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The road to Baghdad was paved with good intentions

Many of those attacking the prime minister over Iraq were cheerleaders-in-chief of his earlier military ventures.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics UK

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The essence of Blairism, Tony Blair told Timothy Garton Ash, ‘is liberal interventionism’: ‘I am a proud interventionist.’ (1)

The sea change in Blair’s reputation since his great popularity on his election in 1997 to his current historically low standing in the polls has come over the issue of Iraq. Military intervention in Iraq is widely thought to be the albatross around his neck. Asked what the Blair legacy will be, all agree that the stench of the Iraq war will follow him forever. It is a peculiar judgement. All of Blair’s critics today were gung ho for military intervention in the 1990s; indeed, that was Blair’s special appeal to the radical intelligentsia.

In the years before Blair was elected, the cause of liberal interventionism gathered steam. Critics of the old guard – the Conservative government in London, George H Bush’s administration in Washington – took up quite different causes. Then the radicals were not anti-war, they were pro-war. They attacked UK Tory foreign minister Douglas Hurd for his failure to send British troops to fight the Serbian ‘Hitler’ Slobodan Milosevic. Send in the troops, ‘as many as it takes, and for as long as it takes’, said Ken Livingstone, today one of the most vocal opponents of the Iraq war (2).

The ferment of ideas that became ‘humanitarian interventionism’ is not easy to reconstruct today. A succession of trouble spots – Somalia in 1991, Bosnia in 1993, Rwanda in 1995, East Timor in 1998 – became focal points of a radical re-think on the question of military intervention. The reason that leftists tended to fixate on these foreign policy questions was not always because of what was happening ‘over there’. Rather it was their own need for a grand cause that drove their interest.

Academics Martin Shaw, Michael Ignatieff and Mary Kaldor, intellectuals Susan Sontag and Bernard-Henri Lévy, journalists Ed Vulliamy and Maggie O’Kane, aid worker Bernard Kouchner of Médecins Sans Frontière – all beat the path to Sarajevo to embrace the cause of the persecuted Bosnian Muslims. They ridiculed Western leaders for their inactivity until they got their air attacks on Yugoslavia. But in each case their concern did not really spring from the Bosnians’ predicament, but from the yearning for a belief that you could stand up for. While the Serbs were being bombed, the liberal interventionists were off looking for the next trouble spot. The only criticism they had of the Western powers was that they were not intervening hard enough. Even the radicals who would go on to launch the Stop the War Coalition were attacking French and Belgian troops for their failure to get stuck into the Rwandan civil war in 1994/1995 (3).

Blair was a part of that ferment, and his ideas about military intervention in Iraq arose directly out of the case for humanitarian war that was framed in the 1990s. Like those other liberal interventionists Blair felt the need for a big cause – because, like them, his political outlook was shaped by the failure of statist socialism in the 1980s. That was the cause that they all were missing. Their parents’ generation had the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and the People’s War Against Fascism to believe in. But for Blair’s generation there was only the sad wreckage of Stalin’s crackpot empire in the East – and that was not something they wanted to be associated with. At home they were depressed about the electorate’s seeming reluctance to vote Labour, and the Labour Party’s commitment to boring stuff like trade unions.

At least in those foreign trouble spots they could play the heroic part. And Blair did. When he was elected, he rallied support for military intervention once again against the Serb whipping boys, this time over the breakaway Kosovo province. Blair’s foreign secretary, the late Robin Cook, outlined an ‘ethical foreign policy’. This was an extraordinary departure. The Foreign Office had been listening to the liberal interventionists. Conscience, not national interest, would determine the use of force. It was a doctrine that Blair outlined in India in 2002: ‘We are not a superpower, but we can act as a pivotal partner, acting with others to make sense of this global interdependence and make it a force for good, for our own nation and the wider world.’ Many did not realise at the time just how destructive a message that was.

When Kosovan refugees were killed by the bombers who were trying to save them, Blair made it clear that they were not the issue: ‘The whole of NATO and Europe has staked its reputation on this’, he said. ‘I believe politicians should do and say what they believe, regardless of the consequences.’ (4) Blair’s concern for the West’s reputation was much more important than material advantage – or indeed the lives of a few refugees who got in the way. Still, Blair enjoyed the support of the left-leaning weekly the New Statesman (‘NATO air strikes are long overdue’, 26 March 1999) as well as foreign secretary Robin Cook, overseas development minister Clare Short, and American intellectual Susan Sontag. More traditional left-wingers like Tony Benn and Germaine Greer protested that the UN had not approved the bombing campaign (Russia’s vote was not forthcoming), but they were out of touch with this government anyway.

Only with the war in Iraq did the breach between Blair and his radical critics really open up – and even then the critics failed to understand that Blair was the more consistent liberal interventionist. Journalist Ed Vulliamy, who covered the Bosnian war, is characteristic. He praised Blair for standing up to a reluctant President Clinton over Kosovo, but condemned him for joining in George W Bush’s war in Iraq.

Was Saddam Hussein any less dictatorial than Milosevic? Hardly. Did the Kosovo bombing enjoy UN approval that the Iraq war lacked? No. Once again, the reasons for the radicals’ change of heart had less to do with the trouble spot in question than with their own perception of themselves and their standing at home. In particular, they had fallen out of love with Tony Blair before they broke with him over Iraq. In 2004, Vulliamy scorned Tony and Cherie as ‘The Sultans of Bling’ for their freeloading at then Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s villa. And that was true of much of the country, too. Opposition to Tony Blair over the Iraq war had less to do with Iraq than it did with Blair. This is clear from the fact that even as they criticise Blair and Bush over Iraq, and dread the prospect of war with Iran, many liberal and radical commentators demand Western intervention in Darfur. In this weekend’s FT magazine, Bernard-Henri Lévy reports from Darfur. ‘I am reminded of the Bosnians and the military embargo during the siege of Sarajevo…’ he writes. In the midst of anti-war fervour over Iraq, some are trying to make Darfur into the new Bosnia, the latest warzone through which they can try to find a meaningful crusade.

The radicals did not understand Blair’s reasons for sticking quite so close to the US president and his ‘neocon’ military advisers. But they have forgotten that the biggest anxiety that Europeans had when Bush was elected was not that he would invade the world but that he would withdraw from it. While Richard Perle’s neo-conservative Project for the Next Century was still out in the cold, secretary of state-to-be Condoleezza Rice was rubbishing the ‘illusory international community’ and promising to base US policy on national interest (5). Like the neocons, Blair seized the opportunity of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers to persuade President Bush that he needed to use military power to democratise Iraq. Blair’s support for the war was not a betrayal of liberal interventionism; it was its culmination.

Left observers were surprised that Blair persisted in his alliance, even when it became clear that the public was hostile. At Labour’s 2003 Spring conference in Glasgow, Blair made it clear that he would go ahead with Bush regardless: ‘I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honour. But sometimes it is the price of leadership. And it is the cost of conviction.’

The radicals had been critical of Blair’s populism, but they were not ready for his elitism – not recognising it as a version of their own. The whole point about liberal interventionism was that it elevated the moral imperative above the popular will. After all, Milosevic had been elected, and the interventionists had no problem riding roughshod over the Yugoslav electorate. Why were they surprised when Blair made a virtue of ignoring his own voters?

The legend that Blair lost the trust of the voters because of the Iraq war has been a mainstay of the radicals’ criticisms ever since. But that would be to misunderstand the process. Blair lost the trust of the voters before the Iraq war. An astute Peter Kellner, the YouGov pollster and Westminster analyst, wrote: ‘This is a lot like the way sleaze affected the Tories: after a while it confirms people’s distrust. I don’t think it creates distrust.’ (6) Blair avoided the consequences of this distrust because people continued to distrust the other side even more. But the PM never built new connections to the electorate. His whole political project was about freeing government from such commitments. And perhaps more than any other issue, it was liberal interventionism that exemplified that elitist outlook.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here.

After Blair

What’s worse than Blair? A Blair-basher by Brendan O’Neill. Scarier than Thatcher the milk snatcher by Jennie Bristow. And coming up on spiked this week: Why Blair’s critics are wrong about everything; revisiting the Blairites’ tyranny of health; how New Labour intensified community divisions, and more.

(1) Guardian, 26 April 2007

(2) Socialist Review, June 1993

(3) See Charlie Kimber, ‘Coming to terms with barbarism’, International Socialist Review, 73, p142

(4) Observer, 16 May 1999

(5) ‘Campaign 2000: Promoting the National Interest’, Foreign Affairs, Volume 79 Number 1, January/February 2000

(6) Observer, 9 February 2003

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Topics Politics UK

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