Blair’s belated realism

Anyone who has followed Blair’s decision-making on Iraq may have been surprised by his piece in yesterday’s ObserverHe argued there that moralising about England’s riots made bad policy. 

Focus on the specific problem and we can begin on a proper solution. Elevate this into a high faluting wail … and we will depress ourselves unnecessarily, trash our own reputation abroad and, worst of all, miss the chance to deal with the problem in the only way that will work.

I tend to agree. But from someone who seemingly elevated the moral imperative to support Bush’s Iraq policy (‘doing the right thing’) above an approach that focused on the specific problem of WMD it is, well, surprising. He admits in this article he was wrong to take a moralistic approach in 1993 following James Bulger’s murder. But, perhaps with the Iraq Inquiry’s work in mind, he was not willing to make any connections to Iraq.

About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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4 Responses to Blair’s belated realism

  1. Whilst i too tend to agree, there’s a danger here in equating the domestic political and the international political. And to be fair to Blair, I’m not sure that ‘doing the right thing’ was a moral conviction so much as a political one: Iraq’s human rights record, for example, features much further down the list of ‘reasons’ for supporting a policy of regime change than do political analyses, primary of which are 1) that 9/11 changed calculations and rendered containment of Saddam’s regime unsustainable and 2) that bandwagoning with the United States was in the UK’s national interest. Two arguments that in my view hold little water, particularly given the perils of the regime change alternative. But I’m not sure that Iraq was bad policy because there was moralising involved; it was bad policy because Blair thought US-led regime change was the only way that would work and that the consequences of that were acceptable.

    • Jason Ralph says:

      Good points, although I don’t think we can deny Blair was, as last night’s Newsnight report put it, more “evangelical”. Citing thinking in No.10, that report states that the Libyan intervention was

      “only possible because a stringent set of criteria were satisfied: firstly that western powers were on board, but not only that so was the Arab League; the UN gave its approval as did NATO. By contrast, they [No.10] say, Tony Blair’s doctrine of international intervention would have demanded action even if none of those criteria was satisfied.”

      Now, I’m interested in what gave Blair the authority to demand intervention when these criteria were not satisfied. It might be that human rights was further down the list of reasons for the Iraq War but Blair’s conviction that he was doing the right thing drove him to claim that he and Bush had an authority to wage war when many argued that war was not justified. This ‘conviction’ resonates with Rory Stewart’s Kennan-type contribution to last night’s report:

      “Where Blair got it wrong is that he always exaggerated our fears and he exaggerated our power … that needs to be left behind now. We now need to move into a much more modest world where we’re more humble. Where we say we can do a little bit but we can’t do that much, its about local action … and that is not the stuff of great political speeches”.

      Now, Blair’s piece about the riots on Sunday was more realistic in this sense. His tone was, ‘let’s not exaggerate our fears about the riots and let’s not try to put it all in a grand narrative that misses the point. Let’s be more modest and deal with specific cases with local action.’ He sounded on this domestic issue much more like Stewart on Libya. Also like Stewart, Blair recognised that the realist approach does not necessarily make good politics/great speeches. Had he recognised that after 9/11, and had he not given in to the temptation of the grand narrative and the evangelical response, he may have avoided being swept along by the neoconservatives and avoided British involvement in the Iraq War.

  2. “I’m interested in what gave Blair the authority to demand intervention when these criteria were not satisfied”

    this gets to the heart of the question. but i’m not sure there’s a great deal of evidence that the sources of authority Blair cited can be considered ‘evangelical’ or even especially ‘moral’. Blair’s conviction that it was ‘the right thing to do’ in his phrase, always struck me as more the correct thing to do (in terms of international security and the UK national interest) than it did the ‘morally righteous’ thing to do, otherwise humanitarian concerns rather than WMD would have been at the heart of the argument.

    Coming back to Blair’s sources of authority, he was – i think – remarkably clear on this in Chicago in 1999 when talking about Kosovo (much to the annoyance of the FCO). Of his five tests, you can argue (and I would) that in the case of Iraq diplomatic options had not been exhausted and that plans for the long term were inadequate. Blair would no doubt disagree and say those were satisified along with the other tests, at least in his construction of the Iraq argument. Nowhere does he suggest the UN needs to be on board, or other international organisations, indeed, Blair states that his doctrine of intervention would only work ‘if we have reformed institutions’.

    so essentially what gave Blair authority – in his own mind – was a set of principles, laid out years before over Kosovo. They’re not particularly moral (they are broadly liberal), but they’re really not evangelical. Blair’s ‘conviction’ is often presented in this way as betraying moral certainty; instead i’d suggest his ‘conviction’ resides in a certain arrogance of a man seeking to ‘lead’ by making an unpopular argument.

    Which brings me back to the riots and the issue of exaggeration. Blair clearly placed too much weight on WMD evidence which led him to overstate the Iraq threat, particularly when seeking to buttress the argument as its unpopularity became clear. but it’s the precise opposite of jumping on the populist bandwagon of moral decline as Cameron did after the riots – it was the Lib Dems’ that held the populist cards over Iraq. in Blair’s mind, the approach over Iraq was the realist option (indeed, after a decade of bombing and apparently failed containment, the only one left). It was to address a problem seriously, at its roots, to recognise the danger of the potential nexus between rogue regimes, WMD and terrorism and deal with it.

    I’m not agreeing here with Blair – in fact, I disagree pretty fundamentally with his analysis, which i think identifies the wrong problems and proposes worse solutions. But it seems to me it is an analysis rather than a grand narrative; you don’t find in Blair’s speeches the kind of evangelical universalism of liberal values that you get from Bush, or in more intelligible terms, from Wolfowitz.

    I’ve written elsewhere ( that the danger in putting the Iraq war down to the madness of neocons – American or British – is that it allows us to regard Iraq as an aberration, but the truth is it fits within the kind of prevailing western analysis favouring interventions that liberals used over Kosovo. In this sense at least we can regard Blair not as an evangelical, but as a more consistent liberal than many of those politicians and academics who argued in favour of toppling Milosevic on the basis of humanitarian and security grounds but opposed a similar action against Saddam.

  3. Jason Ralph says:

    There was a link between Kosovo and Iraq, particularly in how Blair’s team tried to square going to war without a second UN resolution explicitly authorising force. I put this case in my British Journal of Politics and International Relations (
    article. But there were also major differences. Taking Cameron’s tests, as reported on Newsnight last night, NATO and the EU were on board over Kosovo (they weren’t on Iraq) and even at the UN Security Council there was a majority in favour of intervention in Kosovo, which arguably made Russia’s threat to veto unreasonable. Blair was therefore acting on the majority opinion on Kosovo, but he was (and we know this from the Iraq Inquiry) acting on behalf of a minority opinion on Iraq. Of course, Iraq was more complicated than the madness of the neocons but I don’t think you can blame all liberals. There clearly was a split between offensive, neoliberal, imperialist liberals (take your pick) and defensive or republican liberals who insist on a respect for law as well as a commitment to other liberal values. If the post-Iraq liberal intervention had to be more multilateral – which is the suggestion from Newsnight about No.10’s tests – then there is clearly a shift to a more defensive liberal position. But as I blogged last week (A progressive security council?) a more offensive liberal position of regime change seems to have operated under the cover of this defensive liberal posture.

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