If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then self-righteousness is the trapdoor hidden under the rug. Both ruses were on parade as Tony Blair delivered the long-awaited farewell address to his Sedgefield constituency.
It was a vintage Blair performance full of self-congratulation tinged with a dose of fantasy masquerading as vision. The plastic grin, the starry-eyed clichés, the weak jokes, and the theatrical pauses were all intact as diehard supporters swooned, giggled, and applauded. Blair set out to redefine the criteria by which a prime minister should be judged to ones that might have received Idi Amin’s approval. Offering his standard non-apology for the bloody mess in the Middle East that has become his indisputable legacy, Blair begged to be remembered and respected for doing "what he thought was right for our country." There was no audible dissent. That Blair’s reckless foreign policy has led to the disintegration of global security and the erosion of civil liberties was evidently of no concern to New Labor’s entranced foot soldiers.
Meanwhile at the Old Bailey courthouse in London, doing "what one thinks is right for the country" was getting a very different reception. A civil servant and a research assistant were sentenced to short terms in prison for violating the notorious Official Secrets Act. Their crime was to have leaked a confidential memo of a 2004 discussion between Bush and Blair covering the situation in Iraq. The ruling had the moral might of a Downing St. press release. The court rejected the defense’s argument that David Keogh had acted in the public interest, declaring that his actions could have jeopardized the lives of British citizens. In a tantalizing glimpse of New Labor’s naked mindset, Blair’s most senior foreign policy adviser, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, testified that "private talks between world leaders must remain confidential however illegal or morally abhorrent aspects of their discussions might be." The judge obliged by slapping a gag order on journalists. Reporters were also banned from the courtroom during the disclosure and examination of the ultra-sensitive memo, which, according to some reports, reveals Bush’s extraordinary proposal to bomb the Doha headquarters of the al-Jazeera news network. New Labor’s media choreographers were well prepared for the fallout. Coverage of this patriotic double standard was overshadowed by the "coincidental" festivities in Sedgefield.
Missing from the mainstream analyses of Blair’s speech was a simple yet logical observation: by accepting that Blair "did what he thought was right" in Iraq, one must also accept that he saw nothing questionable in ignoring a flood of warnings from Britain’s most experienced Middle Eastern diplomats, or relying wholeheartedly on the unverifiable intelligence of a single Iraqi defector, or cutting short a weapons-inspection mission that had not turned up any evidence of WMDs, or cozying up to an American president who was only following (divine) orders to strike Iraq, etc. For most people, these would be at best catastrophic misjudgments. For Britain’s outgoing leader, however, they are shining proof of his moral backbone, which presumably leaves historians with nothing further to debate than the depth of Tony’s sincerity and convictions.
Blair also had advice for those who meekly tolerate the status quo. He urged Britain not to be afraid to sometimes "give the impossible a go." Was he pondering the Herculean challenge facing the new Blair Foundation, whose announced purpose is to build bridges among Christians, Muslims, and Jews? “He may want to build bridges between the world religions, but the fact is he has already burned them,” was how one skeptic reacted to this conceited venture, a sober assessment of the prime minister’s contribution to the disastrous state of relations between these faiths both at home and abroad. As the first British government to openly endorse the preemptive use of nuclear weapons, perhaps a more accurate description of Blair’s political philosophy would be "giving the unthinkable a go."
In an awkward flourish more suited to an American campaign speech, Blair closed with a patriotic boast. "The British are special," he insisted, and "Britain is the greatest country in the world." Yet even Britain’s most deluded politician must be aware that the UK’s present standing in the world is that of a drowned corpse sporting a pair of concrete shoes made in the USA.
How long can Blair remain untouchable out of office? Having relinquished control of Britain’s political agenda, he has lost much of his usefulness to his powerful allies in the media. His ability to expand their influence is now severely curbed, so defending Blair’s tattered honor will cease to be a priority. Confronted by the prospect of open season on his foreign policy failures and editorial indifference to his fate, he is unlikely to risk prolonged humiliation on the Commons backbenches. But neither will he fade into obscurity. That is not his style. He will work hard to stay "relevant" by vacating his parliamentary seat sooner rather than later and seeking publicity and credit for an endless stream of stillborn"global" initiatives (e.g., the Blair Foundation). A lucrative spell on the U.S. lecture circuit is a foregone conclusion. His vacuous, pro-Israel moral certainties will be in high demand at neoconservative conferences and high-powered foreign policy seminars, not to mention on innumerable corporate and NGO boards.
"Blairism" may also have a rosy future in Europe. Merkel and Sarkozy have taken over from the Chirac-Schroeder alliance. Both are much more in tune with Blair’s global interventionist outlook. Following the announcement of his resignation, Blair rushed off to Paris to meet with the recently elected Sarkozy, a man seething with admiration for the Anglo-Saxon economic model and work ethic. Moreover, Sarkozy has given significant clues as to his foreign policy leanings with his choice of Bernard Kouchner as France’s new foreign minister. Kouchner was one of the very few French politicians to support the invasion of Iraq. In fact, he and Blair are old bedfellows from an earlier "humanitarian" project in the Balkans. It’s a valuable connection that will serve Blair well should he try to land the position of secretary-general of NATO.
But what about back home? All eyes are now on Gordon Brown, the man finally destined for 10 Downing St. Is this patient yet canny politician plotting to throw Blair’s Iraq strategy into reverse gear, undoing the Great Statesmen’s painstaking work? Tentative salvoes have been already exchanged in the battle to seize back control of British foreign-policy decision-making from Washington. Brown is reportedly planning to withdraw the bulk of British troops from Iraq within 12 months, a move guaranteed to boost Labor’s popularity. Washington retorted swiftly, expressing confidence in Brown’s purported willingness to stay the course. Perhaps the idea is to somehow trap the prime-minister-to-be in a web of daunting neoconservative expectations and implied commitments prior to assuming official office on June 27. In other words, Tony’s wholly ridiculous global farewell tour is a clapped-out house servant’s parting grovel to his master in the White House designed to rally another "coalition of the willing," this time to oppose Brown’s capitulation to the forces of evil.
It’s important to recall, however, that although Blair lost the battle to hand-pick a dyed-in-the-wool interventionist as his successor, the taciturn Brown has none of Blair’s glib appeal. Opinion polls taken before Blair’s announcement of departure suggest that Brown may struggle to hold onto Labor’s majority in the next election against a resurgent Conservative Party. Despite widespread relief at Blair’s exit, a "moral lapse" under Brown’s leadership may prove rather short-lived. This would hardly disappoint Blair, since the Labor Party has been little more than a vehicle for his career and vainglorious instincts. In fact, he is probably more comfortable with the Tories’ views on foreign policy. The Tories’ current leader, David Cameron, is a staunch Atlanticist. Cameron has strong links to a tightly-knit group of Tory MPs and activists known disparagingly as the "Notting Hill Set," several of whom are members of the UK-based Henry Jackson Society. This nucleus of British neoconservatives includes Michael Gove, a prominent Tory MP, author, and journalist. Gove has gone so far as to declare his "love" for Tony Blair, and he is regarded as a potential leader of the Conservative Party. The Tories have long stewed over Blair’s triumph in usurping their traditionally close ties with Washington. They are aching to get back on the field and play ball under a D.C. head coach again. A celebration of Blair’s departure from the scene looks increasingly premature.
Still, there is no shortage of private citizens and antiwar organizations who would love to see Blair tossed in jail for his wars of aggression. Despite the unrelenting efforts of his top toadies in the media and blogosphere, there has always been a stubborn segment of British society reassuringly immune to Tony’s drunken sermons and the holy doctrine of "military humanism." It is unclear, however, what legal remedies are available to those determined to see Blair pay a heavy personal price for his pact with the neoconservative devil. We may never have the pleasure of seeing a bewildered Blair enter a plea in the Hague or watching him digest the irony of an arrest warrant served by an ambitious overseas magistrate determined to "give the impossible a go" (timed, preferably, to coincide with a high-profile visit on behalf of Blair Foundation). In the end, we may have to settle for the poetic justice of a forlorn ex-premier unable to wash the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from his hands, living in permanent fear under constant police protection, openly despised by the vast majority of his countrymen whose security he gambled away so heedlessly. It would be a far cry from the cherished golden legacy that looked so secure back in April 2003.
Postscript: I think we can safely rule out any collaboration between the Blair Foundation and the Carter Center. Thank you, Jimmy.