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Blair's Sermonizing

Posted By: Ayinde
Date: 9, March 04, at 10:10 a.m.

Blair's vision of a new world order is critically tainted

The legacy of Iraq is that intervention will be seen as vigilantism

David Clark
Monday March 8, 2004
The Guardian

It is a measure of the government's concern about its inability to shake off the controversy over Iraq that the prime minister felt it necessary to alter his schedule to deliver a lengthy philosophical defence of his actions in Sedgefield last Friday. He wants us to move on from the fine detail of disputed intelligence claims and the nitpicking over the attorney general's legal advice and start focusing on the bigger picture: the threat of a terrorist inspired "Armageddon" and policies needed to pre-empt it.

If Tony Blair's purpose was to set out a credible and internally consistent justification for his decision to go to war against Iraq and establish it as a model for the reordering of international relations, his speech failed on both counts. Instead, it exemplified the intellectual and moral confusion of a man who acted on gut instinct and now finds himself rebuked by the facts. One year on, the prime minister still seems uncertain about how to characterise the war.

He started by acknowledging that it wasn't a humanitarian intervention to liberate the people of Iraq from tyranny, but concluded that "we surely have a responsibility to act when a nation's people are subjected to a regime such as Saddam's". This is hardly a passing detail; it goes to the heart of Blair's proposals for reform of the UN and his new "doctrine of international community".

More troubling was the assertion that intervention was necessary to prevent Islamist terrorists and an authoritarian regime armed with weapons of mass destruction making common cause to attack the west. There was scarcely a scintilla of evidence to support this thesis before the war started and there is even less in its aftermath.

No group of people can have been subjected to more threats or offered more inducements than the Iraqi scientists and Ba'athists in coalition hands. Not one has substantiated the allegation that Saddam was stockpiling WMD, let alone that he was considering passing them to al-Qaida. The link is a product of Blair's imagination and the moral reductionism he mistakes for statesmanship. The world, as he sees it, consists of "good guys" and "bad guys", with the latter combining to form a composite threat. This may be an asset for a Hollywood scriptwriter, not for a world leader.

This is not to dismiss the threat posed by terrorists or their ambition to acquire the means to kill on an ever-larger scale. Both are well-attested facts. The problem for Blair is that there is no convincing evidence to support his contention that regime change in Baghdad has made that threat more remote and rather a lot to suggest the opposite.

The picture he paints of a shadowy world in which nuclear, chemical and biological technologies are traded to the highest bidder results from the corruption and chaos endemic to failed and dysfunctional states. The specific examples cited - Pakistan and the former Soviet Union - don't even belong to the Axis of Evil. Here the threat arises not from the malign intent of the regimes in question so much as their inability to maintain effective internal control.

It is in this respect that Blair is most vulnerable to criticism. By any measure, Iraq, with its porous borders, weak and illegitimate central authority, nascent civil war and flourishing private militias, comes far closer to matching the archetype of a failed state today than it did a year ago.

The alliance between Arab nationalism and Islamist terrorism Washington and London posited as a reason for invading is in danger of becoming a reality after the fact. Instead of the democratic exemplar we were promised, Iraq looks set to be a source of regional instability for years to come. There is no meaningful sense in which this can be claimed as a victory in the war on terror. The prime minister urges us to see it as an issue of judgment rather than trust. Either way, he has been found wanting.

There is simply no market for Blair's argument that he and President Bush got it right last March and the rest of the world got it wrong, never mind the suggestion that the UN charter should be revised to make it easier for them to do it again. He is right to point out that the principle of non-interference that has formed the basis of international law since the treaty of Westphalia is incompatible with a humanitarian vision of world order.

There has always been something inherently reactionary in the idea that the rights of states should be privileged over the rights of their citizens, and it was depressing that so many on the left joined rightwing "realists" in invoking it as a reason to oppose the invasion of Iraq. Blair, however, is in no position to make the case for change.

The Blair doctrine is based on the assumption that the existing thresholds for intervention (an imminent threat to international peace or a grave humanitarian crisis) are too high to deal with many of the challenges we currently face. There are good reasons for agreeing with this view, but only if it is followed to its logical conclusion. A broader legal basis for intervention should herald the beginning of a more principled and consistent approach to dealing with human rights violations and breaches of international law.

If so, it would constitute a major progressive advance. Alternatively, it could simply provide cover for the militarily powerful to advance their interests without obligation. The result would not be a strengthening of the international community but a new form of international vigilantism and the return, in liberal guise, of the principle that might is right.

The problem Blair faces is that, because of Iraq, many are now inclined to see his proposals in precisely those terms. They listen to the high-minded rhetoric of British and American leaders pledging to extend the boundaries of freedom and note how quickly that sentiment is forgotten when it suits them. Then they look at the list of American client regimes to which the rules of the new humanitarianism appear not to apply: the club class of rogue states that occupy foreign territory, acquire WMD and boil their political opponents to death with impunity. They conclude that nothing has changed except the willingness of the great powers to be honest about their cynicism.

Blair is right about the need for a new global compact in which the UN is willing and able to make good the promise outlined in the universal declaration of human rights. He is wrong if he thinks he can achieve it in alliance with a neoconservative American government only interested in democracy and human rights as weapons to advance its own interests. It has even been suggested that Blair might prefer to see Bush returned to the White House in November. I doubt it. If he is thinking straight, he will realise that a change of regime in Washington is his last chance of moving on from Iraq.

David Clark was special adviser to Robin Cook in the Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001,3604,116

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