Sunday, 25 October 2015

Tony Blair is Yesterday's Man, but His Spirit Lives On inside Britain's Ruling Elite

[A version of this article appeared in The Mail on Sunday (25th October, 2015): ]

Sorry never was the hardest word for Tony Blair – at least before Iraq.

For twelve years until his carefully choreographed interview with America’s CNN, Mr Blair had presented himself as the innocent victim of bad intelligence who at least had made the world a safer place by toppling Saddam Hussein. No need to apologise then for the consequences of his actions in 2003. Long before the ex-Prime Minister adopted a new profile as prophet-in-chief at his not-for-profit Faith Foundation (modelled on the not-so-transparent Clinton Foundation), his messianic self-righteousness left little room for acknowledging his own faults, but plenty of energy for addressing those of others.

Symptomatic of Mr Blair’s peculiar mindset was his willingness from the arrival of New Labour in Downing St. in  1997 to apologise for dark episodes in Britain’s past, while refusing to take the blame for any bad consequences of his own policies, least of all for the ever-expanding chaos in the Middle East, Mr Blair was happy to glow with a perverse pride by apologising for the Irish Potato Famine in 1846 and ended his term as prime minister expressing his shame about the slave trade abolished in 1807. To be he even let slip his regrets for his pre-PC spanking of his children, but only to draw attention to what a paternal model he was now setting!  

But this happy scapegoat for Britain’s past sins was remarkably tight-lipped about his own responsibility for squandering British lives, not to mention Iraqi ones, from 2003. Nor until now has ever admitted that his policies have made people in Britain less safe.

Tony Blair used to taint anyone who said his actions had played into the hands of hate-preachers here and had helped fuse the bombs which hit London in July, 2005, with the brush of apologists for terrorism. Yet in his cosy chat on CNN, when the subject of the emergence of the most brutal terrorist threat yet in post-Saddam Iraq came up, he let slip, “Of course, you-you can't say that those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015.”

That double-negative is the nearest TB has ever got to admitting that he helped to fuel the flames now licking Britain’s doorstep.  What is now clear [from the Mail on Sunday’s reporting] is that IS is not only an immediate threat to millions of people in Iraq and Syria, but the jihadi terrorists are burrowing away inside Britain. Funds are being raised here by a spooky convert to Islam for IS’s global ambitions but also to provide support to potential killers being recruited here and now to go out on our streets and repeat the butchery of Corporal Lee Rigby on a wider scale. The terrifying blowback from Tony Blair’s blithe commitment to President Bush to go into Iraq whatever the circumstances is gathering pace. Saying sorry is hardly going to stop that momentum.

Maybe we can sympathise a bit with Blair’s unwillingness to come clean. All of us confront the dilemma from time to time that conscience prods us that we have behaved shabbily but our self-esteem tries to silence it by whispering, “I couldn’t have done that, not me”!  As Prime Minister of “Cool Britannia” Tony Blair embodied the “Me Generation”. If only we knew how sincere he was, nobody would doubt his motives. A mental block stopped him following his spin doctor, Alistair Campbell’s advice always to kill a bad story by fessing up straight away and urging people to move on. Instead Blair’s pride insists, “Don’t hold me responsible. I was only Prime Minister.” He denies that he can be faulted for believing – if he did – faulty intelligence as though the tenant of Downing St. just swallows what is served up by his staff. (Since Blair was clearly dependent in his interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on the flow of scripted responses through an ear-pierce pioneered by Ronald Reagan and perfected by Barack Obama, maybe he was never more than a mouthpiece.)

Although “Better late than never” will be the kindest response that Tony Blair will get from the widows and orphans created by his feckless policy in the Middle East, in reality this was not an apology but a pre-emptive strike to dull the impact of criticisms likely to be contained in the Chilcot Report, which may even appear within months after years of careful drafting to meet Blair’s replies to his critics. What formed the Semtex in his interview was his admission that the spreading cancer of Middle Eastern terrorism is a result of his policies.

Even with Blair in perma-tanned retirement,  his poisonous legacy still threatens us here at home and abroad because too many policy-makers can’t shake themselves free from him as their role-model for success in modern Britain. Until Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader there was no official opposition to Blair’s approach to foreign policy  which was embraced by most Labour MPs as well as the majority of Tories.  

For the future, even a fulsome Blair apology for past errors will be a dead-letter if the government still clings to the Blairite approach to foreign problems. David Cameron and his peers belong to that long Blairite generation that knew only peace and prosperity as they grew up in the security of the Cold War. Tony Blair casually launched Britain into a succession of hot wars. Kosovo worked out bloodlessly for us in 1999, but it seduced Mr Blair into thinking any casualties would always be Theirs not Ours.

Sadly, despite the our forces’ heavy toll in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where nothing has been achieved worth the blood of a British grenadier, Tony Blair’s deadly political legacy to his successors in power today is a knee-jerk reliance on military force to grab today’s headlines even if no planning for tomorrow’s consequences has been made. It is also that for all the talk about terrorism, no responsibility is taken for policies which help to promote it.

So let’s not heap all the blame for Iraq and terrorism on Blair. Too many are still anxious to share the guilt - or claim the credit for another misguided war after one more poorly-planned intervention. 

Just as he demonised Saddam Hussein as the root-and-branch of all Iraq’s problems and argued that deposing him would transform the country for good, so critics of Tony Blair tend to blame him as the sole villain in the sorry tale of our futile involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, too. But remember how the self-proclaimed “heir to Blair”, David Cameron casually sent the RAF to bomb Libya in 2011 without a thought for the morrow, despite  the experience of Iraq since 2003. Let’s face it, the same mindset which saw a majority of MPs vote for war in Iraq in 2003, now sits in a majority in Westminster today.

Until now Tony Blair has refused to apologise for anything which went wrong in Iraq, but it is much worse that the House of Commons is still teeming with MPs, on both sides, who have learned nothing from it. Do those who want to bomb Syria as a panacea for the problems caused by invading Iraq really know what will come next?
The Blairites blithely insist that there was no alternative then or now to their failure to consider what might go wrong and that anyone who doubts that theirs was the only choice are friends of dictators like Saddam, Gaddafi or Assad. Complacent Blairites never have to face the brutal reality that life in the terrifying uncertainty of civil war is far worse than under a dictatorship. Instead in the USA as well as the UK, promotion and prosperity are the wages of waging dead-end wars in the Middle East.

The Blairite default position of bomb now and improvise if things go wrong compares badly with how past leaders dealt with their policies going pear-shaped.  In 1997, many commentators compared the photogenic Blair with his smart wife and young children with Jack Kennedy entering the White House in 1961. But no-one can imagine Blair responding to the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs with President Kennedy’s frank admission, “Not only were our facts in error, but our policy was wrong because the premises on which it was built were wrong.” Over Iraq, Blair blames his subordinates for briefing him wrong: it wasn’t his job to get the facts right, merely to spout spurious justifications on the basis of “the intelligence crossing my desk.”

Like many neo-conservatives, Tony Blair like to posture as a Churchillian figure who would never had truck with appeasement. Could there be a sharper contrast than that between “Bombs Away Blair” and Neville Chamberlain? Chamberlain’s appeasement is universally condemned today as the folly it was, but, however flawed his foreign policy, unlike Blair Chamberlain prepared for the worst even while dealing with Hitler. His fiercest critic, Winston Churchill, noted that Chamberlain had drafted detailed plans to mobilise Britain’s economy for war, to prepare evacuation and rationing if – when - Hitler cheated him. Without Chamberlain, there would have been war anyway, but Britain  would have been even worse prepared for it than was the case. Blair sat on his sofa in 10 Downing St. preening himself as the new Churchill but failed to dictate a memo about what to do after his anticipated triumph brought British troops back to the Euphrates. (Of course, as briefers of Blair admitted, the Prime Minister clearly did not know that British troops had been in Iraq after the First World War until well into his war preparations, but then in 2001 he knew not that he was embarking on Britain’s Fourth Afghan War!)

Marching into Iraq in 2003, or parachuting into Helmand three years later, Blair operated on the principle that our forces would be welcomed. There would be no need to fire a shot. Muslim tribes would settle down to adopt a New Labour lifestyle overnight. 

Past prime ministers were voracious readers of history. Think of Churchill living a soldier’s life on the North-West Frontier and reading by candlelight as much as he could in that university of life. That kind of self-education taught past prime ministers how to avoid old mistakes – even if they couldn’t avoid new ones. Both Tony Blair and David Cameron give the strong impression that their lives were shaped by a Harry Potter version of Britain. Instead of being places of learning and inquiry, Oxford, like Eton and Fettes, was just a stepping stone on that effortless path to the top.  Reality, past or present, plays little part in their showman’s version of history. Both have claimed that in 1940 the USA was fighting on our side during the Battle of Britain! A Disney version of history clutters their minds with sound-bites of battles fought on the back-lot at Hollywood. People used to sneer at the Prince Regent’s account of  how he led cavalry charges at Waterloo, but Blairite virtual reality – with only the squaddies and towel-heads shedding actual blood – is loyally repeated by BBC and SKY News.   

Since their careers were facilitated with magical ease as they rose to the top, perhaps Blair and Cameron should be forgiven for assuming that their touch, like that of medieval monarchs, could heal the sick and transform every problem they handle. Their good intentions are so self-evident that any doubt is malign or mischievous. Words of warning are insults.

How could anyone have thought that the only alternative to the dictatorships of Saddam or Gaddafi would be democracy? Shouldn’t chaos have been on their radars?

Even if chaos had been avoided why should anyone have expected thanks from Iraqis or Afghans for our intervention. Stendhal, who was a soldier in France’s revolutionary armies, noted with a novelist’s eye how bitterly humiliating Italians found being liberated by foreigners.

Think of General de Gaulle’s taunting of the British and Americans after the war. He knew that France’s liberation in 1944 was due to the “Anglo-Saxons”, so he spent the next twenty-five years trying to expunge that shameful dependency by twisting our tails whenever he could just to prove France was truly independent – even of its liberators.

Many Iraqis or Libyans had to die so a Blair or a Cameron could pose briefly before a carefully selected adoring audience of locals singing exactly the same songs of praise with which they had adored yesterday’s fallen dictators. Little wonder that resentment boiled up among the rest of the population.

Should we be surprised that after Blair’s admission that he had helped spark the rise of the murderous IS cult tearing Iraq apart that so many Iraqis today are making eyes at Russia that did nothing to topple Saddam? After all, the Russians also didn’t create the security vacuum into which fanatics like IS stepped. With local rulers either blaming us for spawning IS or actually funding and arming the radical jihadis, the situation is running out of control for us in the West.

An apology from Tony Blair won’t unmake the mistakes since 2003. Worse still it may act as an alibi for carrying on with the same policies only without him at the helm of state. As the sinister hand of IS spreads into suburban Britain from the anarchy spawned by intervention in Iraq, parliament needs to think more about defending us at home rather than hoping that a re-play intervention abroad will produce a better result.

Maybe it no longer matters if Tony Blair is never going to learn from the terrible human costs of wars blithely entered into. But David Cameron has paid no political price for helping to plunge Libya into chaos. Luckily, so far no British dead there. But what about sending our Tornadoes tearing away into Syria? Has a House of Commons which forgets that it voted to invade Iraq in 2003 and which  had no problems imploding Libya, really escaped from the shadow of Tony Blair? It is not only the PM of the day who should examine his conscience and try to learn lessons. A lot of MPs need to think before they vote to bomb. Even a good cause needs more than a knee-jerk reaction. From Afghanistan in 2001 via Iraq and Libya, our rulers have failed to ask what comes next – and then feign innocent surprise when it’s chaos. 

One truth Tony Blair likes  to repeat is how interconnected the world had become and he insists there is  no escape from globalism. But by creating conditions for the log-rolling growth of global jihadi terrorism, his legacy has left us at home and the world at large in a daily more dangerous place.