Timothy Garton Ash, one of Europe’s most astute political observers, recently described the extreme reaction of dinner guests to unpopular political leaders.
“…The sole duty of any self-respecting commentator is to interrogate and then indict Blair – as if he were a cross between Radovan Karadzic, Augusto Pinochet and Adolf Eichmann…As at many a London dinner table, one’s own superior virtue, and one’s belonging to the tribe, is demonstrated by the unbounded vehemence of one’s denunciation of him. “Not in my name” is all that needs to be said, or rather shouted.
BDS has mutated and spread across the Atlantic. The clinical condition formerly known as Bush Derangement Syndrome — an emotional disability that causes the afflicted to bark and foam rather like rabid dogs at the mention of the US head of state — has become Blair Derangement Syndrome. At a time when the Rasmussen Reports finds that “Democrats in America are evenly divided on the question of whether George W. Bush knew about the 9/11 terrorist attacks in advance. Thirty-five percent of Democrats believe he did know, 39% say he did not know and 26% are not sure”, it is safe to say that BDS has become a serious public health threat and that too many Democrats have been breathing their own exhaust.
Now that Tony Blair has announced his retirement amidst a raging BDS epidemic on both sides of the Atlantic, it is good moment to reflect on Blair’s decade as British Prime Minister.
Blair, who just reached that marvelous age of 54 — took office as the youngest Prime Minister in modern British history. He leaves office as the Labor Party’s longest-serving prime minister and the only Labor prime minister in British history to serve more than one full consecutive term. He is also the only person to have ever lead the Labor Party to three consecutive general election victories.
Garton Ash tallies Blair’s foreign policy record:
“If you believe, as I do, in genuine liberal intervention – that is, intervention to prevent genocide or other massively inhumane or life-threatening behavior within the borders of another state – then high on the credit side of the (Tony Blair) balance sheet must be Kosovo. There, Blair led the way in forging an international action to reverse a genocide being perpetrated by Slobodan Milosevic against the mainly Muslim Kosovar Albanians. And we did not make a complete bloody mess of the occupation afterwards. Switzerland it isn’t, but Kosovo today is on the way to being a European country. Both Serbian and Kosovan warlords are being prosecuted in the Hague. For a liberal interventionist, Kosovo was Blair’s finest hour.
Britain’s relations with both the US and our partners in the European Union are better than they were in 1997. In the European context, devolution to Scotland and Wales, and the amazing spectacle of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness starting to govern together in Northern Ireland, must be counted to his credit. Britain is also stronger in Europe and the world because it has a relatively strong economy, mixed with a partly reformed welfare state. The attraction of what Italians, French and Germans see as Blairism is an element of British soft power too.
For all the problems that remain, you must ask yourself this question: who is better off? Britain after 10 years of Blair, France after 12 years of Jacques Chirac, Germany following eight years of Gerhard Schröder, or the US in the seventh year of George Bush?
Garton Ash then notes that “on the debit side, there is one overwhelming red figure – Iraq.
“Blair keeps insisting that history will give the verdict on Iraq, but we can already say this with confidence: Iraq is a disaster. To describe it as a case of liberal interventionism is the greatest disservice anyone could do to the cause of liberal interventionism. We went to war on a false prospectus about weapons of mass destruction and without proper authority, either legal or political. The failure to prepare for the likely consequences was a disgrace. It would be difficult for things to be worse than they were under Saddam Hussein, but they now are. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed or maimed, and there is no end in sight. US intelligence agencies say Iraq has become a breeding ground for a new generation of terrorists. The hundreds of billions of dollars squandered on the war and occupation could have bettered the lives of many of the world’s poor.
“Drawing away troops from Afghanistan when the job there was only half done, we have created two failures instead of one possible success. The Shia-Sunni rift has been inflamed across the Muslim world. The theocratic dictatorship of Iran has been greatly strengthened. The moral authority of the US is in tatters, and that of the United Kingdom dragged down with it. Iraq has alienated Muslims everywhere, including our own fellow citizens. Need I go on? This is the most comprehensive British foreign policy disaster since the Suez crisis of 1956.”
This is the reasoned modern view — factual and well short of BDS. But it is fast-food history — an interpretation whose chief merit is speed, convenience, and a certain greasy digestibility.
Timothy Garton Ash is a serious historian (he witnessed the Velvet Revolution that brought Solidarity to Power in Poland and Vaclav Havel to power in what was then Czechoslovakia. His book The Magic Lantern is an indispensable first-hand account of the chaotic and thrilling rise of democratic power from the ashes of communism in 1989). He knows well that history may record Blair’s decision on Iraq as wrong, but he also knows that this decision was never self-interested and will be recorded by those of us who watched it at the time as extraordinarily courageous.
On Thursday March 18, 2003 I happened to be working in London and attending the London Book Fair. On that day Blair persuaded Britain to enter the war by persuading both Parliament and the Labor Party of the urgent need to invade Iraq. Based on available British, French, American, Israeli, German, and Chinese intelligence, Blair was fully persuaded that invading Iraq was a matter of high responsibility and urgent necessity. I spent that evening at a park adjoining the Parliament building in Westminster and late that evening sent the following email to friends and colleagues back home.
“Democracies, like markets, are messy and, over time, self-correcting. Because democracies penalize leaders for advocating politically unpopular causes, those who achieve high office have powerful incentives to not bet all of their political capital on a single venture — especially if the venture is politically unpopular. This incentive is especially strong in Great Britain, where the penalty for taking an unpopular position does not come every four years — it comes immediately.
“The vestigial monarchy notwithstanding, British political accountability is up close and personal. When a British Prime Minister wants to go to war for example, he or she does not dispatch staff from 10 Downing to lobby Parliament. He does not simply address the country on television from in front of the executive fireplace. And he sure doesn’t hire a silver-tongued press secretary to spin the local press corps. Instead, the PM enters Parliament, where he is physically surrounded by elected MPs. They sit close enough to smell him: Tories to the right, Labor to the left, and dissident members of the Prime Minister’s Party in the rear (thus the respective origin of “right wing”, “left wing” and “back bench”).
I then described the events of the past 24 hours as I had seen them.
“Until recently, the English have not supported war in Iraq — polls suggest that Brits are roughly twice as antiwar as Americans. But Tony Blair has bet everything on this war — a decision that cannot possibly be motivated by a calculus of political gain — there just isn’t any. Yesterday was his day to make the case for war to the British Parliament. It got going about 10 am as Blair met privately with members of the Labor Party, who were in open revolt at Blair’s decision to align himself with George Bush. Pundits estimated that Labor would vote 2:1 to renounce Bush — to them an anti-European cowboy who has yet to master the mother tongue. Few believed that Blair would be advocating for this war but for Bush and many wondered openly what he had been smoking recently. Three members of his cabinet along with six sub-cabinet ministers had resigned as of yesterday morning, with more expected. Left-wing MPs (and at least two of our booksellers) talked preposterously of prosecuting Blair as a war criminal in the newly launched World Court in the Hague. Blair made it clear that he would not continue without Parliamentary support, although with the Torry vote assured, there was never any real doubt of the outcome of the overall vote.
Blair was still in front of Parliament when the vote came twelve hours later, starting at 10:00 pm last night. His opening speech earlier in the day was a Churchillian tour de force that was replayed endlessly on radio and TV. Knowing that this was an extraordinary leader having what history may judge to be one of his most extraordinary days, I hurried over to Parliament last night after the Book Fair, the seller reception, and dinner. I did not get into the galleys (actually, I am not sure that Parliament has open galleys while in session). There were a couple thousand protesters surrounding the Parliament listening by radio or portable TV. Not one Blair supporter was anywhere in evidence.
I wandered around asking protesters a single question: “why is Tony Blair doing this?”. Most didn’t care — they were pissed at Blair much as most anti-war Americans are pissed at Bush. For others, protesting was a way to add a day to their St. Patrick’s hellraising. Many were principled pacifists. A few suggested that Bush had seduced Blair, at least until I suggested that this would require Bush to be the smarter of the two. What, I asked 20-30 people, was going on?
At about 10:20 pm, vote results emerged. Labor had swung for Blair 2:1 (the press focused naturally on the third of his party that voted against him. This is not irrelevant or trivial, but at the start of the day many did not believe that he would win a majority of his own party).
As the news of the magnitude of Blair’s victory spread through the crowd, I continued to ask why Blair was risking so much on this war. The answers required that I believe that Tony Blair is idiotic or has been hypnotized by George Bush — something nobody I spoke with really believed was possibly true.
Finally, I asked two college-age women what they thought. “The truth is, Blair has believed for many years that the spread of weapons of mass destruction to unstable countries is a very big, very serious risk” one of them said. She became quiet: “and when I think about what he knows that he cannot tell us and when I see that he is gambling his political future on this, it is very frightening. I am opposed to war on principle — but Blair has just spent twelve hours arguing that war is our duty. This horrifies me and I reject it — but I really don’t have an alternative approach. I am exhausted and frankly, I am not sure what to think”.
As she finished, I realized that the crowd had become quiet. It was like being outside a prison when anti death penalty protesters hear that the execution has been carried out. Everyone suddenly seemed cold and tired — and few were crying.
We were going to war.
We were initiating the war based on evidence that our leaders persuaded us justified the death of thousands of combatants and noncombatants, a war that was both necessary and worthy of a great nation. If they are right, Bush and Blair will be the heroes of history. If they are wrong, or if we prosecute the war badly, neither history nor their own people will ever forgive either man.
I returned home impressed that these times had produced leaders as resolute as Bush and Blair and as prepared to risk their political futures. At at the same time, I was envious that Britain had a leader who could engage his people as well as command them, who could acknowledge the seriousness and even the moral ambiguity of the decision to use military force without weakening his resolve. Frankly, I wished that Tony Blair were leading the United States. Today, I wonder whether we would have invaded Iraq if the decision were his alone and confess that I believe he would have.