Former British PM Tony Blair sees himself as a colossus on the world stage – climate hero, peace maker and thinker for our times – seemingly unaware that many people view him as a war criminal who deserves to be put on trial.
Since he left high office in 2007, there really is no subject in the world on which Tony Blair is reluctant to express an opinion on, buoyed by an unsinkable self-belief and an apparently total absence of self-awareness.
He’s convinced that a huge appetite exists for his latest musings, that French President Emmanuel Macron is desperate for his help in tackling the radical Islamist problems of the Sahel, that US President Joe Biden
lies awake at night asking himself, ‘What would Tony do?’ and that the British public has forgotten he took the country into a catastrophic war against Iraq that both the United Nations and even his own government inquiry determined was illegal.
His acquiescence to US demands for an attack on Saddam Hussein earned Blair the US Medal of Freedom from George Bush and 20 years of opprobrium from the British public, which has only increased as the years have passed on par with his own immense personal wealth. A poll in 2017 found a third of the British public would like to see Blair put on trial as a war criminal.
But that’s not something the ex-PM likes to dwell upon. So his speech to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), almost 20 years to the day since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, made no mention of what followed those unforgettable events: dodgy dossiers, suggestions of bunkers full of weapons of mass destruction or of the purposeful lying to the British people.
Rather than learn any lessons from recent history, like when to wage war, Blair’s appetite is clearly undiminished, as he moaned, “Western societies and their political leaders have become quite understandably, deeply averse to casualties amongst our Armed Forces.” This, in his view, had become, “an overwhelming political constraint to any commitment to Western boots on the ground, except for Special Forces.”
It’s all Biden’s fault apparently. Blair said, “It is clear now – if it wasn't before – that America has decided that for the foreseeable future, it has a very limited appetite for military engagement.”
Well, yes, Mr. Former Prime Minister, it is true that the Americans have made no secret of the fact that they are sick of fighting ‘forever wars’. But us Brits also do not like to see the lives of young men and women who have signed up to serve their country sacrificed at the altar of political self-aggrandisement. We are now a little less gullible, a little less obliging when it comes to fighting unwinnable, neverending battles and somewhat more suspicious of our glory-seeking political leaders. And that’s all largely down to one person. You.
It’s strange Blair doesn’t acknowledge this. One thing’s certain, he knows his geopolitics; hell, he even has his own eponymous ‘global institute’ packed with researchers, academics and leading experts to tell him what to think and say about the key issues of our time. With one exception. Do. Not. Mention. Iraq.
The exclusion of that country’s name from the conversation is obvious. In looking forward, Blair said that Europe – insisting “for these purposes Britain is part of Europe like it or not” – faced an immediate challenge from the destabilisation of the Sahel and was “already facing the fallout from Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.” Err, by ‘elsewhere in the Middle East’ could Blair possibly mean Iraq? Probably, but let’s not risk spoiling a pleasant chat.
And in the face of that perceived threat, which in the Sahel until now has been largely handled by France, Blair asked, “How do Europe and NATO develop the capability to act when America is unwilling?”
Blair clearly sees military action as an imperative – I’m not sure everyone else agrees – but he also thinks the capacity of Western policymakers to think strategically needs to be reinvigorated.
“For me, one of the most alarming developments of recent times has been the sense the West lacks the capacity to formulate strategy,” he said. “That its short term political imperatives have squeezed the space for long term thinking.
It is this sense more than anything else which gives our allies anxiety and our opponents a belief our time is over.”
Now the picture is starting to become clearer. While Western governments are distracted from war by the need to focus on rebuilding economies, fighting worldwide health crises and seemingly perpetual election cycles which inhibit their ability to think long-term, they need big thinkers, top-shelf statesmen and global heavy hitters to work out how to bomb the citizens of far-off places into oblivion through drone strikes, how to convince a sceptical public that it’s a good idea to send servicemen and women to their deaths and – most importantly of all – how to create the right PR buzz around those decisions, so that everyone feels comfortable about falling into line.
Those Western governments need men just like Tony Blair. He’s free most afternoons, if you’d like to schedule a Zoom call. Just don’t mention the war (on Iraq).