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.