Just before Tony Blair left Downing Street in the summer of 2007, he was interviewed in the Guardian by Timothy Garton Ash, the transatlantic writer on international affairs. At a time when Blair’s stock had fallen low, and when his own party was desperate to see the back of him, he was presented with glowing enthusiasm: “Tony Blair bounds into the garden of 10 Downing Street, looking as if he's ready for another 10 years there ...” And, “The outgoing prime minister seems full of energy, mental vigour and that almost compulsive passion to convince which he shares with Nicolas Sarkozy.” When asked what his legacy was—“What is the essence of Blairism?”—he gave an answer that “could not be clearer: ‘It is liberal interventionism’.”
A little more than two years later, at the Labour party conference in September 2009, another journalist found that party not surprisingly bedraggled and demoralised even before the calamitous defeat Labour would suffer at the general election the following spring, and not sure what they stood for or could agree on—except for one thing. The entire party from left to right was at any rate united in the view that “Blair’s doctrine of ‘liberal interventionism’ is one part of the inheritance that should be dumped.” Even by those who were beguiled by that doctrine at one time recognized that it was finished, dead and buried in the sands of Iraq.
But lo, here it comes again, back from the dead! Western countries are intervening in Libya, on ostensibly liberal and humanitarian grounds. British aircraft turned back rather than risk killing civilians, but French jets have already bombed Muammar Gaddafi’s ground troops, on orders from the compulsively passionate President Sarkozy.
There are crucial differences between Sarkozy and Cameron: under Sarkozy’s predecessor Jacques Chirac, France opposed the invasion of Iraq. Blair took his country to war, in deceitful fashion and with lamentable consequences, and Cameron, as a freshman MP, voted for the war eight years ago this month. Sarkozy may overlook that and see instead a parallel with Margaret Thatcher. She fought and won a military campaign, and then on the back of that won a triumphant election soon afterwards. Sarkozy faces re-election next year. Could Libya be his Falklands?
No doubt Cameron would like to emulate Lady Thatcher’s electoral success, but he is haunted by the political shade of another prime minister. Asked whether he was now Tony Blair, Cameron hotly denied this dreadful charge, and he has throughout done everything he can to avoid the appearance that in Libya he is stepping in Blair’s Iraqi footsteps. In particular he has stressed the legality of the operation, thanks to the Security Council resolution (and in contrast to Iraq), and when he speaks in Parliament he is accompanied by Dominic Grieve, his intelligent and capable Attorney General.
This is to make a very deliberate point. One of the worst things about the Iraq war (which is saying something) was the way that Peter Goldsmith, Blair’s Attorney General, was suborned, like the consigliere of some capo, to revise the first opinion he had given about he dubious legality of an invasion: see the formidable dissection of this shameful story by Philippe Sands, the eminent English jurist, in the New York Review of Books.
And yet Blair won’t go away. On Saturday [Mar 19], he turned up in the London Times, reprising many of his old tunes: intervention in Libya came not a moment too soon, we must teach the Arabs “modern, democratic change,” events must not be “hijacked yet again by the extremists”. That morning there was an exchange on BBC radio between two journalistic eminences, Sir Max Hastings, sometime editor of the Daily Telegraph, and Bronwen Maddox, formerly of the Financial Times and now editor of the monthly magazine Prospect.
What Cameron was doing was either very brave or very foolhardy, said Hastings, adding that “If I had any doubts, when David Cameron received the endorsement of Tony Blair, that was the prospective kiss of death.” And Ms Maddox agreed: Blair’s support for Cameron “won’t help him at all in the Arab world”.
He hasn’t gone away, but maybe he should. Can even a man of Blair’s energy and “compulsive passion” not see that he now damages every cause he supports?
Image by Tania Saiz