Syria: Blair’s True Legacy?

While Blair sat atop the Prime Ministerial throne and his terms rolled along, his mind increasingly wondered to the question of what his legacy as leader would be. While he hoped it would be the remains of his strong domestic agenda, the reality is of course very different. You ask anyone in the world – from a youngster in Britain to an old taxi driver in Singapore – what they associate Tony Blair with and the response is always the same. One word. One word that still haunts not only Blair, not only the Labour Party, not only British politics, but the whole world; Iraq. In 2003, Tony Blair made a decision to enter an effectively bilateral war alongside President Bush and the Americans against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime. He did so with the consent of parliament, but without the mandate of the United Nations. The evidence backing up the case for war, pointed at a limited capacity to own and build weapons of mass destruction, and the intelligence presented to Blair suggested that Iran, Libya and North Korea were much greater threats.

Nonetheless, Bush had a vendetta against Hussein after he’d made an attempt on his father’s life, the Americans were furious that the administration had communicated with and even harboured Osama bin Laden, and Iraq was a tactical point of control for the USA, it being a key region, and being rife with oil. Blair followed Bush for a number of reasons. For one, Blair held a great amount of reverence for the ‘Special Relationship’ between the UK and the USA, and came to regard Bush as a close personal friend. Another reason was the moral case; Hussein had a history of genocide, repression, and fierce dictatorship, as well as a previous utilisation of chemical weapons. Blair saw regime change as vital, and pivotal in bringing stability to the tumultuous region. The Prime Minister saw the Iraq war working alongside the stuttered Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a pipedream that never materialised. Blair was also genuinely presented with intelligence that hinted at WMD capability, however him and his chief spin doctor, or officially Director of Communications, Alastair Campbell allegedly ‘jazzed it up’ with the 45-minute claim in the Iraq dossier.

Unlike his US Republican counterpart, Blair never planned to be a war leader, but the events in Sierra Leone and Kosovo and his successes there combined with the atrocities of 9/11 gave him the appetite for military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead he wished to be liked by the whole public, placing an enormous amount of focus on utilising the media, getting the newspapers on his side, and appearing young and personable. He turned 10 Downing Street into a bustling hub of celebrities and parties, dressing down in jeans and playing his guitar for guests. He was the youngest Labour leader for years, and had redefined the party as the contemporary New Labour. After his second landslide victory in 2001 his mind started drifting towards the future, and how history would view him. He made a conscious effort to start building positive potential legacies of his stewardship, namely, his investment in public services.

However, looking back, what is Blair truly remembered for? Is he remembered for winning 3 consecutive elections? Is he remembered as the pioneer who reshaped Labour as an electable entity? Do we remember him as overseeing the longest run of positive economic growth in British history? Or do we remember him for improving the National Health Service and bringing down waiting lists? Is he remembered for his substantial investment in education, or for bringing the 2012 Olympics to Britain? Is he remembered for his heroic intervention in Kosovo? Or his significant work in providing aid to Africa? Or perhaps for his likeable public persona? Or maybe for his charismatic PMQ’s performances? Or is he remembered for defeating the Tory party again and again? Is he remembered for spear-heading Third Way political thinking alongside Bill Clinton? Let me save you some time. No, he is not remembered for any of these things. All of these potential positive legacies are left in the wayside by death tolls of British soldiers, by 2 middle eastern wars persisting into the future, by 1 million protestors taking to the streets of London against the war being ignored, by his Senior Minister Robin Cook resigning in condemnation of the war, by the mysterious death of David Kelly, the weapons inspector who could’ve stopped the war, by the insurgency attacks of Iraq, by the Islamist retaliation of 7/7, by the ‘Bliar’ pickets, by the Chilcot Enquiry, by the chants of ‘war criminal’, by the phony Iraq dossier, by the absence of WMD, by the lies, by the cover-ups, by the disaster that was the Iraq War.

Iraq was a cataclysmic failure, an admission that Blair still won’t fully admit as he points to a recent poll showing the majority of Iraqis are happier now than they were under Hussein. Nevertheless, his great legacy is undoubtedly the Iraq crises. The war has left a very evident scar on the British political hierarchy, which has become exposed recently, when British Parliament debated intervention in Syria. Syria might seem like yesterday’s news, but in terms of the reasoning behind Parliament’s decision, it is still very relevant to British Politics. Blair went to war without the consent of the UN, therefore in the eyes of many, underwent an internationally illegal war. Wherever he goes, the chants of war criminal still follow him. His military intervention was based on questionable intelligence. Is anyone noticing a pattern here? Look at the Syria crises. Two long years and 100’000 deaths after this civil war started there were claims of chemical weapons being used by Assad in Damascus. This was at the time, based on unverified intelligence, and weapons inspectors were placed in Syria while President Obama and David Cameron contemplated ‘liberal’ intervention again. The names and faces had changed, but the intentions of the US-UK leaders were the same; the President wanted to punish a middle-eastern rogue nation for ‘crossing the red line’, while the Prime Minister wanted to hang on the American coat tails. The United Nations were yet to pass any resolutions on military action in Syria, and already, a young, liberal-minded Prime Minister, ahead of his party, had gone to Parliament and asked for consent to British intervention. Once again he made the moral case for toppling a brutal dictator, he wished to stand alongside a powerful American President, and believed in the deployment of chemical weapons based on incomplete intelligence. The whole scenario was hauntingly reminiscent of 10 years previously. Then comes vote time. Now the wound starts to bleed. Echoes of Robin Cook, of Chilcot, of bloodshed, of terrorism, of insurgency reverberate around the House of Commons. It becomes apparent that 60% of Britons are equally scarred by the previous wars and want no involvement in Syria.

It’s like watching a sick movie for the second time, but this time, getting wise and hiding behind the sofa before the scary bit. MPs defeat Cameron. The House says no to war, by a mere margin of 13 votes. The legacy of Blair’s Iraq spooked politicians into voting against action. Every MP must have been remembering the hatred suffered on the part of Blair, the guilt after every death, the widespread condemnation, and refused to face the same themselves. The House of Commons would have voted for intervention in Syria if it weren’t for Blair’s war on Iraq. Fact. So this ever-discussed legacy of Blair, how negative is it really? Has it quashed an over-eager Prime Minister, allowing time for the diplomatic Russian solution? Has it just stopped a repeat performance? Has it stopped an unnecessary war? Has it got Britain to learn from its mistakes? Has it prevented more British lives lost in Syria? Has it diluted the gap between the West and the Muslim world? Has the legacy of Iraq stopped the legacy of Syria? Has this saved the legitimacy of British politics? The answer to all of the above may well be yes, and this may well be Blair’s legacy.

There is one more thing to consider though. The Commons said no to intervention, so the UK chose not be taking part in Syrian military action, when intervention was a very real possibility. This means that the politicians of Britain have saved some face and popularity, allowing the UN to come up with a diplomatic solution. Great Britain will no longer be seen as America’s poodle, or arrogant enough to police the world. This all sounds great for the UK, but what about for Syria? Say we voted no and the UN didn’t deliver the plan to remove the chemical weapons. Say Russia didn’t propose the idea and America got its mandate for intervention. And lest we forget, chemical weapons or no chemical weapons, there is still a civil war going on, and casualties continue to pile up. Yes Iraq was a mistake, but we may have learnt the wrong lesson from it. Should we have learnt never to intervene in the internal crises of Middle Eastern countries, or should we actually have learnt to maintain our commitment to fiercely opposing injustice and oppression, and just implement our intervention better, with a stronger focus on post victory reconstruction and nation building? Yes there are elements which make the Syrian conflict different from the Iraqi one; the intra-religious sectarianism between Sunnis and Shiites is playing a more prominent role, there is the unstable nature and part extremist tendencies of the rebels, and there is uncertainty surrounding the source of the chemical attacks. Nonetheless, from a humanitarian point, there are still thousands dying, there is still a brutal dictator in place who’s armed forces are committing atrocities and killing in greater volumes than its opposition. Day by day the death toll rises, and the Iraqi legacy Blair has left means one poignant thing. In the face of injustice, brutality, and genocide, Britain will now stand on the side-lines and watch. We will do nothing. Perhaps it’s this that threatens the legitimacy of British Politics the most.

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9 comments

  1. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/dec/15/balkans-report-blairs-liberal-intervention

    Kosovo isn’t as black and white as you would think…
    But a very well written post, it is worth noting the relative silence of Britain on the Syrian issue. While the decision not to intervene was arguably the correct one, the fact that the majority of diplomatic solutions have come from Russia reflects potentially on the influence that the UK has on today’s global politics.

    1. This is an isolated article and a criticism of America mainly. Kosovo may not have gone without a hitch, but it is widely regarded as a success, and Blair’s speech in the wake of it on ‘Liberal Intervention’ gained a standing ovation in the Commons and widespread acclaim. Kosovo and Sierra Leone are generally seen as military successes by the British press. Interesting point about Britain’s recent inaudible response to Syrian developments. Is Britain’s position on the global stage slipping? Perhaps. America’s speed to align with France when Hollande originally backed Obama’s call for intervention suggests the ‘Special Relationship’ is very limited, and Britain’s influence over America and the world is fading.

  2. To rephrase what atitra said, very well written buddy. I especially like the dramatic socialist ringing through you, couldn’t have recognised anyone else’s style to be perfectly honest. However, although you mention that we should learn from Iraq’s mistakes, which would not entail preventing to intervene, just a clearer evidence-based rationale, you could have gone into more depth about other factors that are at stake here that differ from Iraq, such as the fragile Middle Eastern Shiite/Sunni conflict, the unstable nature of the rebel-factions, the fact that Cameron hardly has genuine support from within his party, and essentially how this aggregate picture has impacted Britain’s refusal to intervene, which is totally justified.

    1. Yeah good shout mate thanks for the advice. Thinking my next article will be on the UN resolution on Syria and its shortcomings.

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    1. Hi! I certainly don’t mind if you share my blog, in fact I’d be grateful for the exposure! Thank you for your support and please continue to follow my blog, I’ll be adding at least 1-2 articles each week. Thanks 🙂

  4. I can only speak for myself here, but my opposition to having our anything to do with Syria comes not so much from Iraq, but from Libya. I very reluctantly supported intervention there, but only because Gaddafi announced his intention to “clean up the rats, house by house and street by street”. It has subsequently turned into a Jihadi wild west.

    A Syria where Assad is defeated would be even worse- A series of al qeda emirates, established after massive ethnic cleansing of Allawites and Christians. At least half of the “rebels” are either al qeada or al qeaqqda-like hardcore jihadis, and the vast majority of the rest are either Islamists of some sort, or former gangsters and opportunistic criminals. Any analysis which ignores this is worth a damn, frankly.

    It’s still arguable that Iraq is better off without Saddam, monster that he was. It’s becoming increasingly hard to make that same argument in Libya, because Gaddafi wasn’t all THAT bad. It’s already impossible to say the same over Syria.

    1. I’m sorry but I have to disagree with you. Yes the rebel forces are partly made up of extremist groups, but frankly, the way this Civil War started was a peaceful protest by the people against a brutal and undemocratic dictator, who responded by slaughtering innocents. That is how peaceful protesters became rebels, and the spiral that opened up the rebels to sectarian and Islamist influences is based more on a fundamental issue surrounding the fragile intra-Muslim relations in the region, and the Sunni-Shia balance. The reason this wasn’t fully addressed in the article was that the article was focused more on why Britain voted against intervention, I wasn’t making the case for intervention, therefore considering the intentions of the article, I would argue that this analysis is worth a damn. If you want me to focus in on your issue though and defend the cause of intervention, I shall play devil’s advocate. Yes there is extremist influences within the rebels, but the animosity towards the west of this group would probably reduce significantly if their cause to be free of Assad’s oppression was helped by western countries. Either way, your suggestion that Gaddafi and Assad weren’t/aren’t that bad is highly contentious and places a questionable light over your moral compass. In fact you spit in the face of Libyans and victims by playing down the fact that Gadaffi was closely associated with the worst terrorist atrocities of the pre-9/11 era. And as for Assad, his chemical weapons attack (proven by his possession of chemical weapons confirmed by UN inspectors) is just the first on a long list of atrocities against humanities. Yes, Syria led by extremists would be no better, but that’s what would happen if the rebels won without the help of the west. The only way to avoid these two equally atrocious scenarios is western intervention, and well thought-out, diplomatic nation building, not to repeat the rush-job mistakes of Iraq, or the lack of nation building post-Libya. The UN has been short-sighted, they could have proposed a resolution which allowed intervention with the strict stipulation of well-constructed nation building to restore peace to the region.

  5. There was ALWAYS a violent, sectarian core to the Syrian revolution, as well as peaceful protests.
    It was a dual track process. Hundreds of policemen were killed in the first few months of the uprising. It’s just that the western MSM ignored it, and they continue with their shocking bias to this day.

    Cuddly protestors don’t chant ” Christians to Beirut, Allawaites to the grave”, and slaughter coppers. And it’s not that the rebels are “partly” extremists, rather they are in the overwhelming majority.
    Siding with the rebels is the same as siding with al qeada. Just because our intelligence services are stupid enough to do it doesn’t make it any less spastic.

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