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John Rentoul

John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, where he teaches contemporary history. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.

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Blair in Chicago: still right, 10 years on

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Thursday, 23 April 2009 at 02:17 pm
Tony Blair's speech in Chicago last night was an important defence of liberal interventionism, 10 years after his original Chicago speech* in the middle of the Kosovo conflict.

Some have reported the speech as a defence of the UK's role in Iraq, although that is a strange definition of news. More interesting was Blair's partial acceptance of the criticism not of the invasion but of the failure to foresee the collapse of order that would follow: "I thought that removal of a despotic regime was almost sufficient in itself to create the conditions for progress."

Unfortunately, Blair spoiled his moment of candour by implying that the main reason it went horribly wrong after the invasion was because the coalition found itself up against the Iraqi branch of global "jihadist extremism". There has no doubt been an element of that: the al-Qa'ida franchise in Iraq flourished and is now being beaten back. But most of the lawlessness was simple gangsterism.

Beyond Iraq, though, the speech expounded an impressive argument that a values-based foreign policy, backed up by a willingness to intervene militarily, is in our long-term interest. And a powerful critique of a foreign policy of pragmatism and short-term advantage:

We should not revert to the foreign policy of years gone by, of the world weary, the supposedly sensible practitioners of caution and expediency, who think they see the world for what it is, without the illusions of the idealist who sees what it could be.

We should remember what such expediency led us to, what such caution produced. Here is where I remain adamantly in the same spot, metaphorically as well as actually, of ten years ago, that evening in this city. The statesmanship that went before regarded politics as a Bismarck or Machiavelli regarded it. It's all a power play; a matter, not of right or wrong, but of who's on our side, and our side defined by our interests, not our values. The notion of humanitarian intervention was the meddling of the unwise, untutored and inexperienced.

But was it practical to let Pakistan develop as it did in the last thirty years, without asking what effect the madrassas would have on a generation educated in them? Or wise to employ the Taliban to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan? Or to ask Saddam to halt Iran? Was it really experienced statesmanship that let thousands upon thousands die in Bosnia before we intervened or turned our face from the genocide of Rwanda?

This was not just an assault on the appeasement that characterised British foreign policy before Blair. It was a cogent warning against taking the easy option of disengagement now, with particular reference, one suspects, to Pakistan:
It is the most dangerous thing imaginable to force people to choose between an undemocratic elite with the right idea and a popular movement with the wrong one.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Mahathir Mohamad, the former Malaysian prime minister, showed that in Blair's work of bolstering moderate Islam there has been a lot done, a lot still to do. "About 2,000 peace activists applauded" as George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard, the former Australian prime minister, were branded "fascist war criminals" at a conference in Malaysia.
Mohamad, who hosted the conference in Kuala Lumpur, won a standing ovation after opening it with a call for the leaders to be tried by an unofficial tribunal for war crimes in Iraq.

"We should not hang Blair if the tribunal finds him guilty, but he should always carry the label 'War Criminal, Killer of Children, Liar'," said Mahathir in an hour-long speech illustrated by pictures of wounded children, deformed babies and tortured men.

"And so should Bush and the pocket Bush of the Bushland of Australia." 

No doubt this stirring condemnation will be praised by some warped elements of the "antiwar" movement in the non-Muslim world, where, as Blair said, "frequently commentators, while naturally condemning the terrorism, nevertheless imply that, to an extent, the West's foreign policy has helped 'cause' it".

PS. Blair was also right, in his speech, to rebut the nonsense now utterly fashionable throughout the broken remains of the Labour Party that the recession requires a reassessment of capitalism: 
It's going to be really, really hard. But we will get through it and not by abandoning the market or open economic system but by learning our lessons and adjusting the system in a way that makes it better. But on any basis, this system has delivered amazing leaps forward in prosperity for our citizens and we shouldn't, amongst the gloom, forget it.

*Wrongly dated on the No 10 website: it was 22 April 1999.


Blair - still right - of course!
blairsupporter wrote:
Saturday, 25 April 2009 at 12:24 am (UTC)
As some of us know, Blair is usually right. I was impressed by his speech, partly because it was consistent with the one he made ten years earlier. He was right then too! But also because as his number one online supporter-by-blog I recently found myself doubting him. Uncomfortable. That was due to what I saw as his wearing a blindfold as far as Islamic radicals in Britain are concerned. THEY, our homegrown mob, are seen as Europe's most dangerous, as is Sharia Law here - seemingly now 12 courts, accountable to no-one, as records of cases are kept by no-one. (Perhaps you'd like to research this, as a "paid" journo, Mr R?)

After Mr Blair's speech I am, more or less, back onside. But I am watching closely.

I know he cannot or will not say anything to further destabilise the weakened remains of the present government or lessen its electoral chances. But I am still concerned that no-one, no Labour or Tory politician, is outwardly expressing concern over creeping Islamification of this country.

After this Chicago2 speech I feel a little more comfortable. I conclude that he is limited by his vow of silence on government policy AND by any perceived clash with his Faith efforts.

But sadly, whatever he says about worldwide radical Islam, HE is no longer in office or able to alter any of this at home, especially when the Guardianistos still scream for his blood. With them around Mahathir Mohamad looks perfectly harmless!

A recent post:
Aw come on!
zansal wrote:
Sunday, 26 April 2009 at 12:41 pm (UTC)
Values based foreign policy? All bull.

Blair was willingly hoodwinked by Bush who had a grudge against Saddam Hussein. It's really that simple.

No big idea, no new foriegn policy, just a simple opportunistic and illegal attack on a sovereign nation.

And what happens after the invasion? Surprise surprise! Extremists move in and rip the place up. Anyone who says that one couldn't be predicted is firmly in the same idiot camp as those who say the current financial crisis could not have been predicted.

So, not bad Tony! 2 crimes for the price of one : illegal war and totally cocked up post-invasion plan (if there ever was one...).

Actually, make it 3 Crimes - now we have Iran in a race to acquire nuclear weapons - and as a direct consequence of the Blair and Bush invasion of Iraq.

Blair, to be frank, is a raving loony.


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