It is disheartening when politicians prove they are not the perfect combination of intellectual and activist. I am writing about former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
In August of 2014 the Daily Telegraph reported that Blair had given public relations advice to current Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev on methods to minimise media controversy over the December 2011 massacre in the Kazakh town of Zhanaozen. Prior to a speech Nazarbayev would deliver at Cambridge in July of 2012, Blair had offered, in the letter leaked to the Daily Telegraph, to insert passages into the speech that would attempt to justify the deaths of the 14 Zhanaozen energy workers at the hands of Kazakh security forces, who were striking over poor working conditions and low wages. Among the paragraphs Blair added was a section where Nazarbayev would ask for observers to acknowledge the “huge change of a positive nature we have brought about in [Kazakhstan] over the past 20 years”. Such assertions have proven spurious as the United Nations and Human Rights Watch continue to condemn Nazarbayev’s autocratic restrictions on freedom of assembly, speech, and religion.
Despite criticism, Blair has defended his actions. By declaring that he is ‘nudging controversial figures on a progressive path of reform’, he is forgetting that since the Zhanaozen incident, civil liberties in Kazakhstan have all but become a vestige of post-Soviet optimism. The arrest and imprisonment of democratic opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, who lead an investigation into alleged human rights violations at Zhanaozen, marks a sharp regression in what tenuous progress had been achieved throughout Nazarbayev’s twenty-three year tenure. It seems quite intrepid of Blair, who was a vehement opponent of tyrannical regimes not a decade ago, to defend a government antithetical to liberal democratic values. Some have claimed it is a consummate betrayal – hyperbole perhaps – but Blair, in concert with his consulting firm Tony Blair & Associates, plays a greater role in legitimising despots than playing the transformative, democratic reformer.
Blair can also be accused of contravening his Labour principles by not condemning the Zhanaozen massacre in the first place and failing to support the workers’ right to strike. This, however, can be cynically forgiven in consideration of the alleged millions of pounds in consulting fees poured into his coffers by Nazarbayev.
His principle transgression, for which he seems unabashed, is that he has unequivocally reneged on his commitment to the opposition of tyranny, and his neoconservative beliefs that shaped his decision to endorse and participate in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
In abandoning his idealistic beliefs for seemingly so trivial a reason as money, he diminishes the tolerance for idealism in foreign policy and contributes to an unhealthy pessimism that can and is bound to stifle the popular willingness to effect liberal democratic change around the globe. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama made the moral argument that ‘it is simply unacceptable for the richest and most powerful countr[ies] in human history to be indifferent to the plight of countries that not only lack its human and social resources but are moving steadily backward in their standards of living’. With a parlous international system fraught with aggressors determined to subjugate whole peoples (i.e. ‘daesh’ or Islamic State and Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists), the obligation to combat barbarism becomes ever more pressing. And while irresponsible idealism or poorly expressed benevolent intentions, as evidenced by the overtly optimistic assumptions of the 2003 Iraq Invasion, can be injurious to the liberal democratic project, inaction is itself a guaranteed path to the proliferation of tyranny. The lessons of Munich or Jimmy Carter’s weakness in wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution can attest to this fact.
It is easy to fall into the ‘Blair trap’, where pragmatism and self-interest trump once passionate ideals. His abandonment should not facilitate the abandonment of idealism for all, nor be speciously construed as a failure in the idealistic project altogether.
As Laurence Silberman pointed out in his Wall Street Journal article “The Dangerous Lie that ‘Bush Lied'”, it is important to remember that up until the occupation of Iraq, the intelligence community (as represented by CIA director George Tenet and the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate) held a 90% level of confidence that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs. There was also consensus across a wide cross section of foreign intelligence agencies. Silberman lambasts the fact that the anti-war phrase ‘Bush Lied’ has become part of the everyday lexicon. He warns that in allowing such distorted beliefs to go unchallenged it ‘can take on the air of historical fact’, ruinous perhaps for a future president that chooses to ignore a military response to a threat, corroborated by intelligence, on the basis of preventing the possibility of scandal.
To understand the Iraq War in any meaningful way, it is necessary to be appraised of the policies that led to war in the first place. Framed against the atrocities of the September 11 attacks and the War on Terrorism, the Iraq War stands on its own as being largely predicated on neo-conservative principles. While one of three casus bellis was the tenuous connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, the war, courtesy of 9/11, was much more a product of urgency than prudent planning. Iraq served as a first step in democratising the Middle East, principally because it was the wellspring of terrorism and religious zealotry whose ‘shaping of the future security environment’ was incompatible with Washington’s worldview. As evidenced by the 1992 National Defence Guidance and the 2002 National Security Strategy, this worldview was product of America’s ‘unipolar moment’ following the dissolution of the USSR, that, according to Charles Krauthammer, designated the United States as the ‘custodian of the international system’. Neo-conservatism was a manifestation of this unique moment in history.
The neo-conservative position rests on four main pillars: (1) A belief that the internal characteristics of a government shapes external behaviour, and therefore, democratic and authoritarian polities are distinguished in their international objectives, where authoritarian nations are liabilities both domestically – for a proclivity human rights abuses – and internationally – for their belligerent tendencies, (2) A belief that military power can and should be used for moral purposes (such as deposing the tyrannies of Manuel Noriega in Panama and removing Saddam Hussein from Kuwait), (3) A distrust in the ability of governments to successfully effect large-scale social engineering (ignored in the case of Iraq due to the Bush administrations particular understanding of this theory), and (4) A scepticism in the efficacy of international institutions such as the UN – a pillar that lends itself to justify unilateralist policy.
It was unwarranted and overt idealism that ultimately buttressed the war with Iraq. This idealism was rooted in a specific interpretation of neo-conservative principles that assumed theory could overcome the vagaries of reality and that American benevolence would ultimately triumph. The Bush administration’s neo-conservatism was what Ken Jowitt called the Leninist doctrine to a traditional neo-conservative Marxism, in that it was activist, and tried to accelerate historical processes (that would lead to global liberal democratic homogeneity) analogous to the Leninism a century ago. This ‘activism’ was derived from the writings of William Kristol in the Weekly Standard and Robert Kagan. They subscribed to the unilateral, military oriented solution to the problem of rogue or tyrannical nations, derived from a narrow understanding of Reagan’s Soviet policies of the 1980s, where the military solution was successful in bankrupting the USSR and ultimately effecting regime change in the Eastern bloc.
These views were connected to the ideas of Leo Strauss who, among many of his achievements, conceived of the ‘regime’ as a feedback loop between governmental institutions and the norms of the society. Strauss disagreed with Burke that the most desirable social orders were based on the accretions of culture and norms. Instead he thought that governments (in the spirit of the founding fathers) should be established on rational and protracted debate. Many of his acolytes thought that if the success of the United States, which has been an exemplar of liberal democracy, is courtesy of its institutional framework, then regime change (i.e. the transformation of an authoritarian society into a democratic society) could be accomplished by reforming the political institutions of foreign nations. Of course, this was an incorrect assumption because it ignored, or choose to avoid, the influence culture and values have on those institutions. The success of the American polity can in part be explained by the fact that it enshrined pre-held values (individualism, limited government, free markets, private property). Similarly, the success of the liberal democratic transition in Eastern Europe was a product of a moral and material repugnance to Soviet authoritarianism and the failures of a centrally planned economy.
The rationale for the Iraq War adopted an overtly idealistic and ‘one-size-fits-all-approach’, inconsiderate of the interminable religious, geopolitical, and cultural factors. The Bush administration anticipated, and indeed believed, that the Iraqis, liberated from Hussein’s tyranny, would adopt democracy with the apparent ease and willingness of the Eastern Europeans. The administration had not considered post-war reconstruction at length – political and economic development – nor anticipated a protracted occupation stemming from post-Saddam sectarian violence.
The spirit of urgency that succeeded 9/11 led to US policy being governed more by a few select theoreticians (prominently Paul Wolfowitz) than by consensus or rational, protracted debate. The invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq should not be understood as an indictment of the efficacy of hawkish liberalism or idealism. Rather, the failure to anticipate the variables and to create sufficient contingencies is much rather owed to a lack of time. Tony Blair’s hypocrisy should not discredit the liberal democratic mission.
Words by Bermond Scoggins