Don’t Let Blair Off the Hook

It has become fashionable, everywhere from newspaper offices to the pop charts, to argue that British Prime Minister Tony Blair is a poodle to President George W. Bush’s rottweiler, a lapdog who pretty much sits, rolls over, and fetches as his master in Washington demands.

In their new hit single "I’m With Stupid," the Pet Shop Boys, those graying survivors of ’80s synth-pop, sing about the apparently slavish relationship between Blair and Bush. "See you on the TV / Call you every day / Fly across the ocean / Just to let you get your way," they warble, painting a picture of Blair as asskisser in chief to the commander in chief.

This follows on from George Michael’s ill-advised venture into protest singing in 2003, with his song "Shoot the Dog." That was also a plea for Blair to stop sucking up to Bush. Michael implied that Blair was putting British citizens in danger of terrorist attack by meekly going along with Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He sang: "I got the feeling that when it all goes off / They’re gonna shoot the dog" – "they" being the "Mustaphas" and "Gaza Boys" in the apparently mad Middle East, and the dog being Blair’s Britain.

Even those in the more rarefied world of politics and comment often exclusively attack Blair for his links with Bush. Charles Kennedy, former leader of Britain’s opposition party the Liberal Democrats, once declared: "Tony Blair is no more than George Bush’s poodle." As the BBC noted, this is a "jibe which falls readily to so many lips."

American critics of the recent wars in the Middle East also tend to describe Blair either as a wide-eyed and naïve follower of Bush or as a dupe to the president’s plans. Michael Moore has said: "I personally hold Tony Blair more responsible for this war in Iraq than I do George W. Bush … and the reason is Blair knows better. Blair is not an idiot. What is he doing hanging around this guy?" Here, Blair is cast as a potential voice of reason in international affairs, someone who might calm crazy Bush and halt his plot for world domination.

These may seem like radical critiques, but in fact they are the opposite. First, they present the "special relationship" between Britain and America as the result of some kind of personal or psychological failing on the part of an easily led prime minister, when in fact it has been forged by massive political and global shifts over the past 50 years.

Second, and most worryingly for those of us of an antiwar persuasion, these criticisms let Blair off the hook. He is presented at best as a dithering follower of Bush and at worst as someone who jealously desires some of Bush’s power. In truth, Blair has been at the forefront of redefining and rejuvenating Western military intervention for a new age, and thus bears great responsibility for the various bloody and disastrous wars pursued over the past nine years. It is Blair who moralized international affairs and undermined international law, which has allowed Bush to intervene in various hot spots pretty much as he sees fit. To call Blair a poodle is to absolve him of responsibility for what he has done.

Of course, it is true that in international affairs Britain is largely subservient to America. It is also the case that various prime ministers before Blair had special (i.e., brown-nosing) relationships with American presidents. This has been the case for 50 years or more, following the end of the Second World War and the shifting balance of forces in the global arena.

As Britain, once a dominant world empire, continued to lose territory and influence around the world in colonial conflicts and uprisings – most notably in the campaign for self-determination by India – and as America emerged from the Second World War as the strongman of international affairs, Britain was forced to become America’s rookie, to accept a back-seat role in the West’s mission to civilize or de-communize parts of the Third World.

However, while this so-called special relationship may have been humiliating for certain prime ministers – especially those who had vague memories of a time when Britain, not America, dominated the world – it also had beneficial payoffs. It allowed a weak and isolated Britain, long ejected from Africa, India, and elsewhere, to continue playing a key role in global affairs.

It also allowed British prime ministers to punch above their weight. So Margaret Thatcher could sign up, with great enthusiasm, to Ronald Reagan’s support for the mujahedin during the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s (and in the process she helped to create al-Qaeda and various other nihilistic groupings that today are described as the greatest threat to Western civilization). And it means that Blair has been able to rise above domestic political problems by partnering first with Bill Clinton to bomb Iraq in 1998 and Kosovo in 1999 and later with Bush to invade Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq again in 2003.

However, it is wrong to see Blair as merely tripping behind Clinton and Bush, living in these presidents’ vast shadows. In fact, Blair has done perhaps more than any other Western leader to offer a new moral justification for Western military intervention; he is, in many ways, the author of the idea of "humanitarian intervention," which has brought so much destruction and division to parts of Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. He is better seen not as Clinton’s and Bush’s poodle, but rather as their chief propagandist, the man who both physically supports their wars of intervention and also provides a new kind of language to justify them.

It is worth remembering that Blair was taking part in bloody interventions before his alleged master, Bush, came to power. Indeed, Blair had already bombed Iraq. In December 1998, Britain and America launched air strikes against Saddam’s regime after it expelled UN weapons inspectors – and Blair justified these attacks as part of an effort to "stop Saddam Hussein from… developing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons." Yet as we now know, from Hans Blix’s testimonies, Iraq halted its WMD programs 10 years ago, i.e., before 1998. In other words, Blair had attacked Iraq on the highly dubious grounds that it had dangerous WMD a full five years before doing so again with Bush in 2003.

Today, many of us are rightly critical of Bush for having a super-reductionist, black-and-white worldview, in which America is the good guy and anyone who doesn’t support America is the bad guy. Yet it was Blair who injected international affairs with such a simplistic and potentially lethal new moralism.

During Britain and America’s Kosovo campaign of 1999, Blair took on responsibility for morally justifying the war. His and Clinton’s bombing of Yugoslavia may have had disastrous consequences, causing great structural damage and killing scores of civilians, but Blair insisted it was the "right" thing to do. Indeed, he described the Kosovo campaign as "a battle between good and evil; between civilization and barbarity; between democracy and dictatorship." He also said that "inaction" is not an option when you are faced with a "genocidal" regime.

Blair’s moralization of international issues seems to have had a profound impact on the American neocons who came to power a year after the Kosovo campaign. In a speech in 2002, Bush borrowed directly from Blair’s earlier "good-and-evil" script, arguing about the war on terrorism: "Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree…. There can be no neutrality between justice and cruelty, between the innocent and guilty. We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name."

This was taken as a sign by many that Bush had lost the plot and gone all Christian fundamentalist; in fact he was echoing Blair’s saber-rattling speeches about Kosovo. Likewise, when someone like Vice President Dick Cheney says about Iraq, "The risk of inaction is far greater than action," he too seems to be influenced by Blair: during the Kosovo campaign Blair and his supporters continually depicted "inaction" as the greatest evil in world affairs, as summed up in the phrase "Inaction is not an option."

We are also rightly scathing of Bush and his cronies for overriding the UN Charter when they intervene in the affairs of whichever sovereign state they happen to dislike. But we should remember that, again, it was Blair who undermined international law in order to free up the Western powers to intervene wherever they pleased.

In April 1999, Blair gave a speech at the Chicago Economic Club in which he outlined his vision for new forms of Western intervention. He called for a shift away from the old UN emphasis on respecting every nation’s sovereign integrity, and toward more pro-active forms of military intervention to topple "regimes that are undemocratic and engaged in barbarous acts." This became known as the "Chicago doctrine," and it is known to have had a big impact both on Clinton and the neocons who were then waiting in the wings.

A few years later, Blair fleshed out his doctrine. On July 14, 2003, in a statement to the Progressive Governance Summit in Surrey, England, he argued: "Where a population is suffering serious harm as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression, or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling to halt or avert it, the principle of nonintervention yields to the international responsibility to protect."

This effectively gives carte blanche to the Western powers to intervene wherever they choose. If the Bush administration are the cowboys of international affairs – ignoring laws and rules in the name of saving people from "evil" and tyranny – then they were helped into that position by Blair, who has spent the past seven years and more attacking the idea of sovereign integrity and calling for a new moral-military interventionism. Indeed, the disastrous "Bush doctrine" – the idea that America should have the right preemptively to intervene in other state’s affairs to stop terrible things from happening – seems to be based quite substantially on Blair’s earlier "Chicago doctrine."

Blair is no poodle or stupid follower of Bush. Rather, he has fancied himself as a moral crusader in world affairs since coming to power in 1997 – and he laid the ground both for Bush’s good-and-evil worldview and for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have left tens of thousands dead and two countries in a terrible mess. Describing Blair as some kind of good guy who has simply been led astray by Bush gets things entirely the wrong way around. We should hold both Blair and Bush to account for their pernicious impact on the Middle East and elsewhere.

Author: Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill is editor of Spiked in London.