March 10, 2006

BURKE'S BROOD (via Mike Daley):

Freedom fighter: Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq has its roots in a long tradition of left anti-totalitarianism, argues Oliver Kamm, March 2006, Progress)

The overthrow of theocratic despotism in Afghanistan and Ba’athist tyranny in Iraq is central to Blair’s record. It is part of a distinctive approach that has marked his premiership. That stance represents continuity with the principles of an earlier anti-totalitarian left, and a shrewd strategic judgement of where Britain’s security interests lie in the early 21st century. [...]

Let us start with what was genuinely the biggest blunder in British foreign policy since Suez. This was Britain’s failure, under a Tory government, to prevent Serb aggression against Bosnia in the early 1990s. Policy at that time consisted of what the historian Brendan Simms has termed a conservative pessimism about the limits to the effective exercise of power in the international order. A mix of quietism and condescension resulted in humanitarian disaster. It also sparked a crisis in transatlantic relations, exemplified in defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind’s contemptuous dismissal of one American politician’s concerns with the words: ‘You Americans don’t know the horrors of war.’ (The politician was Senator Bob Dole, who was nearly killed and permanently disabled in the second world war.)

You cannot understand Blair’s policies in Iraq without that background. Long before 9/11, he took a fundamentally different approach from Major, Rifkind and Douglas Hurd, and not only in declaratory policy. In Kosovo, he confronted Serb aggression rather than acquiesced in it. He also sent British troops to preserve Sierra Leone from hand-lopping rebels, aware both of the demands of liberal internationalism and of the potential for a failed state to become far more than a regional problem. He argued his case long before President Bush came to see the urgency of promoting democracy overseas.

Indeed, as a presidential candidate in 2000, Bush had denounced interventionist ‘nation-building’ and proposed the withdrawal of American commitments in the Balkans. The coincidence of view between a Labour prime minister and a conservative president makes many on the left uncomfortable, but there is no reason that it should. In pursuing regime change, Bush has adopted Blairism, not the other way round. [...]

[T]here is a wider issue in the case for regime change. What marked British policy under Major, and was the principal weakness of US foreign policy in the cold war, was a ‘realism’ that took an impossibly narrow view of western strategic interests. In the Balkans in the 1990s, British policymakers allowed a nation to be dismembered by aggressive and genocidal nationalism. In the cold war, American administrations were prone to ally with authoritarian regimes as a bulwark against communism. Both approaches were far from serving the purposes that realism set itself. What overcame communist totalitarianism in eastern Europe was partly collective security involving alliances and military preparedness. But, at root, it was the power of an idea: the appeal of an open and liberal society, as opposed to a closed and sclerotic one. The task of western governments against a new totalitarian threat – though a very old, atavistic totalitarian idea, in Islamist fanaticism – is similarly to implant the notion of freedom.

The Blair-Bush policy (the names should be in that order, as Blair is the policy’s initiator) understands the limits of realism. In the realist model of the international order, states are often compared to billiard balls. A billiard ball’s internal composition is opaque and unimportant; what matters is how the ball interacts with others on the table. It is a model entirely inappropriate to current foreign policy debates, where, if we are to safeguard our security, we need to engage in the battle of ideas. What serves our security is the spread of liberty, not the balancing of power among competing states. No western statesman has better articulated this case than Blair, and he is right.

Blairism is, of course, just Reagan/Thatcherism, which is just FDRism, which is Wilsonian, which is Lincolnian, which is Jacksonian, which is Madisonian/Monrovian/Jeffersonian and so on and so forth... -- and George W. Bush supported intervention in the Balkans but then advocated turning over the mission to Europe so we could prepare for intervention in the Middle East and Korea -- but Mr. Blair has certainly been the steady interventionist voice of the Anglosphere across the turn of the century. What may be most interesting is that the three great prime ministers of the past hundred years -- Churchill, Thatcher, and Blair -- will all end up having been dumped by their parties and nation despite retaining extravagant popularity in the States, suggesting that it is their Americanism that distinguishes them.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 10, 2006 9:48 PM
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