Book Review,  Labour Party

Hitchens on Blair

Hitchens has a not uncritical review of Blair’s A Journey (which I am currently enjoying reading). Here is a section dealing with Blair’s outstanding work in the international arena:

The Tories had been all but pro-Milošević during the Balkan horrors—a cause of shame that Blair did much to redeem by pressing a hard line on the attempted Serbian cleansing of Kosovo. The record plainly shows that he was more determined than Washington on this occasion, while expressing the imperative for a badly compromised Europe to face the responsibility for its neglected Adriatic front. Before the fall of Milošević, furthermore, he went to Chicago in April 1999 to deliver a significant speech, in which he stressed that internal affairs were not a disguise under which despots should be allowed to conduct genocide or rearmament. He specifically mentioned the outstanding case of Saddam Hussein. (At this point, George W. Bush was a somewhat isolationist governor of Texas.)

In a disappointingly short chapter, Blair also tells the almost forgotten story of his decision to use unilateral British force in the case of Sierra Leone. This West African country, originally established as a haven for free slaves, was by the year 2000 being overrun by a criminal mercenary force sponsored by the insane Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. Its funds came from the blood-diamond racket, and its tactics were those of child-soldier enslavement and hand-lopping. A vestigial UN force had done about as much to stop this as UN forces customarily do. After a direct appeal from Sierra Leone’s president, Blair decided to commit troops, who very swiftly dispersed the mercenaries and arrested their ghastly leader, Foday Sankoh. It is not too much to say that another Rwanda had been averted. Blair might have been forgiven for claiming more credit in this instance than he actually does.

The Kosovo and Sierra Leone episodes, and the Chicago statement, do form a necessary prelude to the chapters that dominate the central part of the book, and that concern Afghanistan and Iraq. Here, Blair throws off his jokiness and folksiness and makes the stand-or-fall case for his legacy. The relevant pages are best read in concert with the book Thirty Days: Tony Blair and the Test of History. This important account was written by Peter Stothard, who as editor of The Times of London was the man who arranged the summit between Blair and Rupert Murdoch and thus initiated the media coup that Blair’s “Old Labour” critics most despised: his endorsement by the most loathed press tycoon of them all. In the all-consuming crisis of 2003, Blair’s capacity as a political persuader and salesman, and his standing as a statesman, were both put to the most-exacting tests. Stothard’s careful conclusion, after a month spent standing next to Blair and his advisers during the preparation for and start of the war in Iraq, was that whether they were right or wrong, they did believe sincerely in what they alleged against Saddam Hussein.
Blair’s pedantic restatement of the legal case against Saddam Hussein, and of the thesaurus of unenforced UN resolutions, now reads, if anything, more strongly than it did at the time. But he would have preferred to be making the moral argument (which is by no means invalidated by having not been put). In the end, he made the lethal mistake of letting his tactical and public-relations instinct overrule his grander and braver one, and petitioned for a second UN resolution authorizing war, for no larger reason than that it would allow him to win over his own party. This was his last concession to Old Labour, which did this time have the electorate on its side. And it proved calamitous, because it involved producing all the half-true claims about Saddam’s “imminent threat” that later discredited the whole enterprise. When compared with the simultaneous contortions of Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac and Vladimir Putin, Blair’s attitude seems almost noble and was actuated by an authentic concern about preventing a Euro-American schism.