Interventions by Tony Blair in UK politics are sure to provoke two corresponding reactions. According to a dwindling band of cheerleaders, Blair is a prophet outcast, a font of wisdom who understands politics better than his successors. A much larger (or at least more vocal) constituency, by contrast, sees Blair as a warmonger who has nothing useful to contribute.
The noise from both camps can detract from what the former prime minister is actually saying.
Last week Blair denounced the US’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, accusing Joe Biden of embracing “an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars’”.
On this at least Blair makes a reasonable point. That slogan is indeed silly, an outgrowth of the solipsism that prevails in the West and which treats overseas conflicts like Schrödinger’s cat. If “we” are not involved in a war then “we” can safely ignore it.
This pernicious idea has played out with devastating consequences during the war in Syria, which has spanned ten years and caused almost a million casualties. Bashar al-Assad’s killing spree has sparked little in the way of protests in the West. We routinely hear about the costs of military action, yet the costs of inaction are safely ignored.
This attitude rests on an amoral view of international relations, and also a short-sighted one. As Blair put it in his 1999 Chicago speech, which set out the case for humanitarian intervention: in an interconnected world, one cannot simply stand aside from the actions of bloody dictatorships. “Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter. When oppression produces massive flows of refugees which unsettle neighbouring countries then they can properly be described as ‘threats to international peace and security’,” Blair said.
But ignore such acts of killing we often do. We piously say “never again” each year on Holocaust Memorial Day, yet Western countries have stood aside several times during outbreaks of mass killing in recent decades.
In 1995, 8,372 Muslim men and boys were murdered by Serb forces in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. The massacre took place at a time when the prevailing doctrine in Westminster was similar to the one taking root today. The UK government did not want to embroil itself in foreign wars. Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher described Douglas Hurd, foreign secretary at the time, as someone who would “make Neville Chamberlain look like a warmonger”.
Were he a politician today, Hurd would no doubt be cheered to the rafters by the anti-war left, as well as isolationist factions in the Conservative Party. To Thatcher’s credit, she supported humanitarian intervention in Bosnia; yet ironically, Hurd was applying the doctrines of “me-first” Thatcherism to the international scene. As Hurd put it at the time, in his view there was “no such thing as the international community”.
The bloody legacy of Bosnia animated the foreign policy doctrines of Blair’s New Labour government. “Never again” became the prevailing foreign policy doctrine once more, while appeasement and isolationism were cast aside. As Blair’s foreign secretary Robin Cook put it when he outlined Labour’s “ethical foreign policy” ten days after the new government took office in 1997, “The Labour government does not accept that political values can be left behind when we check in our passports to travel on diplomatic business.” Labour went on to intervene militarily five times: in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Iraq (1998), Afghanistan and then Iraq again in 2003.
Yet Blair has become a poor apostle of the message of humanitarian intervention. Since leaving office in 2007, the former prime minister has himself been far less willing to stand up to the world’s dictators. As Ian Birrell has written for the i paper, since retiring from Westminster Blair has assisted “cruel despots in places such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, a feudal nation that represses women, murders journalists and has used massive oil wealth to promote an ultra-conservative brand of Islam with dire consequences around the world”.
As a politician, Blair’s own messianism diminished public support for intervention. He jettisoned a prudential approach to foreign affairs in favour of the neoconservative notion that dictatorships should always be overthrown using force, unilateral force if necessary. This led Cook to resign in protest at Britain’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq War. Cook was not an isolationist; rather, he viewed the Iraq War as a betrayal of the very internationalist principles set out during Blair’s Chicago speech: principally, the idea that military action should be taken only when diplomacy had failed.
Blair appears not to have learned the lessons of those years. Writing last week, he sought to justify the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan by declaring that, while the attempt to export democracy “may have been a misplaced ambition… it was not an ignoble one”.
This is the language of ideological fervour: that intentions are enough regardless of the result. Despite their many differences, Blair shares this ideological interpretation of the world with his erstwhile foes on the far left. Both believe that the ends justify the means.
As I have previously written for the New Statesman, there were persuasive arguments for keeping a limited number of British and American troops in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it is lazy and myopic to suggest that Afghan citizens gained nothing from the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.
But there is a reason for the public’s increasing reluctance to sanction military intervention overseas. Part of that is the hubris that flows from the Blairite view of the world. As New Statesman contributor John Gray has written, Blair is a “neo-liberal by default, but a neo-conservative by conviction”.
There was much to admire in Blair’s Chicago speech. But like so many ideas that begin from noble intentions, in the years that followed the doctrine of humanitarian intervention became a caricature, a utopian view of the world that ossified into an inflexible doctrine. In this sense, Blair himself has become the most unlikely of conservatives: a forlorn and tragic figure whose public interventions hark back to the long-dispelled ideological illusions of a past era.
Today, once again, we live in a world where concerns about human rights are often left behind when we check in our passports. Blair may not like this world – I certainly don’t – yet his own track record is one of the major reasons we find ourselves back at this sorry juncture. Whether he chooses to stay quiet or not, perhaps the former prime minister should reflect on this a little more deeply.