Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Blair's foreign policy speech

Tony Blair has made the first of three speeches defending the UK's foreign policy during his premiership. The full text is available here. It is, in many ways, precisely what we have come to expect from the Prime Minister, particularly when talking about the War in Iraq (or that on Terror), which, naturally enough, are the main focus of the speech. It is an entertaining, and really quite provocative piece: Blair is not mincing any words. However, it is also, for me at least, deeply unsatisfying in the final instance. There is some new stuff here, but mostly it is more of the same: the same reductive dichotomisations that seek to shame us into agreement; the same loosely reasoned anecdotes that look to get us off guard; the same search for a sound-bite that will simplify the issues, and place right firmly on his side, and absolve him from the blame of even those small errors to which he has admitted.

Thus, in noting (correctly) that the Iraq conflict has caused some "political cross dressing", with the traditional battle lines between right and left becoming blurred, he suggests that the real argument in Iraq is between those who think intervention is the way forward, and those who prefer a more comfortable, 'laissez-faire' approach to international relations. In a passage worth quoting, I think, at some length, he argues that only a genuine international community, with a set of shared values, can succeed in promoting a robustly ethical approach

I want to stress why this concept of an international community, based on core, shared values, prepared actively to intervene and resolve problems, is an essential pre-condition of our future prosperity and stability.

It is in confronting global terrorism today that the sharpest debate and disagreement is found. Nowhere is the supposed "folly" of the interventionist case so loudly trumpeted as in this case.

Here, so it is said, as the third anniversary of the Iraq conflict takes place, is the wreckage of such a world view. Under Saddam Iraq was "stable". Now its stability is in the balance. Ergo, it should never have been done.

This is essentially the product of the conventional view of foreign policy since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This view holds that there is no longer a defining issue in foreign policy. Countries should therefore manage their affairs and relationships according to their narrow national interests.

The basic posture represented by this view is: not to provoke, to keep all as settled as it can be and cause no tectonic plates to move. It has its soft face in dealing with issues like global warming or Africa; and reserves its hard face only if directly attacked by another state, which is unlikely.

It is a view which sees the world as not without challenge but basically calm, with a few nasty things lurking in deep waters, which it is best to avoid; but no major currents that inevitably threaten its placid surface. It believes the storms have been largely self-created.

This is the majority view of a large part of western opinion, certainly in Europe. According to this opinion, the policy of America since 9/11 has been a gross overreaction; George Bush is as much if not more of a threat to world peace as Osama bin Laden; and what is happening in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else in the Middle East, is an entirely understandable consequence of US/UK imperialism or worse, of just plain stupidity.

Leave it all alone or at least treat it with sensitivity and it would all resolve itself in time; "it" never quite being defined, but just generally felt as anything that causes disruption.

This world view - which I would characterise as a doctrine of benign inactivity - sits in the commentator's seat, almost as a matter of principle. It has imposed a paradigm on world events that is extraordinary in its attraction and its scope.

I cannot help but wonder how many of those who criticised both the decision to go to war and its subsequent conduct, on both ethical and legal grounds, before, during and after the event, recognise themselves in Blair's summary of their position. All those who opposed the Iraqi invasion are basically the direct progeny of Carl Schmidt and Hans Morgenthau, and the "realist" paradigm of international relations theory. This, it must be said, will come as something of a surprise to many.

The assumptions, reductions and simple untruths in the above passage are manifold. It is not, for example, the dominant opinion that "stability" in Iraq was all that mattered, above any ethical goals. The main point is a more complex one: many agreed that something should be done about Hussein, but felt that action that would lead to the deaths of as many, if not more, Iraqi civilians as he managed during his reign, and that would leave conditions of life worse for those that survived, could not be morally justified. There was also significant concern over the business interests involved in the decision to go to war and the restructuring infrastructure. Blair mentions neither of these. We are either with him, and (nearly) all he has done, or we think that States should pursue their own interests, narrowly defined, only in international affairs.

Nearly all that he has done. He admits to some mistakes. Hardly a dramatic mea culpa, however; each of these admissions is almost immediately undermined by a contextualisation or a counterclaim. So, for example, Blair acknowledges that the charge that "de-Baathification went too quickly and was spread too indiscriminately" is "arguable", although insists upon inserting, "in parenthesis, the real worry, back in 2003 was a humanitarian crisis, which we avoided, and the pressure was all to de-Baathify faster". Then, in altogether more crass fashion, Blair notes, in his examination of the propaganda that fuels that radical Islamic mindset, that "every abuse at Abu Ghraib is exposed in detail; of course it is unacceptable but it is as if the only absence of due process in that part of the world is in prisons run by the Americans". Again, something short of a full recognition of the catalogue of extremely serious errors (not to mention human rights abuses) that he and his ally have presided over.

The last quote is also a recurring theme: how unreasonable is our distrust of the Americans. At these moments more than any other in the speech, Blair seems to abandon, or perhaps lose, reason, preferring instead baffling anecdotes or suspect historical generalisations to get his point across. One example, in terms of the both, is provided by Blair's recounting of a recent visit to Slovakia:

A couple of weeks ago as I was addressing young Slovak students, one got up, denouncing US/UK policy in Iraq, fully bought in to the demonisation of the US, utterly oblivious to the fact that without the US and the liberation of his country, he would have been unable to ask such a question, let alone get an answer to it.

Not only is this very deeply patronising to the young Slovak in question, it is simply a glaring non-sequitor. Even if we were to accept the historical implication that the US was somehow directly responsible for the liberation of Slovakia from Communism - which many historians would, I suspect, find problematic - we are still left wondering what bearing this supposed past heroism has on the rights and wrongs of US/UK policy in Iraq. At points like these, Blair's erudite facade really starts to crack, and he begins to display his own largely unreasoned bias towards Bush's America.

All of this is perhaps simply par for the course. As I mentioned, there are one or two things that are perhaps novel in the speech. One is his willingness to present, in some detail, his own analysis of Islam and the historic conditions that led to its radicalisation (it's own fault, it should be noted; somehow, after a period leading the world in terms of science and ethics, it fell behind after Europe's renaissance, reformation and enlightenment, and became, by the 20th century, insecure and defensive. There then occurred a kind of internal dialectic between political and religious radicalism within Islamic States, in which "the sorry state of Muslim countries" was seen as symptomatic of "the sorry state of Islam", "so that many came to believe that the way of restoring the confidence and stability of Islam was the combination of religious extremism and populist politics. The true enemies became 'the West'". Once again, we seem to have played no significant role in this). Another is his shift in emphasis away from the debate over the legality of the Iraq invasion. He acknowledges it as ongoing, but immediately undermines this by noting that, since May 2003, the Multinational Force has been operating under a UN resolution. The implication here is clearly that the debate is now historical and academic, the action having been legitimated ex post facto. Another interesting passage is his acknowledgement of just how deeply embedded radical Islamic discourse is in many countries around the world.

As is clear from the lengthy passage quoted above, Blair seeks to bring scorn on his critics by reducing their complex and varied positions to a kind of Kissinger-esque realism. This move, however, is not completed until near the end of the speech, even although it is set up at the very beginning. And it is forcefully completed by his choice of soundbite for the piece:

This is not a clash between civilisations. It is a clash about civilisation. It is the age-old battle between progress and reaction, between those who embrace and see opportunity in the modern world and those who reject its existence; between optimism and hope on the one hand; and pessimism and fear on the other.

Blair at this point really lays on heavily the language of values - even, as he, I'm sure, is fully aware, the much-maligned vocabulary of the old colonial adventures (with, of course, a twist on Huntingdon's formula to bring it up to date). However, from what was said at the beginning, it seems clear that not just the Islamic radicals and terrorists, but also many if not most of Blair's critics, fall firmly on the side of the forces of darkness. The world-view of "benign inactivity" is here cast as pessimistic, reactionary, without hope. They too are on the wrong side in Blair's "battle for values and progress", which must be won.

Like I said then, fairly classic Blair. The speech is thoughtful at points, almost always eloquently written and occasionally surprising; however, a little closer analysis removes much if not all of its apparent lustre. The usual reductions, generalisations and half-truths are present, and all are still seeking to serve the same justificatory function. The trouble, in terms of classic Blair, as Polly Toynbee noted in the
Guardian today, is that nobody's buying it any more.

No comments: