The Rehabilitation of Blair

"Odious little lying lickspittle turd."
"Neo-con."
"Islamophobe."
“War Criminal!”

Rarely, outside of British media, is former Prime Minister Tony Blair discussed without an attempt to reprise his dubious role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In Britain’s now-bleak political landscape, however, a certain nostalgia for his tenure has emerged. This development may seem strange or even regressive to foreign bystanders, familiar with the hyper-moral grandstanding of Russell Brand or Noam Chomsky. But, when faced with the spectre of the Labour Party's new, Marxist-flavoured leader Jeremy Corbyn, we should all take the opportunity to remember that no single policy maketh the man. Mr. Blair’s foreign policy, eclipsed by the Iraq War fiasco, needs to be re-contextualized to account for his triumphs, as well as his much publicized blunders.

Let’s turn the page back on history to recall the ‘peaces’ won under Blair’s watch. Brokered by then-President Bill Clinton, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement put to rest a 30-year sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, marked by fratricide and indiscriminate terror. In contrast to his predecessors—like Margaret Thatcher—Blair was pragmatic, dealing with the deadlocked Unionists and Republicans to build a road to peace. Blair struck out alone to pressure Ireland’s Prime Minister to engage with the peace process, placating Unionists, and bringing forth Mr. Clinton to ease the minds of the Republicans. And while the Good Friday Agreement did not directly quell the conflict (further negotiations were held), Blair’s government should be acknowledged for making difficult concessions for the sake of peace.

Elsewhere, Blair was a champion of the Kosovar cause when no one else was prepared to be. After repeated provocations by the KLA, the Serbian Army entered Kosovo, triggering the 1998 Yugoslav Civil War. The Serbians were accused of war crimes violations; namely, ethnic cleansing, abuse, and the forced expulsion of the mainly Muslim population. The NATO air strikes which forced Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia’s president, to accept a UN-mandated peacekeeping force couldn’t have been won without Blair’s decisive action. He persuaded a reluctant Bill Clinton and American public, reeling from the Somali ordeal, to contribute to the intervention after threatening to commit 50,000 British soldiers to repel the Serbians unilaterally. It’s hard to know what number of innocents were saved from their slaughter—but it’s unsurprising that so many Kosovars have since named their children 'Tonibler.'

And Blair’s humanitarian intervention in Sierra Leone, for its part, has become the stuff of legend in policy schools. In 1999, the Revolutionary United Front advanced on the capital, Freetown—reigniting a 6 year civil war with the country’s democratically elected government, punctuated by brutality, the use of child soldiers, and various war crimes. Britain, under Blair’s leadership and with the UN’s blessing, executed Operation Palliser to shield Sierra Leone’s faltering state. Within weeks, British forces secured the capital, rescued the beleaguered UN force, and defeated the rebels. While Blair may not be fondly remembered elsewhere, his humanitarian intervention is still immensely popular among the people of Sierra Leone.

Even so, Blair’s atonement for the Iraq War, broadcasted on Fareed Zakaria’s show, was too little, too late, and, frankly, too insincere. Qualifying his apology with an acceptance of intelligence failure and a lack of foresight regarding post-invasion Iraq, Blair dusted off the criticisms attached to Downing Street and Pennsylvania Avenue’s war administrations. But the facts are clear and Blair is unable to muddy the waters of culpability. Apologies are seldom sufficient when the responsibility for countless deaths and accusations of gross misconduct come a-knocking. And whether the upcoming Chilcot Inquiry absolves Blair of responsibility or thrusts him into an avalanche of tribunals is neither here nor there—the Iraq War should remain, for evermore, a bloody stain on Blair’s legacy.

Painful as this stain is, I feel bitter about the demise of Mr Blair’s foreign policy. The potential that Blair showed in the period prior to hitching his Mini Cooper to George Bush’s Ford 150 is now sorely lacking in Britain. The current Conservative leadership is going, cap in hand, across Europe to beg for the concessions needed to blunt a tweed-wearing and xenophobic minority’s demands for a British exit from the EU. It’s no better on the other side of the House, as Jeremy Corbyn’s rise has turned the once-formidable Labour Party into an unelectable, basket case of internal strife. Lately, Corbyn, mired in romanticism, has even called for dialogue with the Islamic State, reducing him to a modern day Chamberlain.

Will Britain ever return to the heady days of the late 1990s? Possibly. Hidden in the depths of the Labour Party’s avalon, true leaders may emerge, such as Dan Jarvis and Chuka Umunna, to rein back Tory indulgences, oust Corbyn, and return to some—certainly not all—of Blair’s foreign policy. Until then, Britons should re-engage with Europe, provide sanctuary to those fleeing the horrors of war, and wait, patiently, for the return of our Once-and-Future King.

James A.F. Watson

James is a contributing editor at The Envoy, and studies history at UBC. When he’s not working on his deadlift form, he reads Persian political history and international relations theory.

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