Idealism can go a long way and Tony Blair’s firm belief in ‘values’ when it came to foreign policy was the spark that ignited the costly assumption that successful regime change was possible and necessary
Last week the Mail On Sunday released a ‘smoking gun’ memo claiming to have the dirt on Tony Blair’s backroom ‘deal in blood’ with then President Bush over support for the Iraq War. The memo was written ahead of Blair’s Crawford summit at Bush’s ranch in Texas in 2002, and although it contains nothing incriminating or anything that Blair had not already said publicly, it has still managed to bring out old jibes that Blair was Bush’s ‘poodle‘ and a ‘cheerleader‘ for the Iraq War.
Whatever history writes of Blair’s action in Iraq, one thing he cannot be found guilty of is pandering to the US. The memo, for one, only echoes the same sentiments of a July 2002 Cabinet briefing paper on the Crawford summit that said British support would be forthcoming ‘provided that certain conditions were met’. Second, the iteration that Blair will ‘stand by you’ does not imply he would follow the US line on Iraq. Blair had, in fact, been building the case for regime change in Iraq some two and a half years before 9/11 while George Bush was still an isolationist Governor in Texas.
When Blair gave a speech in Chicago in 1999 welcoming the defeat and overthrow of Slobodan Milošević after the intervention in Kosovo, he firstly drew attention to an inescapable confrontation with Saddam Hussein and then invited the international community to measure up to its humanitarian responsibilities, even when the UN could not:
‘Many of our problems have been caused by two dangerous and ruthless men—Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milošević . Both have been prepared to wage vicious campaigns against sections of their own community. As a result of these destructive policies both have brought calamity on their own peoples. Instead of enjoying its oil wealth, Iraq has been reduced to poverty, with political life stultified through fear …
… Non-interference has long been considered an important principle of international order. And it is not one we would want to jettison too readily… . But the principle of non-interference must be qualified in important respects. Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter. When oppression produces massive flows of refugees which unsettle neighbouring countries then they can properly be described as “threats to international peace and security”. When regimes are based on minority rule they lose legitimacy’.
As Blair uttered these words, Saddam Hussein was busy building up his legacy of genocide and aggression by flouting UN resolutions, starving the Iraqi people, and prosecuting a racist war of extermination on the Kurds against coalition No-fly Zones.
But while Blair had been signalling the benefits of a world without Saddam Hussein, the realist school of International Relations, so influential in the US State Department throughout the 1990s, had been insisting on his survival. The US’ decision to reinstate Kuwaiti sovereignty after the Gulf War but leave Iraq’s fate to a defeated Saddam Hussein was straight out of the Colin Powell playbook. The Powell Doctrine, as it was otherwise called (backed up by Kissinger) argued only to reduce Hussein’s military threat without weakening him to a point where Iraq became a target for covetous neighbours hostile to the US. The result was, predictably, Iraqi suffering. The Iraq-Shia and Kurdish insurgents that elder Bush had incited to arms against Saddam Hussein, were abandoned to die, and vital supplies of food and medicine promised to the Iraqi people in the UN-established oil-for-food programme, instead found their way into Hussein’s personal collection of golden palaces.
In fact, US policy throughout the 1990s in Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo (before ‘poodle’ Blair had persuaded Clinton to change course on Milošević) had continued very much within this narrowly-defined conception of national interest. It tended to shy away from its internationalist commitments and avoid ‘idealistic expectations‘ like ‘regime change’ in favour of contained coexistence with supposedly stable dictatorships.
Blair, however, had been arguing in favour of ‘idealistic expectations’ for some time already. His broad and ambitious grand strategy—the ‘Doctrine of International Community‘—had made a virtue of ‘values’ in foreign policy, marking one of the most open defences of humanitarian intervention by a world leader to date:
‘Now our actions are guided by a more subtle blend of mutual self-interest and moral purpose in defending the values we cherish. In the end, values and interests merge. If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society then that is in our national interests too. The spread of our values makes us safer’.
This was the foundation for a ‘foreign policy with an ethical dimension‘, as Blair’s foreign secretary, Robin Cook, had put it. And it could be seen most clearly through the interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone where there was no strategic or commercial interest in sight. In Kosovo, Blair’s campaign for NATO strikes had repelled the ethnic cleansing of Albanians and led to the trial of the most brutal European dictator since WW2. In Sierra Leone, Blair’s hostage rescue mission had defeated Liberia’s invading warlords and boosted flagging UN operations in Freetown.
In both cases, Blair had campaigned either alone or with extreme US reluctance. His rhetoric of universal values and humanitarian intervention had passed straight through the US State Department. And it was not until 9/11 that a US President would begin the same talk as Blair had been doing for years.