With his imminent departure as Labour leader – by September of this year at the latest – Tony Blair has preciously little time left to improve on how history will judge his years in office. The signs are bleak: just as Lyndon B. Johnson never managed to escape responsibility for escalating the Vietnam War – in spite of the significant successes of his “Great Society” and subsequent social policies -, Blair will not be able to run from his role as leader (or poodle, depending on how one judges his symbiotic relationship with the White House) of the disastrous Iraq war and the “War on Terror” in general. Nonetheless, he is trying to do just that: spinning his way out of history’s claws through a well-organised but ultimately hollow international media-offensive.
Perhaps the title of this article is not harsh enough. Perhaps it should include nouns like “destruction” or adjectives such as “catastrophic”, thus indicating right from the start the disaster that Tony Blair has been to world politics – not to mention Iraq – while living at Downing Street 10. The reason these words are in not in the title is twofold: first of all, his legacy cannot be merely judged on his international impact. His first and foremost responsibility as Prime Minister has been domestic welfare, and in that regard his performance has been mediocre at worst; certainly not disastrous. Secondly, it is difficult to argue that British politics could have delivered better alternatives when it comes to foreign policy. The UK seems so obsessed by its “special friendship” with the US that any Prime Minister is forced to play along according to the US rules of the game, however wrong they may be.
A third potential but ultimately fallacious reason could be that he simply seems to be a “good guy”, whatever that means. For all his mistakes, he continues to talk about the environment, poverty in Africa, and the importance of peace in the Middle East in a way that does not go well with the warmongering image that he so richly deserves. Then again, it is exactly because of his undoubtedly good intentions and his fundamental decency that he has been such a disappointment. He has become a symbol of how one’s admirable personal morality can turn into a demon when left unchecked or when it is unbalanced by events. 9/11 was such an event, and Tony Blair’s legacy at the international stage has indeed been catastrophic ever since.
For all the good intentions that Blair had – and probably still has – when it comes to world peace (to sum up his undoubtedly sincere moral righteousness), he is one of the main architects of a global policy that has led to death and destruction in Iraq, miserable failure in Afghanistan, and a divided international community which is dominated by mistrust and lack of cooperation. Cold War-surviving institutions such as the United Nations and human rights have lost credibility and importance. Not surprisingly, the global threat of terrorism – not to mention the truly existential threats such as environmental degradation – has only increased.
It is sometimes argued that Blair has actually had a positive, soothing effect upon George Bush’s cavalier approach to anything foreign. By being a trusted yet sensible voice at the policy table, or so the argument goes, Blair managed to take many of the rough edges off neoconservative dogma. Really? If this were true, it would beg the question of how much worse neoconservative dogma initially was. In any case, it does not matter in our assessment of his role and responsibility: he supported utterly mistaken policies, regardless of how bad some of the alternatives were.
It would also be disingenuous to dismiss Blair as a simple pawn in White House strategy that has no true importance to the outcome of events. Naturally there is no equality or even balanced relationship between Washington and London , and it would be absurd to argue otherwise. Nonetheless, Downing Street’s consent has had an important impact on Bush’s room to manoeuvre in pursuing his goals and in creating the present quagmire in the Middle East . By allying himself with almost all of the basic international policies that were implemented by the neocons after 9/11, Tony Blair created the circumstances that were needed for Bush to go full throttle.
For all the automatic patriotism and support for the commander-in-chief – even for one as unimpressive as the current White House occupant – Bush did face domestic resistance when it came to both the war in Iraq and the wider narrative of his international vision. The fact that Blair was willing to go to the US on multiple occasions – and use his eloquence and charisma to convince the American public that their leader was actually on the right track – gave Bush significant leverage against persistently critical intellectuals and other liberal elites. The ignorance of US audiences when it comes to international affairs, combined with a lingering isolationist tendency in American culture, made it extremely useful to have an “objective” outsider to reassure them that the proposed strategy made sense. The well-spoken leader of their trusted transatlantic ally turned out to be the perfect candidate fill this role. It also didn’t hurt to be able to put “ United Kingdom ” next to “ Fiji ” and “ Tonga ” in the list of the Coalition of the willing.
At the international level, UK support for the war in Iraq and other ill-conceived adventures allowed the US some breathing space and apparent legitimacy – remember the “45 minute” story that British intelligence services had supposedly backed? – while at the same time weakening international resistance to the proposed plans. Whereas the UK no longer has the weight of its empire, it still has significant clout and ability when it comes to diplomacy. A match made in heaven for the powerful yet empathetically-challenged United States of America . Furthermore, whereas Russia and China were too detached from long-term considerations to ever truly oppose US action, the European Union was significantly weakened in its opposition to Washington by missing one of its three main members. US rhetoric in the run-up to the war would certainly have been a lot more nuanced if they had not been able to differentiate between the British and the French cheese-eating-surrender-monkeys.
In short, Blair’s reputation is linked to his support and responsibility for the war on terror and its implications, and rightly so. With the way things are going, this does not bode well for his legacy, and the question is not whether in fifty years time he will be mentioned in the same breath as Churchill, but rather how he ranks when compared to Anthony Eden.
Undoubtedly concerned, Blair has been engaging in serious damage-control over the last six months or so, and is trying to restore some of the energy and morality that seemed to surround him the 1990s. Next week, Part II will analyse these attempts. For the curious reader, however, let me already reveal its main conclusion when it comes to Blair’s place in history by using Mark Twain: “ The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice”, and history has been too harsh on Eden.