LONDON — Tony Blair has a powerful claim to being one of the most successful British politicians of any recent generation, at least in domestic economic and social policy. But history will remember him mainly for his strategic error in going to war in Iraq.
During his 10 years in power, Blair and his chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, gave Britain one of the longest periods of economic stability, relatively high growth and low unemployment that it had ever known. In this respect, Blair’s premiership marked a fundamental break with the Labor Party’s tax-and-spend tradition. It also established a new tradition of stability in economic policy, continuing and reinforcing the previous Conservative government’s commitment to fiscal discipline and low inflation. Stable economic policy and rapid growth, in turn, enabled Blair’s government to pour extra money into education and the National Health Service.
Yet Blair’s domestic legacy is a mood of disillusion and mistrust, especially of Blair himself. One reason is that a significant portion of Blair’s party (which he renamed “New Labor”) never reconciled itself to the primacy that he gave to free-market principles over its old Socialist or Social Democratic values. Another is that Blair consistently seemed to pay much less attention to Parliament than to the rightwing tabloid press: the spin and media manipulation to which his office devoted so much effort worked wonders at first, but soon generated deep skepticism and mistrust.
But the main reason for Britain’s popular disillusion with Blair comes down to his role in the Iraq war, which was launched with the ostensible aim of pre-empting Iraq’s use weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Of course, as we now know, WMD were never found, and, worse, evidence came to light showing that Blair was aware that the Bush administration was committed to regime change, regardless of their existence.
The infamous Downing Street memorandum of July 23, 2002, eight months before the outbreak of war, stated explicitly that “The intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy.”
In short, when Blair took Britain to war, he deliberately misled Parliament and the electorate about the ostensible rationale for it. When no WMD were found, Blair fell back on the previously unavowed justification that the removal of Saddam Hussein was the “right thing to do.”
Unfortunately, the Bush administration did not foresee that Hussein’s removal would precipitate a multisided insurgency and civil war. These dangers were predictable, and the world now knows that the war has proved a terrible failure of American strategy, and may yet have even more catastrophic consequences.
So why did Blair support it? Part of the answer goes back to Blair’s first big foreign policy adventure, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999.
In 1998-1999 Serbia had embarked on violent repression of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority, driving roughly 400,000 Kosovars from their homes. Diplomatic efforts by the outside world proved ineffective, so in March 1999, NATO began a 78-day bombing campaign against the Serbs. Blair was at the forefront among Western leaders in pressing for NATO action, and to justify this innovation in outside intervention he proclaimed “a new doctrine of international community” that made it a “just war,” because it was based on superior Western values.
One of Blair’s character flaws is self-righteousness, an excessive confidence — perhaps an extrapolation of his Christian faith — that he knows what is correct, and is therefore entitled to act accordingly. In the case of the Iraq war, Blair has never conceded that the war was mistaken in conception or disastrous in practice: For him, it was still “the right thing to do.”
Blair leaves office before the full consequences of the Iraq war have been played out. There is no sign of an end to the sectarian violence, and little prospect that Iraq can become a peaceful, unitary democracy. Moreover, the convulsions in Iraq may well have incalculable repercussions throughout the Middle East.
One consequence, from a British perspective, is that it is now virtually impossible to imagine that any future prime minister could engage in another big military adventure primarily out of loyalty to an American president. Indeed, it is possible that Blair, through his complicity in the Iraq war, has inflicted major damage on the very idea of a “special relationship” between Britain and the United States. This relationship was always more special for the British than for the Americans, who scarcely recognize its existence. But if it has now been discredited in the minds of the British people, the result may be a new element of independence into British strategic thinking.
Another consequence is that Britain’s moral standing has been damaged alongside that of the U.S. But the damage to America’s moral position is more serious for the health of the world. It is uncertain whether Blair could have dissuaded U.S. President George W. Bush from waging war in Iraq. Nevertheless, by enthusiastically backing Bush’s war, his legacy will forever remain deeply compromised.
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