Libya is not Cameron’s first war. It is Tony Blair’s last.

by Dan Hodges

In Saturday’s Independent, Robert Fisk, the venerable if jaundiced middle east sage, posted a missing persons bulletin:

“Why we have not heard from Lord Blair of Isfahan recently? Surely he should be up there, clapping his hands with glee at another humanitarian intervention. Perhaps he is just resting between parts. Or maybe, like the dragons in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, he is quietly vomiting forth Catholic tracts with all the enthusiasm of a Gaddafi in full flow”.

Unfortunately, about an hour after this latest condemnation of Western imperialism / inaction / barbarity / pusillanimity (delete as appropriate), up popped the man himself:

“The decision to impose a no-fly zone and authorise all necessary measures to protect threatened civilians comes not a moment too soon. It is a shift to a policy of intervention that I welcome. Such a policy will be difficult and unpredictable. But it is surely better than watching in real time as the Libyan people’s legitimate aspiration for a better form of government and way of life is snuffed out by tanks and planes”.

Fisk may know Libya like the back of Colonel Gaddafi’s hand, but he certainly doesn’t know Tony Blair. The clear implication of his jibe is that military intervention against Gaddafi is a rebuke to our former prime minister and his policy of enticing the Libyan dictator back into the international fold. A further shredding of his already tattered foreign policy legacy.

Robert, you couldn’t be more wrong. Libya isn’t an embarrassment for Tony Blair. It’s his validation.

People can mock the concept of “humanitarian intervention” if they want. They won’t find much echoing laughter in Rwanda, or Bosnia or downtown Benghazi, but it’s their prerogative. Some question the legality. Others the morality. But one thing can’t be disputed. There is a single contemporary politician who has made the policy of humanitarian intervention his own. Tony Blair.

By the end of his tenure in office, Blair came to be seen as house trained by the White House. Lost in the mists of time, and the rubble of Fallujah, is that his construction and deployment of an interventionist programme was principally aimed at bouncing the US into a more robust approach to the crisis in the Balkans. When Blair told his audience in Chicago, in 1999, “We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not”, he was not working the political angles. He was taking on his principle ally, Bill Clinton, in his own back yard. And Clinton did not appreciate it.

In the years that have followed, the Blair doctrine has been heavily debated and analysed. Polly Toynbee’s judgment in 2003 was that, “His electrifying vision was just a garland of rhetoric on the war chariot”.  John Stewart, on the Daily Show in 2008, challenged it with the “Stewart doctrine”, questioning how any policy of intervention could have effectively stopped the 19 terrorists who perpetrated 9/11. John Kampfner thought it had struggled on until 2009 where it suffered an “Inglorious demise on the  plains of Afghanistan”.

But what cannot be disputed is this. There was a doctrine. It was a doctrine of interventionism. And it was Tony Blair’s.

Fast forward to Iraq. Carnage on an horrific scale. Regional destabilisation. The beginning of a domestic political backlash that was ultimately to sweep Blair from power.

At that point the book was closed. The narrative set. Tony Blair was the master tactician who had brought his party back from the political wilderness. He had transformed Labour’s political brand, professionalised it and realigned it with the British people. But those achievements were ultimately undone by his reckless ideological forays into the international arena. Iraq would be forever carved upon his heart.

The legacy, ultimately, was one of failure. What’s more, it would define international relations for decades to come. America would withdraw into isolationism. Britain would downgrade the special relationship. Europe would shun supra-regional adventurism. The Blair doctrine would lay crushed beneath the dead-handed bureaucracy of the UN. The world’s tyrants and dictators could once again sleep easy in their beds.

No longer. Over one hundred cruise missiles have rudely shaken Gaddafi and his fellow despots from their  slumber. The Blair doctrine is back.

To say this is, of course, a heresy to both left and right. Libya is supposed to be Cameron’s war. According to the prime minister’s supporters, he has driven through this policy with steel and statesmanship. The Lion of Benghazi stands vindicated.

It’s rubbish. Cameron utterly failed to persuade his EU partners to entertain the concept of military action. The phone to the White House stayed silent for a full nine days in the run up to the tabling of the UN resolution. In lobby briefings his spokesman began by smashing his ploughshares into swords, than frantically beat them back into ploughshares again.

The key to intervention was the approval of the arab League, and the recognition by Barack Obama that they had provided the cover he required to authorise military action. Cameron’s instincts were right, but his influence negligible.

Libya is not Cameron’s first war. It is Tony Blair’s last. The moment when the hand of history finally does come to rest upon his shoulder.

It may be unpalatable, but the facts are inescapable. Libya is Blair’s true legacy. It did not, as many suspected, perish in the deserts of Iraq.

That’s not to excuse that catastrophe. The human cost. The regional turmoil. The political price paid by Blair himself. The dead hands of that clock will never be reversed.

But that was not the end of the story. Whether you view the invasion of Iraq as a perversion of the principles enshrined in the Blair doctrine, or its natural manifestation, is irrelevant. It did not signal its end. Iraq was not the war to end all interventionist wars.

Some people may bemoan that fact. They may look at Libya and see only hypocrisy and post-imperial posturing. No doubt we will soon begin to hear fantastic conspiracy theories involving oil and arms and more acceptable puppet dictators.

Fine. It doesn’t matter. Whether interventionism is your cup of tea or leaves a bitter taste is a separate argument. What cannot be ignored is how, and why, this current intervention came to pass.

We are not patrolling the skies of Libya primarily because of David Cameron, or Barack Obama or the arab league. We are there because of Blair.

The policy is locked; Gaddafi will go. The international community has no choice to but see this through. We are witnessing regime change in all but name.

And when it’s over there will be other interventions, other full blown wars. All of them will be able to trace their origin to that day in Chicago.

“Why have we not heard from Tony Blair”, asks Robert Fisk?

We have. And we’ll be hearing from him for many years to come.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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10 Responses to “Libya is not Cameron’s first war. It is Tony Blair’s last.”

  1. Jane says:

    I agree. I also read an excellent article in the WSJ which aptly covered the situation not only in Libya but the area.

  2. Mr Hodges – excellent article. Absolutely sickening for the Blair baiters and haters. But so true. Blair’s political shadow/nous/vision hangs heavily over all of them. Even Ed Miliband is now recognising that.

    I will link to this at my blog in a later post.

  3. CS Clark says:

    I would expect that people would want to wait until this is more than three days old* to talk about validation. It is true that in the intervention to stop an immediate massacre we can hear Blair at his best. The counter-argument, that these interventions almost always lead to worse problems – and more deaths – in the medium- to long-term is awaiting its evidence. As indeed, to be fair, is the argument that in the even longer-term – it will all work out.

    *To paraphrase Ben F, guests, fish and wars begin to smell after three days.

  4. David Talbot says:

    This really is thunderous bollocks.

    Kosovo was a flawed application of the ‘Blair doctrine’; Afghanistan and Iraq are clear violations of it. The harsh reality now has little connection to the idealistic vision of 1999. The sheer inability of the likes of Hodges and Rentoul – a man who has become a parody of himself – to look beyond the Blair paradigm is deeply damaging to those who genuinely believe in the the notion that nations should go to war, not for territorial interests, but in order to save the lives of peoples threatened by humanitarian disaster. It is potentially a noble and inspiring concept. But this is just a ‘we’re bombing Libya, Blair approves – thereby so do I’. Shame.

  5. Dan Hodges says:


    I actually wrote in support of intervention in Libya before Tony Blair commented on the issue.

    But that aside, what’s your definition of the Blair Doctrine, is it applicable in the case of Libya, and which senior international statesman was espousing it before Blair in his Chicago speech?


  6. Tony says:

    I hope mr Blair and Mr Straw will go to Libya and Iraq and only return when all is fine, which means never come back 🙂

  7. Re Dan’s response to David.

    I am a strong believer in Blair’s Doctrine of International Interventionism, BUT I have found this Libya intervention difficult. For once I have even found myself sounding occasionally like the whatabouteries. My main reason for not being sure (and it still applies) is that I am sick of the west being blamed for all the world’s woes, while being the main ones willing or called upon to help others in need worldwide. The USA, Britain, even Israel and many western countries provide more Aid to others in need than Middle East countries put together. And some of the richest countries in the world are in the Mid East. Apart from that I really do not wish to see any other western leaders weighed and neasured for the noose. Especially by our own braindead so-called “liberals”.

    The UN Charter was altered to add Blair’s “responsibility to protect” as in his 1999 Doctrine, btw. That is what today’s leaders know and why so many hold TB in such high esteem.

  8. Bob Jackson says:

    Ah yes, Hitler was so misunderstood when he came to the aid of the Sudeten Germans.

  9. liberalsceptic says:

    A lively and engaging article Dan, albeit with a central weakness. Iraq and Afghanistan were not products of a doctrine of ‘liberal intervention’, though liberal interventionists undoubtedly supported them. They were grounded in very old, IR thinking, albeit seasoned with the innovative concept ‘pre-emption’, justified by the posited axis of failed states, WMD and global terrorism. Humanitarian arguments were side dressing and have, since the exposure of the security arguments as being essentially mythical, become a post-facto justification. Also, it is a bit much to suggest that the Chicago speech marks the beginning of liberal interventionism; after all, despite the chronic failures, there were military humanitarian interventions prior to 1997, including Somalia and Bosnia. One could even make the case that Desert Storm 1991, with its broad coalition and reliance on the rhetoric of ‘liberation’, bears a far closer resemblance to a ‘liberal intervention’ than Iraq 2003. George Bush snr’s ‘new world order’ speech might thus mark a more suitable departure point.

  10. Sunder Katwala says:

    I disagree. There is an argument for and against Iraq. But it is quite difficult to really fit the decision to stick closely with Bush over Iraq on the grounds of WMD into the framework argued very well by Blair in Chicago in 1999 (or indeed in his post 9/11 Sept 2001 party conference speech). Libya somewhat resembles Kosovo (though that had regional but not UN support) and indeed the invited intervention in Sierra Leone. It does not resemble Iraq closely in several important ways.

    Moreover, the Blair doctrine was different in 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2010 in important ways. What Blair says centrally in Chicago in a speech entitled ‘New Rules for the International Community’ is that “Any new rules will only work if we have reformed international institutions with which to apply them”. It is essentially about multilateral responses to limiting sovereignty. (The speech is less coherent on ‘are our national interests engaged?’ which is thrown in as a test, but not really linked to the core argument, largely as a tactical device, beyond prudential consequences, for not doing it everywhere).

    His post-2000 strategic decision to not have any daylight between himself and the new US administration sees him deprioritise this (though he does persuade Bush to try the UN route, while agreeing to support him if he has to ditch it later). This means that he sees the shared ends (democracy and human rights) between his Gladstonian/Wilsonian liberal internationalists and the US neo-cons but is keen to never reflect on the differences about means (lack of value in multilateral legitimacy; lack of interest in nation-building or reconstruction, which is Rumsfeld’s strategy, rather than some kind of oversight).

    There are many liberal internationalist critiques of the Iraq war. Most obviously, Francis Fukuyama on the right, who in some ways is a more important founder of the doctrine. Also Michael Walzer on the left, who wrote the classic moden ‘Just and Just Wars’ text, and has been a significant champion of liberal intervention but who opposed the Iraq intervention specifically. That doesn’t mean all interventionists had to agree with Fukuyama and Walzer in opposing a specific intervention; it does show that Iraq divided interventionists. And most of these voices have then made attempts to recast intervention, long before Libya. This is what Fukuyama’s After the Neo-Cons is about, for example.

    If there is to be a successful liberal internationalism, which intends to build institutions to underpin this (such as the ICC) as well as capacity for military intervention in extremis, it will have to be clear where it differs from a US neo-conservatism, which is essentially scathing about these prospects or ambitions to strengthen international law and institutions.

    It is extremely important to rebuild a consensus for intervention where necessary and legitimate, as Jim Murphy is arguing. That can not be done by declaring the vindication of Iraq by different cases – ie of humanitarian emergency rather than pre-emptive WMD threat, etc. The development of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine in international law and policy takes forward Blair’s 1999 doctrine, and has been pursued by opponents of the Iraq war too.

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