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Blair’s foreign-policy legacy

Felix Blake
21 December 2006

The Iraq war has ended perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives, destabilised the country and the region, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, divided the countries which undertook the invasion, fuelled terrorism and thus undermined the very goal for which it was undertaken: national security. With that disaster on the score-sheet, what else is there to be said about Tony Blair's "legacy" in foreign policy?

There was widespread excitement, even inside the staid corridors of British government departments dealing with foreign policy, when Labour won the 1997 election. After the long shrill night of Thatcherism, and the selfish Realpolitik of then foreign secretary Douglas Hurd (whose own legacy is measured in Britain's failure to act over Bosnia), Labour's "ethical" foreign policy was almost unreal: could it be that a government could think like this? It was as if Oxfam and Amnesty International had taken over the foreign office. Well, unreal it turned out to be.

Felix Blake is the pseudonym of a former British government official

The tragedy is that it could have been so different. Blair's decision to send British troops to Sierra Leone in 1998 was a brave and unusual innovation - a policy without an iota of self-interest. Kosovo in 1999, likewise. President Clinton havered over intervention, despite the ethnic cleansing of almost a million Kosovo Albanians, and had to be prodded into action by Blair. You only have to imagine what the Conservatives would have done had they still been in power to see the difference: another opportunity for Hurd to sneer at the "something-must-be-done brigade". In Kosovo, it is hard to find any Kosovo Albanian who does not love - yes, love - Tony Blair for what he did. People name their children after him.

Foreign policy was at last on a different track from the narrow calculation of national self-interest. Britain was central to the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC). In a landmark speech in Chicago in April 1999 - in the midst of the Kosovo war - Tony Blair conceptualised the trend of "humanitarian intervention": the right to intervene to save people from their own despotic ruler. There was talk of incorporating this concept into international law.

The 9/11 hijackers put paid to that. Or rather, it was the choice to frame the western response not as upholding the law but as a war. Thus were the terrorists legitimised as combatants rather than what they were, criminals. The choice of small words had big consequences. The solidarity of 12 September 2001, when the world stood with the United States and its allies, was squandered.

Also in openDemocracy on the British prime minister's legacy:

Roger Scruton, "Tony Blair's legacy"
(18 December 2006)

Norman Fairclough, "Tony Blair and the language of politics"
(20 December 2006)

It was not immediately apparent in the invasion of Afghanistan, legitimate as self-defence, that quickly followed. But even here, the strategy began to teeter off the rails. Too few troops were sent, the necessary numbers kept back for Saddam-toppling. Afghanistan today is now more lawless and violent than when the British, Americans and their allies first went in; some even speak of a narco-state in the making. Meanwhile, other darker work - Guantànamo, officially-sanctioned torture, extraordinary rendition - was underway, which Britain either collaborated with or ignored (which is worse?) And then there's Iraq.

Humanitarian intervention is today a dirty word. Khartoum refuses UN peacekeepers in Darfur, citing Iraq in its defence. Our authority - moral as well as legal - to stop genocide is in shreds.

The paradox of this history is that Blair's moral intent appears consistent throughout: Milosevic, terrorists, Saddam bad; getting rid of them, good, even if the rules say otherwise. But in the real world, actions and consequences matter, not motivations. Ultimately, there is really only one measure that matters - the blood of others. If this is the measure, not much more need be said.

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