This week, Tony Blair departed office after ten years, the British Labour Party’s longest-serving prime minister, the only person to have led the party to three consecutive general election victories, and the only Labour prime minister to serve more than one full consecutive term. He leaves office with 61 percent of the British public judging him to have been a good prime minister. Add to that the high popularity that he enjoyed through much of his tenure and it becomes difficult to reconcile it with his earlier than intended departure under compulsion from his own party. What happened?
To say the Iraq war happened, with Blair’s stalwart support and involvement, is the lion’s share of the answer, but that in turn poses other questions. Opposition to the war generally splits into two: those who revile the Western powers as motivated by all manner of avarice and aggression, and others who know that good is intended but who doubt or reject the means used to achieve it. No argument will sway the former, but the latter have been listening and many in the end have found the argument wanting. Why?
It used to be customary for the war’s supporters in America to bemoan President Bush’s inarticulateness while breathing a sigh of relief when Blair stepped into the breach to make a rousing case for removing Saddam Hussein and reviving Iraq. That he led a British Labour government was only to be marveled at, just as his defiance of popularity at home over a matter of conviction was only to be admired in a man often held to be manipulative and media-obsessed. (Even by his own recent admission, he devoted “inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging and persuading the media.”) Yet in the end Blair’s argument failed to sway enough of the British public and even his own party.
Partly, this is bad luck. There was no reason to assume that the post-Saddam epoch would be one of prolonged American mishandling and several, not easily reversed, mistakes. The operational decisions being American ones, Blair was to that extent at the mercy of events. A swifter and more decisive outcome would have caused much of the criticism to wither away. There is little point complaining about liberating Iraqis from tyranny.
But on-going bloodshed is another matter, say the critics. They are right, but only if one accepts the premise that a failure to bring tranquil democracy to Iraq is the decisive test of the war’s merit.
MANY, PERHAPS MOST, SUPPORTERS of the war, including me, did not subscribe to that view. Instead, we cited Saddam’s chronic violations of the 1991 Gulf war ceasefire; his retention of the technology, toxins and research infrastructure to achieve it; the massive human toll of his rule (eclipsing today’s casualty figures); his past genocide, aggression and patronage of terrorists. The problem is that Tony Blair, the war’s most effective spokesman, did subscribe to the democracy litmus test. What possessed him to set the bar to such heights and to invite a negative verdict on his own conduct?
Blair believes that democracy is a cure for terrorism. In a sense he is right. But in an important sense he is mistaken. That which militates against democracy — religious fanaticism, ideological totalitarianism, tribal loyalties trumping civil society — also produced the repression that Blair sought to cure. Yet he failed to understand that there is no democratic silver bullet, that a society devoid of democratic traditions and memory cannot become democratic in the short space of a few years.
To think otherwise exposes a confusion of democratic processes (elections, parliaments, constitutions, referenda) with the characteristics of democratic society (separation of religion and state, contractual, law-abiding, pluralistic, tertiary educated) that alone permit democratic processes to have meaning. The nature of the society in question, not assemblies and documents, is the deciding criterion.
Failure to understand this leads to polices that stress democratic processes at the expense of democratic purposes — something witnessed last year when the Bush Administration foisted legislative elections upon Palestinians, thereby bringing to power the doctrinally genocidal Hamas movement. Similarly, in Iraq, making democracy a higher priority than security, at least until now, has thwarted efforts to bring either to Iraq.
Yet Blair understood this no better than Bush, to judge by one of his fullest statements on Iraq — his July 17, 2003 address to a joint session of Congress, as these excerpts show:
“There is a myth that though we love freedom, others don’t; that our attachment to freedom is a product of our Western values; that Afghan women were content under the lash of the Taliban; that Saddam was somehow beloved by his people.”
Like so many, Tony Blair believed that, given half a chance, all would seize liberty with both hands. Yet the instinct for autocracy, for rule by ruthless men who dispose of the complex problems of life, has in the past permitted even the most educated societies to tolerate fascism, to vote in Nazism, to yearn for various forms of communism or to acquiesce in the terrors of all three. The Middle East is no different.
Now, it is perfectly true that Afghans celebrated the fall of the Taliban; that Iraqis too are free and in the main relieved, no matter the editorials masquerading as news insinuating otherwise. But democracy has few roots in the region. Authoritarian nationalist or Islamist parties could win the day in most parts of the Middle East were elections held today. To curbstone pundits, that would make authoritarianism or Islamism democratic. All it actually proves is that certain societies are unprepared for democracy, since “one man, one vote one time” is no democracy at all.
“Anywhere, anytime ordinary people are given the chance to choose, the choice is the same: freedom, not tyranny; democracy, not dictatorship; the rule of law, not the rule of the secret police.”
Were it only true. Admittedly, the election of Hamas was then in the future, but had Blair not noticed what nearly occurred in Algeria in 1992 when elections presaged an Islamist victory which, when curtailed, led to a horrific internal war that makes Iraq’s present one look tame? Egyptians and other Arabs once idolized Nasser, who introduced the political concentration camp into the Middle East. If successful in appealing to our baser instincts, dictatorial regimes are often venerated and their crimes ignored or justified.
“How hollow would the charges of American imperialism be when these failed countries are and are seen to be transformed from states of terror to nations of prosperity, from governments of dictatorship to examples of democracy, from sources of instability to beacons of calm?”
“Examples of democracy”? “Beacons of calm”? It was bold of Blair to suggest this outcome even in 2003. How much better it would have been to say forthrightly that the Taliban and Saddam were rightly removed because both harbored terrorists capable of inflicting enormous damage against innocent lives everywhere. Both produced the bulk of refugees that had come from the Middle East in recent years. Both were exceedingly brutal to those who fell under their rule.
Removing the Taliban and Saddam warded off international dangers, freed captives, and allowed Afghans and Iraqis to breathe easier. Instead of saying as much and standing on that record, Blair conceded the logic of his critics, arguing that anything less than establishing a new golden age would be a failure. Small wonder that Blair wanted then, as now, to see dividends on the Israeli-Palestinian front, as if that had anything at all to do with Afghanistan or Iraq.
“This terrorism will not be defeated without peace in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine. Here it is that the poison is incubated. Here it is that the extremist is able to confuse in the mind of a frighteningly large number of people the case for a Palestinian state and the destruction of Israel.”
This reverses matters. Terrorism is a symptom of war, not an aberration that can be cured by peace. It follows that its defeat is a condition of peacemaking, not the other way around. In the Oslo years (1993-2000), Israelis sought a peace based on two states for two peoples, whether Arabs wanted it or not. Thus the blind eye towards Yasser Arafat’s sponsoring of a culture of terrorism and hatred. Successive Palestinian polls indicate enthusiasm for terrorism and rejection of Israel. Israelis awoke in 2000 from the delusion that a two-state solution was obtainable from men dedicated to a one-state program. Others, including Tony Blair, have still not.
UNFORTUNATELY, BLAIR’S ADVOCACY, like Bush’s, failed to clarify issues that went to the heart of how Iraq was to be restored and secured and how other regional conflicts related to it and should be managed. Increasingly, Blair was caught in a pincer movement of dislike of Bush at home and ongoing conflict abroad.
That is a tragedy, because the ideals that animated Blair were both principled and in short supply in a cynical world. As a result, Britain has yet to awake from the illusion that it can have its war on Islamism in concert with Europe rather than the United States.
His support last year for the American position favoring giving Israel time to dispose of Hizballah in Lebanon (a task Israel botched) led his party, which dislikes Bush, is unsympathetic to an Israel under attack and fed up with bad news from Iraq, to press for his departure. David Pryce-Jones has it right when he avers, “It is a horrid irony that his best decision is the cause of his unpopularity and downfall.”