It is the strange fate of retiring British Prime Minister Tony Blair to be called a lackey for adhering to his own deep-felt foreign-policy vision.
Long before President Bush arrived in the White House, Blair championed the idea that the West should intervene to stop human-rights abuses in other countries, putting morality above respect for the borders of sovereign countries. It wasn’t until after 9/11 that Bush embraced a version of this expansive vision, essentially making him a convert to the Blair view rather than the other way around.
In the debate regarding the Iraq war, Blair merely applied his principles of liberal interventionism that had led him to support a war against another aggressive, human-rights-abusing dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, in the Balkans. In an April 1999 speech, Blair linked Milosevic and Saddam Hussein as “dangerous and ruthless men” who had “brought calamity on their own peoples.” Stopping one had been right, and so was stopping the other.
Many of Blair’s fellow liberal interventionists, however, weren’t going to let consistency get in the way of opposing “Bush’s war.” Their support for a robustly moralistic foreign policy ended as soon as it was picked up by a conservative Republican. There were a handful of liberal interventionists who backed the Iraq War, but they dropped off when it turned from an easy liberation to a grinding counterinsurgency. Recognizing the evil of our enemy and the humanitarian stakes of failure, Blair held firm.
In this sense, he has been the last liberal interventionist standing. When passions cool over Iraq and Bush leaves the stage, the realism of the likes of James Baker will lose its fashion on the left. Barack Obama, an opponent of the Iraq War, has already given a Blair-esque foreign-policy address. But Blair will have been nearly alone in keeping liberal-interventionist priorities throughout the Clinton and Bush years. Rather than “Bush’s poodle,” Blair has been a bulldog for his beliefs.
Those beliefs have meant that he took part in no less than four wars, and probably would have welcomed a fifth in Darfur. He supported humanitarian military action in Europe (Kosovo) and in Africa (Sierra Leone), with U.N. support (Afghanistan) and without (Iraq). President Bush once said, “When somebody hurts, government has got to move.” Blair applies that (not the least bit conservative) insight internationally, with the government bringing along the paratroopers when it moves.
Since there is an overwhelming amount of “hurt” in our broken world, the question becomes how to discriminate among proposed interventions. Which are important enough to warrant force and which aren’t? Blair argues that they are all important. In the new, interdependent global environment, old distinctions between a foreign policy based on morality and national interest have collapsed. This is overstated, but it is true that threats to the international order come almost exclusively from regimes that also abuse human rights.
Hence a coldblooded conservative concerned only with America’s security can support the same Iraq War that Tony Blair endorses on achingly idealistic humanitarian grounds. But not all human-rights abusers are significant security threats. And the Iraq War has reminded us that just because a cause is right, it isn’t necessarily prudent. The cost in blood and treasure that the American and British publics are willing to bear in interventions they (rightly or wrongly) don’t consider directly related to the national interest is smaller than Blair might hope.
That said, Blair acted on his liberal foreign-policy views — a throwback to William Gladstone in the British tradition and to Woodrow Wilson in the American — with honor. He confronted America presidents when he thought they were wrong — pushing Bill Clinton to send ground troops to Kosovo, for instance — and stood by them when they were embattled on behalf of things he too believed. His foreign-policy vision might have overreached and he had other important failings as a leader, but he was never anyone’s poodle.