Iraq looms large in Tony Blair’s legacy

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH, a contributing editor to Opinion, is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

ALL POLITICAL careers end in failure, but it is not always the same failure. As British Prime Minister Tony Blair departs, he is deeply unpopular at home but rather respected abroad. Only 22% of British respondents in a recent poll think he can be trusted, while 59% say he has not raised Britain’s standing in the world.

I asked Blair to give me a balance sheet of his foreign policy over the last decade. The essence of Blairism in foreign policy, he told me, is liberal interventionism. His foreign policy has been about combining soft and hard power and about strengthening Britain’s alliances with the United States and the European Union.

There are two ways of responding to this. One is to disagree with the agenda itself. Liberal interventionism, you could say, is a lousy idea. What business is it of Britain’s to stop foreigners from killing each other? Its superior, pacific soft power is demonstrated by not intervening anywhere. And the British don’t want to be close to the U.S. in any case. (Blairophobes of the left.) Or to Europe. (Blairophobes of the right.)


The other response is to examine his record in the light of his proclaimed goals. If you believe, as I do, in genuine liberal intervention — that is, intervention to prevent genocide or other massively inhumane or life-threatening behavior in another state — then high on the credit side of the balance sheet must be Kosovo. There, Blair led the way in forging an international action to reverse a genocide being perpetrated by Slobodan Milosevic against the mainly Muslim Kosovar Albanians. Switzerland it isn’t, but Kosovo is on the way to being a European country. For a liberal interventionist, Kosovo was Blair’s finest hour.

Britain’s relations with the U.S. and itspartners in the EU are better than they were in 1997. In the European context, the devolution of power to Scotland and Wales and the amazing spectacle of Irish republicans and unionists starting to govern together in Northern Ireland must be counted to his credit. Britain is also stronger in Europe and the world because it has a relatively strong economy mixed with a partly reformed welfare state.

For all the problems that remain, you must ask this question: Who is better off — Britain after 10 years of Blair, France after 12 years of Jacques Chirac, Germany following eight years of Gerhard Schroeder or the United States in the seventh year of George W. Bush?

On the debit side, there is one overwhelming red figure: Iraq. Blair keeps insisting that history will give the verdict on Iraq, but we can already say this with confidence: Iraq is a disaster. To describe it as a case of liberal interventionism is the greatest disservice anyone could do to the cause of liberal interventionism. We went to war on a false prospectus and without proper authority. The failure to prepare for the likely consequences was a disgrace.

Drawing away troops from Afghanistan when the job there was only half-done, we have created two failures instead of one possible success. The Shiite-Sunni rift has been inflamed across the Muslim world. The theocratic dictatorship of Iran has been greatly strengthened. The moral authority of the U.S. is in tatters and that of Britain dragged down with it. Iraq has alienated Muslims everywhere. Need I go on?

Iraq also exposed the weakness of another strand of Blairite foreign policy: the attempt to influence U.S. policy by working privately through the corridors of power in Washington while avoiding all public disagreement. This is what I call the Jeeves school of diplomacy. Like the model butler in P.G. Wodehouse’s stories, Britain is impeccably loyal in public but privately whispers to Bertie Wooster (a.k.a. George W. Bush), “Is that wise, sir?” This approach has failed.


Britain alone is no longer big enough to sway the hyperpower. What the U.S. needs is a friend big enough that Washington has to listen to it. That friend can only be a strong European Union, speaking with a single voice.

Here’s the third key failing of Blair’s foreign policy. To achieve that European voice requires the full commitment of Germany, France and Britain, but Britain’s European policy is drastically constrained, if not actually dictated, by its Euroskeptic media. Blair saw the problem clearly, but he never dared to face down the unelected newspaper proprietors and editors on whom New Labor has depended so heavily.

Three lessons emerge here. First, never again must the flag of liberal interventionism be so abused. For the last resort of military action, we must have just cause, based on facts, not fiction dressed up as secret intelligence, and proper legal, democratic and multilateral authority. And we must be prepared for the long haul afterward. Second, only a strong Europe, speaking with one voice, can be the strategic partner that the U.S. badly needs. Third, in order to get that strong Europe, the British prime minister must face down the unelected media barons who currently dictate Britain’s European policy.

So let Blair’s presumptive successor, Gordon Brown, learn the right lessons from this checkered history.