The American Blair

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4th January, 2009

This article from the New York Mag, is as fair an assessment as I have recently seen on Tony Blair.

The American Blair

Tony Blair was both Britain’s Obama, transforming its politics, and Britain’s Bush, prosecuting a deeply unpopular war. But at Yale last semester, as he moved into his afterlife, he seemed oddly unencumbered by his past.

By Jennifer Senior Published Dec 28, 2008

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Most world leaders, like movie stars, have a certain intensity when they walk into a room. Not Tony Blair. He’s mild, light on his feet; he disarms not with seduction but with extreme agreeableness. The first time we meet, in a formal room of the president’s house at Yale University, he pulls open the door and walks in before his aide does. There’s no warning, no fanfare, no nothing. Just … boom, there he is.

“I’m so sorry to be dressed like this.” Which is to say, by Blair standards, informally: gray T-shirt, blazer, acid-washed jeans.

As it happens, today is November 5, the day after Barack Obama’s victory, and Blair seems as elated as the rest of the world. He says he spent the evening in the Caribbean flipping between the BBC and CNN (he declines to give details, but his friend Cliff Richard owns a house in Barbados). “I’ve never known an election to create so much interest and transform people’s view of America again in a positive way,” he says. “Young people out in the middle of nowhere in Palestine have said to me, ‘They wouldn’t really elect a black man to the presidency,’ and I’ve said, ‘Well, I think they would.’ But they’ve been taught for so long that America is … what it actually isn’t. And that’s why this is an enormous moment. It thrills America’s friends and sort of confuses its enemies.”

Blair is familiar with this particular sensation of political euphoria, of course. Like Obama, he was a highly pedigreed lawyer who ran as a post-partisan change candidate. Like Obama, he broke years of what seemed, to progressives, like interminable conservative rule. Like Obama, he was nonconfrontational in style, charismatic without heat (reedy frame, wide-caliber smile), and idealistic without being ideological. His speeches also inspired and rang with logic. International leaders also embraced him and saw his victory as the dawn of a new era. The weight of the world and his own country’s expectations rode heavily, too, on his shoulders. So how, I ask Blair, can Obama make the most of this moment?

“What he can do—and I believe that he will—is find an agenda that is capable of unifying the world,” he says. “An agenda that is about America leading and America listening simultaneously. That’s the key.”

All of which sounds about right. The peculiar irony of this position is that Blair’s own tenure, no matter how distinct his accomplishments—reviving and redefining the Labor Party in the manner of the Clintonian Third Way, putting money back into the ailing health and education systems, negotiating the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, helping to halt the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and the bloodshed in Sierra Leone—will be forever marked by his willingness to join hands with America at a time when it was not leading and listening simultaneously but boring implacably forward on its own. By the summer of 2007, when Blair finally stepped down from office, his approval ratings were hovering in the high twenties. Four ministers had resigned over Iraq; when he traveled, he found protesters carrying placards reading BLIAR. And before the war even started, his critics—in Parliament, in the press, on the street—began referring to him by a horribly trivializing moniker, one that clings to him to this day: “Bush’s poodle.”

Yale, the following day. There are those in Britain who say that Blair’s presence here in New Haven—he’s teaching a course on faith and globalization, the subjects that most preoccupy him in his political afterlife—is a form of exile. But if that’s the case, he hardly seems to be experiencing it as such. As he settles into another small room at the president’s house to chat with a group of Irish journalists about the Good Friday Agreement (also the subject of today’s class), there’s no sense of dislocation or bitterness. He seems relaxed, reveling in his gifts as a communicator, untroubled by his controversial legacy. “I remember flying into Belfast for a meeting,” Blair tells them. “And Sinn Féin had just invited the Palestinians to town.”

The journalists are looking on, smiling. They’re waiting. Blair’s pretty great with an anecdote. “And they’d put up the Palestinian flag,” he continues.

He takes a sip of tea. Tea is ubiquitous in this place when he’s around. “And going back to the airport the next morning—how they got hold of these things I don’t know—but the Unionists had gotten … Israeli flags.” The journalists double up in laughter. He continues merrily along, channeling the reasoning of the Unionists: “Right! Now we know where they stand, the state of Israel is our adopted state…”

For Blair, perhaps the hardest impression for him to erase in the aftermath of the Iraq War is that he is, to use the language of Bush, a divider, rather than a consensus-seeking diplomat. But his negotiating prowess, and his powers of persuasion, were precisely what he was known for before March 2003. He sees conflict in clear, rational terms; when looking at global problems, he’s nimble at isolating common themes. One of his favorites, a leitmotif in many of his discussions—especially about the Middle East, where he’s currently the special envoy for the so-called Quartet (Russia, the U.S., the U.N., and the E.U.)—is that having an agreed-on method for solving a problem is more important than having a shared vision of the solution. In his view, it’s this crucial distinction that explains why there’s peace in Northern Ireland today but not between Israel and the Palestinians, even though both parties in the latter conflict have a shared vision of two states. “I have this conversation with Al Gore, actually,” Blair later tells me, as we ride to the heart of the Yale campus. “He believes that where there’s a will there’s a way on climate change. I believe that’s true, but where there’s a way there’s also a will.”

Next: Why did he choose to invade Iraq?

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Blair lecturing at Yale in December 2008.

(Photo: Michael Marsland/Courtesy of Yale University)

All of which raises a crucial question: If Blair believes so strongly that the means is more important than the end, why did he choose to invade Iraq when it was clear that the American government had only an end in mind and no plan for managing the country?

In the U.K., the reasons for Blair’s participation in the Iraq War were the source of endless hypothesizing. Some ran toward the psychologically crude—he’s a compulsive ingratiator, the type who thrills to friendships with the powerful (which would explain his warm relations not just with Bush but with Italy’s lunatic par excellence, Silvio Berlusconi). Some were much more generous, hewing to a simpler narrative of pragmatism and Realpolitik: Blair regarded Saddam Hussein as a genuine menace, and he thought that engaging a powerful country like America to depose him was better in this globally interdependent age than letting our country run rampant on its own. (His mistake was in overestimating the competence of the Bush administration.) And this generous interpretation hardly seems a stretch. Long before he was discussing Iraq with George W. Bush, the subject of how to contain Saddam frequently dominated Blair’s foreign-policy discussions with Bill Clinton, and in March 2003, Blair’s position on the Iraq War was no different from, say, that of both of New York’s Democratic senators, or John Kerry, or John Edwards, or Joe Biden. Like most liberal hawks, he made the case for war in the language of human rights, highlighting the moral urgency of ridding the world of a sociopathic tyrant who ignored the United Nations, gassed his own people, and collected—or so it appeared, anyway—weapons of mass destruction. (He too has since had to rebuff claims that British intelligence was, in the words of an anonymous official to the BBC, “sexed up” in order to make the case for war.)

The difference is that most liberal supporters of the Iraq War have since expressed deep regret over their decision. Blair has not. As The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland has pointed out, Blair has shown none of the agonizing of previous leaders who supported bloody, unwieldy wars. Lyndon B. Johnson was so tormented by Vietnam one could argue it killed him; Menachem Begin fell into a depression over Lebanon. Even George W. Bush finally looks like he’s capitulated to the strains of higher office, such as he experienced them—his features are haggard, his hair is gray, he’s more checked-out than even his usual level of disengagement. Blair, on the other hand, looks positively youthful, a wholesome picture of serenity and fine health: His trademark smile stretches easily across his face; his blue eyes twinkle; during these two days at Yale, he sports a golden tan (whether it’s from a long weekend of writing his memoirs in the Caribbean or from spending so much time in the Middle East isn’t clear). And whenever he is asked about the war, he shows few traces of remorse. “When I’m out in the Middle East now,” Blair tells me, “I don’t think the region would be more stable if Saddam and his two sons were still running around.”

This may be true, I say, as many people do—this entire conversation is one he’s had hundreds of times before—but some half a million more people might be alive.

“Yeah, but you’ve got to ask who killed them.” This is another part of Blair’s argument, one he’s forever repeating: that the extremists sowing havoc in Iraq right now are the same stripe of fundamentalist warriors who’ve sown havoc across the globe, from Kabul to Mumbai. Which is true enough, but neglects to address the staggering number of Iraqi casualties who died not from terrorism but from a barely contained civil war. “There’s also a lot of people who died and who would have died under Saddam,” he continues. “The arguments are that he would have kept a check on Iran, but if you remember, there were a million casualties in the Iran-Iraq War. I mean, he invaded Kuwait. So I’m not sure he was ever much of a check.”

And this analysis is right, too, so far as it goes. But it’s a highly clinical analysis, long on rhetoric and abstraction, two forms with which Blair is quite comfortable, and short on introspection, let alone emotion.

I ask if Iraq has compromised his effectiveness as a Middle East envoy. “To be honest, I’ve never felt it was a real disabler,” he says. “The Palestinians understand that unless you can be someone who can also approach the Israelis, you can’t actually do anything for them.”

Does he still talk to George W. Bush?

“Yeah, of course I keep in touch with him,” he says. “I’m not a fair-weather friend. I say this to people all the time, even liberal people who cannot believe I can possibly like George W. Bush.”



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