Leader: The tragedy of Tony Blair, what he was and what he became

It is some measure of Blair's political journey that he now endorses the coalition's economic policy

This summer, Tony Blair stood on foreign soil, recalled a military adventure past and declared: “I did what was right. I did what was just. I did not regret it then. I do not regret it now." If the formulation sounds familiar, the conflict is unlikely to be the one that first comes to mind. The former prime minister and Labour leader from 1994 to 2007 was in fact speaking in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. In 1999 he had been instrumental in calling for a Nato-led intervention in the conflict between Albanian Muslim fighters in the former Yugoslav province of Kosovo and the Serbia of the late dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Mr Blair's role then means that today he is received as a hero in Kosovo: during the visit to Pristina in July he was greeted by no fewer than nine boys named either Toni or Tonibler in his honour.

But it is his decision to intervene elsewhere in the world, in Iraq in 2003, that so diminished his reputation and discredited the doctrine of liberal interventionism. Ridiculed and reviled at home, lauded in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and many parts of the United States, our former prime minister - and Labour's most successful leader, in terms of elections won - now has a strange half-and-half life: rootless, haunted, disparaged. He has become a habitué of the club class lounge and luxury international hotel, ceaselessly on the move, never at peace, like a fugitive in his own land.

Inevitably, Mr Blair devotes a lengthy section of his 718-page memoirs, A Journey (published on 1 September), to Iraq. And, sadly, he continues to elide, deceive and mislead. He insists, for example, that he did not "guess the nightmare that unfolded" in Iraq. But the truth is he didn't need to guess: in November 2002, six of the country's leading academic experts on Iraq, as well as the former prime minister John Major, warned him of the catastrophic consequences that would follow invasion. Mr Blair asks, of Saddam Hussein, why he brought "war upon his country to protect a myth", when he knows full well that an avoidable war was instigated by the legally questionable invasion. When he asks why Saddam "obstructed" the weapons inspectors, he is directly contradicting Hans Blix, the UN's lead inspector in Iraq at the time.

That he wanted to intervene abroad is not the objection (the reluctance of the great powers to act in Rwanda in 1994 was part of the justification Mr Blair gave for the later, justified actions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone). The objection to him, then as now, is that he was wilfully led into a fatal neocon misadventure by George W Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Many among the political classes, including an ineffectual Conservative Party led by Iain Duncan Smith, may have supported him, but Charles Kennedy's Lib Dems did not, nor did the late Robin Cook, nor the million who marched against the war in London in 2003. We agree with David Miliband, who, at our leadership hustings in June, said: "The worst thing that happened to Tony Blair was George Bush."

Yet let us not forget what Mr Blair once represented, nor what he achieved. The early years in power were defined by bold liberal and social-democratic reform - witness the introduction of the minimum wage, the windfall tax on the privatised utilities, devolution in Scotland, Wales and London, the Human Rights Act and independence for the Bank of England. But somewhere towards the end of his first term something changed, and the energy and purpose morphed into a doctrinaire zeal, both at home and abroad.

That Mr Blair's book is self-serving is of little surprise - which autobiography isn't? - but it simply reaffirms the image of a politician whose moral fervour distorted once-good judgement. What disappoints most, however, is his post-power "dash for cash": £2.5m a year advising the US investment bank JPMorgan on globalisation, an undisclosed six-figure yearly sum from the Swiss financial firm Zurich insurance, £500,000 from the Washington Speakers Bureau for a worldwide tour of public engagements, and so on.

It is true that Mr Blair's unpaid role as envoy for the Middle East Quartet offers an alternative outlet for his powers of persuasion and, perhaps, gives him a chance to rebuild his reputation in the Muslim world. Indeed, he was kept away from Britain on the day his book was published to attend the opening of the Israel and Palestine talks in Washington.

In the postscript of his memoir, he offers, in effect, an endorsement of the coalition government's economic policy, arguing that he would have raised VAT and cut the deficit faster than Labour would have done. It is some measure of his political journey that his views on the economy are closer to David Cameron and George Osborne's than to those of any of the Labour leadership candidates. A tragedy, indeed.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial