Wednesday, 6 July 2016

A myopic focus on Tony Blair

Judging by the public discourse, you might think Tony Blair was a dictator who railroaded the UK into war in 2003. But he was just one part of a foreign policy orientation incapable of saying no to the United States.

Today the long-awaited results of the Chilcot Enquiry into the UK's involvement in the 2003 Iraq War, the consequences of which the world is still living with, were finally published. 

Like the 9/11 Commission's report in the United States in 2004, it contains little in the way of bombshell revelations. Instead it paints an overall damning picture of the leadership of Tony Blair, the centre-left politician who was prime minister at the time. It gives ammunition to those who want to see Blair prosecuted. Perhaps the most memorable line of the report's executive summary is this:
"I will be with you, whatever."
These words were in a 2002 private memo between Blair and US President George W Bush. The line seems to vindicate a long-held perception in the UK that Blair was Bush's poodle. Indeed, the memo suggests that even a year before the war's launch, Blair had decided to go along with whatever the American president proposed.

The entirety of the media coverage of the report today has centred on Blair. But as I've written before, I find the UK's myopic focus on Blair in the aftermath of the Iraq disaster to be counter-productive. 

Why personalise it so? Was it really Blair who was Bush's poodle? Or was it the UK that was America's poodle?

Washington calls the shots

Historians will look back at the UK's actions during this period with some curiosity. On its surface it doesn't make any sense. A majority of the American public, still scarred by the 9/11 attacks two years earlier and deceived into thinking there was a connection with Iraq, supported the invasion. But the vast majority of the British public opposed it. 

Why, then, did not only the prime minister, but the majority of the British Parliament, support joining America as its (very) junior partner in this adventure?

I am still of the belief that whoever had been in 10 Downing Street in 2002, he or she would have been forced into the same position as Blair. The UK's foreign policy orientation, going back decades, would have made it very difficult for any prime minister to rebuff Washington. 

In his press conference held today after the Chilcot Report was published, Blair went back over and over again to the theme of 'not abandoning America in its time of need'. He brought up September 11th gratuitously, but failed to ever explain what possible relevance it had to the Iraq War. America had been attacked, he said, and the UK had to stand by its side no matter what.

Let's recall that it wasn't only Blair that was in favour of this unquestioning alliance. The entirety of the Conservative Party supported joining the US in the invasion, as did most of the Labour Party. The only party in the Parliament that opposed the war was the Liberal Democrats (a fact many seem to have forgotten today).

It it a coincidence that the Liberal Democrats are also the UK's most pro-EU party? I think not.

The UK's political elite have for decades favoured an Atlanticist political and economic orientation, siding with America over continental Europe during the Cold War and after. This was evident in the incredible maneuvering against France at the UN detailed by the report unveiled today. Both France and Germany opposed the war, a position for which they were notoriously derided as "old Europe" by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The correspondence between the UK and US governments in the run-up to the war paints France as the enemy, and discusses ways to overcome their veto of the invasion in the UN security council.

Blair's Atlanticist conversion

It was Blair, ironically, who seemed prepared to take the UK out of its Atlanticist obsession when he became prime minister in 1997. He wanted to make the case for the EU in the UK. He wanted Britain to play a more active role in Brussels and move toward increased European cooperation. He was even prepared to take the UK into the euro (though he later decided against it). 

"There are two essential pillars in UK foreign policy: our alliance with the US and our partnership with Europe," said Blair during his press conference today. "We should keep both strong."

But it didn't quite work out that way, did it? Blair dropped one in favour of the other in 2002.

The Iraq War destroyed Blair's European dream. Driven by conviction or necessity, or maybe even a bit of both, Blair stood unflinchingly by Bush's side even as he vilified and alienated the UK's EU partners. 

Blair didn't even bother trying to build a united EU foreign policy position on the question of Iraq. Instead he watched as Washington gleefully pursued a 'divide and conquer' diplomatic strategy in Europe, buying off shameless centre-right leaders from Spain to Italy to Poland for their nominal support (something made easy when those countries didn't have to contribute any troops or money). 

After this there was no hope for Blair to pursue his ambitions to make Europe a stronger, more united place. Like Mr Hyde trampling on the work of Dr Jekyll by night, Atlanticist Blair systematically destroyed all the bridge-building done by European Blair. By the time Blair resigned in disgrace four years later, his successor Gordon Brown didn't want to touch Europe with a 10-foot pole.

Before 2003 Blair would have seemed a brilliant choice to be the first 'President of Europe' when such a role was envisioned in 2009. But the Iraq War made that impossible. So instead we ended up with Herman Van Rompuy, a man who was purposefully chosen to belittle the role.

The Iraq War isn't to blame for the current state of the EU, but it certainly didn't help. It caused divisions on the continent which still haven't healed and pushed numerous European countries into a war the citizens did not want. But the war had to be supported because of existing military and diplomatic dependence on America. The lessons from that experience have still not been learnt in Europe.

Collective responsibility

Of course, Tony Blair is personally responsible for the hundreds of thousands killed in the Iraq War. A member of my extended family was one of them. But I don't focus on individual leaders when I think about who is responsible. We live in democracies. Our societies are responsible. We focus in on our leaders' culpability because it distracts us from our own guilt.

Judging by the outcome of last month's referendum, the UK public doesn't seem to have learnt anything from the Iraq War experience. 

Still, they are obsessed with a so-called "special relationship" with America that is more akin to the situation of a vassal state. Still, they take no interest in building a united Europe that could forge its own foreign policy and block military misadventures by the United States or others. 

No, it's all Tony Blair's fault. He's a madman.

I've written before about how the Iraq War was one of the reasons I moved to Europe in 2006. Rather than blaming individuals, I thought about how different the situation could have been if there was a united Europe in 2003 that could have prevented this war - a strong union that would make for a better world. I came to Europe with high hopes that such a union was being built. Needless to say, that hope has died.

It died because of people, not because of leaders. Not because of Tony Blair, or George W Bush, or Nigel Farage. It died because people can't see the forest for the trees. They can't think of the big solutions to our societal problems, all they can do is scream "war criminal!" for 13 years while they wait for a report.

So go ahead, send Tony Blair to the docks. But maybe, just maybe, try looking at the bigger picture first.

1 comment:

Jack said...

"The myopic focus on Clinton prevents us from drawing the wider lessons about sound email management"