All political careers end in failure, but it is not always the same failure. As Tony Blair departs, he is deeply unpopular at home but rather respected abroad. Only 22% of British respondents in a recent YouGov poll think he can be trusted, while 59% say he has not raised Britain's standing in the world. The question is, would 59% of the world agree?
A fortnight ago I used this column to let Blair give, in his own words, his own balance sheet of his foreign policy over the last decade. To judge by some of the furious responses I received, even to offer the outgoing prime minister a courteous hearing is a kind of intellectual treason. The sole duty of any self-respecting commentator is to interrogate and then indict Blair - sorry, "Bliar" - as if he were a cross between Radovan Karadzic, Augusto Pinochet and Adolf Eichmann. That bloodied hand must never be shaken, that smile wiped off his face once and for all. As at many a London dinner table, one's own superior virtue, and one's belonging to the tribe, is demonstrated by the unbounded vehemence of one's denunciation of him. "Not in my name" is all that needs to be said, or rather shouted.
Actually, it's more interesting to stop shouting for a moment and to listen, for what Blair offers is a template by which to judge his own record. The essence of Blairism in foreign policy, he told me, is liberal interventionism. His foreign policy has been all about combining soft and hard power, and about strengthening our alliances with the United States and the European Union, in order to face the supranational challenges of our time.
There are two ways of responding to this. One is to disagree with the agenda itself. Liberal interventionism, you could say, is a lousy idea. What business is it of ours to stop foreigners killing each other if they want to? Our superior, pacific European soft power is demonstrated by not intervening anywhere. We keep our hands clean by not lifting a finger. And we don't want to be close to the US in any case. (Blairophobes of the left.) Or to Europe. (Blairophobes of the right.)
The other response is to examine his record in the light of his own, proclaimed goals. If you believe, as I do, in genuine liberal intervention - that is, intervention to prevent genocide or other massively inhumane or life-threatening behaviour within the borders of another state - then high on the credit side of the balance sheet must be Kosovo. There, Blair led the way in forging an international action to reverse a genocide being perpetrated by Slobodan Milosevic against the mainly Muslim Kosovar Albanians. And we did not make a complete bloody mess of the occupation afterwards. Switzerland it isn't, but Kosovo today is on the way to being a European country. Both Serbian and Kosovan warlords are being prosecuted in the Hague. For a liberal interventionist, Kosovo was Blair's finest hour.
Britain's relations with both the US and our partners in the European Union are better than they were in 1997. In the European context, devolution to Scotland and Wales, and the amazing spectacle of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness starting to govern together in Northern Ireland, must be counted to his credit. Britain is also stronger in Europe and the world because it has a relatively strong economy, mixed with a partly reformed welfare state. The attraction of what Italians, French and Germans see as Blairism is an element of British soft power too.
For all the problems that remain, you must ask yourself this question: who is better off? Britain after 10 years of Blair, France after 12 years of Jacques Chirac, Germany following eight years of Gerhard Schröder, or the US in the seventh year of George Bush?
On the debit side, there is one overwhelming red figure - Iraq. Blair keeps insisting that history will give the verdict on Iraq, but we can already say this with confidence: Iraq is a disaster. To describe it as a case of liberal interventionism is the greatest disservice anyone could do to the cause of liberal interventionism. We went to war on a false prospectus about weapons of mass destruction and without proper authority, either legal or political. The failure to prepare for the likely consequences was a disgrace. It would be difficult for things to be worse than they were under Saddam Hussein, but they now are. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed or maimed, and there is no end in sight. US intelligence agencies say Iraq has become a breeding ground for a new generation of terrorists. The hundreds of billions of dollars squandered on the war and occupation could have bettered the lives of many of the world's poor.
Drawing away troops from Afghanistan when the job there was only half done, we have created two failures instead of one possible success. The Shia-Sunni rift has been inflamed across the Muslim world. The theocratic dictatorship of Iran has been greatly strengthened. The moral authority of the US is in tatters, and that of the United Kingdom dragged down with it. Iraq has alienated Muslims everywhere, including our own fellow citizens. Need I go on? This is the most comprehensive British foreign policy disaster since the Suez crisis of 1956.
Iraq also exposed the weakness of another strand of Blairite foreign policy - the attempt to influence American policy by working privately through the corridors of power in Washington, while avoiding all public disagreement. This is what I call the Jeeves school of diplomacy, and it has failed. Britain alone is no longer big enough to sway the hyperpower, especially if Washington thinks British support can always be taken for granted.
What the US needs is a friend big enough that Washington has to listen to him. That friend can only be a strong EU, speaking with a single voice. Here's the third key failing of Blair's foreign policy, one he himself almost identified when we spoke. To achieve that European voice requires the full commitment of Germany, France and Britain; but Britain's European policy is drastically constrained, if not actually dictated, by our Eurosceptic media. Blair saw the problem clearly, but he never dared to face down the unelected newspaper proprietors and editors on whom New Labour has depended so heavily.
The point of this balance sheet is not merely to write instant history, it's to learn from the failures as well as the successes. Three lessons emerge. First, never again must the flag of liberal interventionism be so abused. All the many peaceful forms of liberal intervention must first be exhausted. For the last resort of military action, we must have just cause based on facts, not fiction dressed up as secret intelligence, and proper legal, democratic and multilateral authority. And we must be prepared for the long haul afterwards. Second, only a strong Europe, speaking with one voice, can be the strategic partner that the US badly needs. Third, in order to get that strong Europe, the British prime minister must face down the unelected press barons who currently dictate Britain's European policy. So let Gordon Brown learn the right lessons from his neighbour's chequered history.
Guardian / Timothy Garton Ash
Last Mod: 10 Mayıs 2007, 12:04