Tony Blair's recent travails, last week over his bid to become the first president of the European Union and today with the start of Britain's Iraq War inquiry, stand as something of a cautionary tale for President Barack Obama. Blair was long the favorite to become the first president of the European Union. But in the end, pilloried on the left for his leading role in the Iraq War and still not supported by the right, he was supplanted by a little-known Belgian bureaucrat.
Just as America had Obamamania in 2008, Britain had Blairmania in 1997. "Things Can Only Get Better" blared, as it were, the ubiquitous Blair campaign song.
Tony Blair's farewell speech.
"Everybody voted for him. He wasn't a politician; he was a craze." That's how the title character puts it in the deliciously vicious roman a clef novel by former Blair friend Robert Harris, The Ghost (as in ghostwriter of the ex-prime minister's memoirs), which was was being made into a movie by Roman Polanski when he was arrested in Switzerland.
Blair ushered in an era of "Cool Britannia," which many critics say morphed into Cruel Britannia as he swapped his famous friendship with Bill Clinton for an infamous friendship with George W. Bush.
As Britain's Opposition Leader in 1994, Blair, along with Clinton, swiftly emerged as a chief advocate of the the global "Third Way," between the sclerotic sort of socialism which made Labour a consistent loser in Britain and a hyper-capitalism which hollowed out communities. With Blair, Labour became New Labour, a remade force able to take on the reigning Conservatives. Well, more than able to take on the Tories. Able to shatter them, actually, which Blair proceeded to do.
"Things Can Only Get Better," the ubiquitous campaign song of Tony Blair and New Labour.
Blair reinvented a moribund political party, won three national elections (the only Labour politician to do so) beginning with his landslide win in 1997 -- the largest in 165 years -- and quickly became a very major world figure.
Under Blair, Britain "modernised" as "Cool Britannia," and indicators on the economy, the environment, and crime improved for his decade-plus as British prime minister. He made Britain a more inclusive society. And he settled the bloody, decades long conflict in Northern Ireland. Blair and Clinton formed a strong working partnership as Blair became a global player.
Fatefully, Blair became quite the interventionist abroad. He took Britain to war, in one form or another, five times. First when he and Clinton decided to conduct an air war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq when the Iraqi dictator proved intransigent on weapons inspections and other matters. Next when, at Blair's determined instigation, NATO launched an air war to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and bring down the Serbian dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic. Then Blair intervened in the African nation of Sierra Leone, with British forces landing to end a brutal civil war.
Then came 9/11, and Blair, who had formed an unlikely friendship with George W. Bush, was quick to spring to America's side. British resources, notably intelligence, and forces, including its crack special ops forces, were instrumental in helping America overthrow the Taliban's theocratic dictatorship in Afghanistan and rout Al Qaeda from its redoubt.
Bush and Blair address the people of Iraq as the invasion begins.
Then came Iraq. The war far too far, to borrow a phrase and change it a bit. By 2002, it was apparent that Tony Blair had developed a taste for intervention and for turning out dictators, as well as a commitment to his alliance with the US in the 9/11-derived war on terror. Iraq was next on the agenda of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the coterie of neoconservative theorists around them, as it had been all along. Initially skeptical about an Iraq invasion, Blair was caught up in the move. Blair and his people believed that he had major influence over Bush, having banked a great deal of credit with the Afghanistan operation, intel/special ops moves around the world, and world diplomacy in the UN and elsewhere. It turned out that, despite all that and their personal friendship, he did not.
Saddam Hussein was unpopular in much of the Arab world and was a largely secular dictator who was actually oppressing much of his population, especially the Shia. But the Bush/Cheney team, as we've seen, closely associated with various charlatans in the Iraqi exile community and elsewhere, had a totally unrealistic view of how Iraq might be secured and governed in the aftermath of victory in a conventional war. Blair wanted a strong UN role in the governance of Iraq, but Cheney and his allies worked assiduously to undermine Blair's influence with Bush on that and other matters. Such as engagement with Iran and Syria, which Blair has always advocated. To the hardline neoconservatives, Blair, actually a man of the center-left, was a socialist who did not share their view of a civilizational war, and that was that.
A BBC retrospective on Blair.
The other big problem was how to sell an Iraq war. Saddam Hussein was a terrible dictator, but that hardly made him unique in the world. His links with Al Qaeda were slight, and there was no serious evidence linking him to the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York, despite what Dick Cheney and the neocons said. You couldn't actually say that we were invading Iraq for its oil. Which, of course, never did pay for the occupation, a later claim of Donald Rumsfeld's. That left WMD (weapons of mass destruction).
Which Saddam Hussein, for all his understandable bluster, didn't really have. He maintained the facade of having them -- consistently blocking weapons inspections -- to maintain fear and order within and to seem more powerful to other countries. Incidentally, merely because an irritating country says it can do things doesn't mean it should be taken seriously. Otherwise, we would believe that North Korea was about to take over the world. It's the job of intelligence services and their decision-making masters in government to determine what is bullshit and act accordingly.
But Bush and Cheney pushed the myth of Iraqi WMD, and its supposedly imminent threat. Because it served their nitwit purpose to do so. Blair lent his credibility to this nonsense and took Britain to war. A war which, as we saw at the Azores Summit prior to the invasion, Blair was far better at explaining and selling than was the falteringly inarticulate Bush.
A war which played right into Al Qaeda's hands, which wanted the West tied down in military operations in the middle of the Islamic world, both to drain America's resources and to inflame a new generation of jihadists. A war which provided Iran with the opening to become the great power of the region, an ambition which has not yet come to fruition.
A war which hamstrung Tony Blair, festooning his once glittering reputation with streamers of screaming charges of "B.Liar," that he not only used his very considerable powers of persuasion to help sell an unsellable war but also facilitated the torture of British citizens at the hands of CIA and Pakistani interrogators.
The Ghost teaser trailer.
Could something like this happen to Barack Obama? Could he pin America down in another faraway quagmire, going far beyond what is needed to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become the base for "The Base," Al Qaeda? Could he see his shining stand against torture slide into a de facto policy of torture?
Blair, who never officially announced his candidacy for the European presidency, made several late moves to try to find his way through the complex thicket of European politics, with calls to various leaders and a speech in Switzerland where he appealed to the continent's dominant center-right faction by warning against too much governmental intervention to overcome the global recession.
But it didn't work. Blair was too big a figure for some of the smaller countries and for some leaders of the larger countries with global aspirations of their own; too controversial for the left and too left for the right. And so the old political dictum that you can't beat somebody with nobody was proved wrong, at least in this instance.
He continues as special Mideast envoy of the Quartet (America, Britain, Russia, and the European Union). But the question of Israel and Palestine continues to be largely intractable. His supposed ally Secretary of State Condi Rice imagined she would negotiate a peace -- at which she clearly failed -- and pushed Blair off to the building up of the Palestinian Authority. Which is only a fraction of the equation. A friend who visited the region last week said that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders she saw barely mentioned Tony Blair.