Blair and neoconservativism
From the UK:
Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq has its roots in a long tradition of left anti-totalitarianism, argues Oliver Kamm
The late Robin Cook wrote that ‘the judgement of history may be that the invasion of Iraq has been the biggest blunder in British foreign and security policy in the half century since Suez.’ Many – perhaps most – Labour supporters would share Cook’s scepticism about the merits of the war. But his implication that Iraq was an aberration in Tony Blair’s foreign policy was clearly mistaken. The overthrow of theocratic despotism in Afghanistan and Ba’athist tyranny in Iraq is central to Blair’s record. It is part of a distinctive approach that has marked his premiership. That stance represents continuity with the principles of an earlier anti-totalitarian left, and a shrewd strategic judgement of where Britain’s security interests lie in the early 21st century. It is, moreover, sharply at odds with the philosophy and practice of John Major’s government.
It was understandable that, during the general election campaign, Blair tried to shift debate from an unpopular war towards domestic issues, but it makes no sense in the long run to allow the cause of regime change to go by default. The foreign policy of Blair is more than Iraq, but Iraq is how history will judge him, and supporters of the prime minister need to make the case for regime change.
“Making the spread of democracy the cornerstone of foreign policy extends progressive values and at the same time protects our security”
Let us start with what was genuinely the biggest blunder in British foreign policy since Suez. This was Britain’s failure, under a Tory government, to prevent Serb aggression against Bosnia in the early 1990s. Policy at that time consisted of what the historian Brendan Simms has termed a conservative pessimism about the limits to the effective exercise of power in the international order. A mix of quietism and condescension resulted in humanitarian disaster. It also sparked a crisis in transatlantic relations, exemplified in defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind’s contemptuous dismissal of one American politician’s concerns with the words: ‘You Americans don’t know the horrors of war.’ (The politician was Senator Bob Dole, who was nearly killed and permanently disabled in the second world war.)
You cannot understand Blair’s policies in Iraq without that background. Long before 9/11, he took a fundamentally different approach from Major, Rifkind and Douglas Hurd, and not only in declaratory policy. In Kosovo, he confronted Serb aggression rather than acquiesced in it. He also sent British troops to preserve Sierra Leone from hand-lopping rebels, aware both of the demands of liberal internationalism and of the potential for a failed state to become far more than a regional problem. He argued his case long before President Bush came to see the urgency of promoting democracy overseas.
Indeed, as a presidential candidate in 2000, Bush had denounced interventionist ‘nation-building’ and proposed the withdrawal of American commitments in the Balkans. The coincidence of view between a Labour prime minister and a conservative president makes many on the left uncomfortable, but there is no reason that it should. In pursuing regime change, Bush has adopted Blairism, not the other way round.
Of course, there were grievous failures of intelligence over WMD, and the maladministration of post-Ba’athist Iraq has been a scandalous dereliction of duty. But there should be no questioning of the immense benefits to Iraq and to ourselves of overthrowing a gangster regime. Saddam was not responsible for 9/11, but he welcomed it and sought a WMD capability in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. Ba’athist Iraq did not have stockpiles of WMD, but it did possess dual-use facilities that, according to Charles Duelfer of the Iraq Survey Group, could have produced chemical and biological weapons on a rapid turnaround.
Saddam was a sponsor of terrorism, and the most likely conduit for Islamist groups to obtain WMD. There were clear grounds for expecting Saddam to be a regional menace, and few for expecting him to be containable in the way that the Soviet Union was during the cold war. Soviet leaders were brutal and expansionist, but they were rational and calculating political agents. Saddam launched three wars in 17 years (against Iran in 1974, Iran again in 1980, and Kuwait in 1990) that almost destroyed his regime.
But there is a wider issue in the case for regime change. What marked British policy under Major, and was the principal weakness of US foreign policy in the cold war, was a ‘realism’ that took an impossibly narrow view of western strategic interests. In the Balkans in the 1990s, British policymakers allowed a nation to be dismembered by aggressive and genocidal nationalism. In the cold war, American administrations were prone to ally with authoritarian regimes as a bulwark against communism. Both approaches were far from serving the purposes that realism set itself. What overcame communist totalitarianism in eastern Europe was partly collective security involving alliances and military preparedness. But, at root, it was the power of an idea: the appeal of an open and liberal society, as opposed to a closed and sclerotic one. The task of western governments against a new totalitarian threat – though a very old, atavistic totalitarian idea, in Islamist fanaticism – is similarly to implant the notion of freedom.
The Blair-Bush policy (the names should be in that order, as Blair is the policy’s initiator) understands the limits of realism. In the realist model of the international order, states are often compared to billiard balls. A billiard ball’s internal composition is opaque and unimportant; what matters is how the ball interacts with others on the table. It is a model entirely inappropriate to current foreign policy debates, where, if we are to safeguard our security, we need to engage in the battle of ideas. What serves our security is the spread of liberty, not the balancing of power among competing states. No western statesman has better articulated this case than Blair, and he is right.
After 9/11, commentators immediately sought a ‘root cause’ for the destruction, and alighted upon whatever they had been intellectually exercised with beforehand: poverty, global warming, a Palestinian state, and many others. These issues are urgent challenges in their own right, but they are tangential at best to the task of defeating theocratic barbarism. It was not poverty that drove a group of well-educated and affluent Saudis to slam aeroplanes into office blocks and government buildings that September morning in 2001, but ideology. What animates al-Qaida is not the failings of our societies, but what we exemplify: pluralism, religious liberty, sexual equality and liberalism. We cannot mollify our enemies without abandoning our values, and we would not succeed even then.
In the cold war, the nuclear stand off that had dominated world affairs for two generations was finally robbed of its terror by a transformation in the underlying political relations between states. Totalitarianism gave way to the promise of constitutionalism. Our most urgent task today is to transform a region that has acted as an incubator for religious fanaticism by failing to provide an outlet for any other kind of dissidence. Making the spread of democracy the cornerstone of foreign policy extends progressive values and at the same time protects our security. It is a principle that the overthrow of Saddam has served. Regime change in states that have committed atrocities against captive peoples ought to be the thing of which Labour supporters are proudest.
is author of Anti-Totalitarianism: the Left-wing Case for a Neo-Conservative Foreign Policy