt. The coup was not “absolutely necessary rescue of a nation,” there should be no “sensitivity” to the regime over the members of its security forces lost in a crackdown it should never have been conducting, and the absolute last thing Egypt needs is the “international community” giving Field Marshal Sisi “as much assistance as we can”.
Blair is correct that the West’s Syria “policy” is an “unmitigated disaster” and that Bashar al-Assad is “responsible for creating this situation,” it having been he who incited the sectarianism. But that’s about all he gets right. Blair says:
Repugnant though it may seem, the only way forward is to conclude the best agreement possible even if it means in the interim President Assad stays for a period. Should even this not be acceptable to him, we should consider active measures to help the Opposition and force him to the negotiating table, including no fly zones.
This is perfectly contradictory. If the U.S. ever engaged directly with a no-fly zone—which she will not under this administration—the logic is inexorable: if the U.S. turned the tide and then pulled up short when the rebellion was about to proceed to victory and gave Assad a negotiated way out, it would, first, not succeed, and second, completely destroy all U.S. credibility—it would give license to every conspiracy theorist who says that the U.S. does not want to end this war but to protract it to weaken all sides.
Blair gets minor points wrong too. The “fissures” among rebels are a cause for intervention, not against; they can unite better in protected zones rather than under fire from fighter jets. (It’s not unlike the U.S. training mission in Libya to help restore order, which was abandoned until the Libyans provide the Americans better security!)
Speaking of Libya, this is where Blair is at his best. “We bear a responsibility for what has happened,” he says, and the problem was not intervening far enough to ensure that the new government could enforce its writ. He is also very good on Iran: “I do not favour yielding to their demands for regional influence in return for concessions on their nuclear ambitions.” This seems to be the Obama policy, to check Tehran’s bid for nuclear weapons by accepting their bid for hegemony. As Blair notes, this is extremely dangerous: the Iranian regime “play[s] a deliberately de-stabilising role across the region,” and this has already upset relations with the Arab States.
The supporters of Blair who have emerged after this have a point: The man does have something to add to discussions of foreign policy, and he is a great deal more knowledgeable and serious than the deranged ideological posers who have lined up against him. Increasingly however it seems Blair’s contributions should be at the macro level: he gets the strategy, the need to arrest the power of Islamism and thwart clerical Iran’s attempt to build a nuclear weapon. Someone else should handle the micro though: to believe the Egyptian military are a barrier, rather than an incitement, to jihadism, and that Assad could play some role in a Syrian transition, when his very presence is jet-fuel for the Salafi-jihadists, is to have shown oneself unequal to the practical task of moving toward the goals he correctly outlines.
Update (Nov. 11, 2014): Blair responded to the Kazakh accusations by saying that his intention was to press the regime toward compliance with international human rights standards. There was no such high-mindedness in the revelations in the last few days that Blair worked, for a few months, for a Saudi oil company, being paid £41,000-per-month for helping them gain contracts with Western companies. In fairness, there is nothing illegal about this and there’s something resentful in the coverage of it that insists former PMs are supposed to live in penury. That said, it rather damages Blair’s claims to uphold moral standards given the Wahhabi Kingdom’s atrocious human rights record and open opposition to democracy.