Blair's Iraq reflections show how supercilious much of the EU debate is
Oh no, not defending himself on the front page of the Guardian again before Sir John Chilcot’s report has even delivered its verdict after a protracted inquest into the Iraq war’s failings. Yes, and why not? What do we expect people to do when relentlessly and savagely prejudged? Most of us are not pacifists.
What Blair’s latest reflections serve to do is to underline just how supercilious much of the for and against debate on Brexit is in the current campaign. By no means the most thoughtful man to win elections and occupy No 10, Blair can sound like Aristotle in comparison with what we get from Dave and George, Boris and Govey, let alone from (where is he?) Jeremy.
What caught my attention on this occasion was not Blair’s growing acknowledgment that planning for the occupation – as distinct from mere conquest – of in 2003 was woefully inadequate, led by the gung-ho on-the-cheap US Department of Defence with its casual disclaimer about not wanting to “nation build”.
Nor his assertion that the rival interventions by Shia-dominated Iran and Sunni al-Qaida – an older enmity than most in today’s world – were fatal to the coalition’s ambition to create something better on the ashes of Saddam Hussein’s secular Sunni autocracy. I can remember asking Blair at a No 10 press conference whether he wasn’t being a bit naive in asserting that most Iraqis want pluralism and tolerance. Twitter nowadays reminds us that it isn’t always so.
No, what intrigued me was a passing homage to Prof Philip Bobbit, an American lawyer, historian and government adviser, of whom you may be forgiven for never having heard. I first came across him after he published (2002), an ambitious analysis of the interaction between evolving strategy – in a military sense – and constitutional developments up to and including what Bobbit grandly named the emerging “market state”, which is now coming into being.
One simple example of the theme will be familiar to many. Did the post-feudal, sovereign nation state, enshrined in the which ended the bloody thirty years’ war in 1648, arise from the imperatives of diplomatic compromise (Catholic and Protestant were the implacable Shia and Sunni of their day) over religious rivalry?
Or were they, more prosaically, the byproduct of the effective mastery of Chinese-invented gunpowder as a weapon of war by adaptive Europeans? Or of better fortress design to protect the territorial regime of ruling princes, occasionally – Venice and the Dutch – of republics?
You can immediately see the relevance of such questions both to the Iraq and wider Middle East and to the conundrum of the EU referendum on 23 June. The industrial nation state which emerged from the collapse of the imperial variety during the wars of the 20th century faces pressing challenges with which it struggles to cope.
When Bobbit and other champions of the liberal global order evoked the “end of history” after the end of the cold war they imagined a deepening network of international bodies, running on liberal rules, which would cooperate to tackle such all embracing problems as climate change, pollution and, of course, residual poverty and disease.
That was all before the 9/11 attacks and the banking crisis of 2008/9, when the scale and speed of China’s recovery to worldwide authority it once enjoyed was far from clear. So it hasn’t proved so easy. Globalised communications have proved a mixed blessing. So has free trade, the rise of religious fundamentalist militancy (not confined to Islam either) and the mass migration of peoples from south to richer north.
Even the emergence of internationally enforced human rights cannot help but undermine the authority of the nation state, just as much as disruptive social networks. When George W Bush and Blair set out to disrupt and destroy the emerging terrorist franchise known as al-Qaida they reckoned without a newly emerging bit of tech known from 2000 as a “smartphone”. It was the terrorist organiser’s dream weapon.
Blair and other world leaders of the time were much taken with Bobbit’s Shield of Achilles. It didn’t hurt that he was also a well-connected Texan nephew of Lyndon B Johnson, a domestic reformer who learned hard lessons of the limits of power in Vietnam. He’s has since produced two other books.
You can catch a flavour of last March, one read by Blair, I can well imagine. Entitled States of Disorder, Bobbit argues that the “market state” he envisages – one in which empowered citizens look more to market solutions than state-driven ones – evolving from industrial states are under threat from fluid entities like Isis, al-Qaida’s more dangerous successor franchise.
Bobbit also attacks what he calls the Parmedides fallacy – – whereby people repeatedly make the mistake of saying that, in current Iraq for example, things are worse than they would have been if the US/UK had not invaded in 2003. Nothing stands still, Iraq might well have engaged in a nuclear arms race with Iran, for example.
The emergence of Islamic State within the weak state vacuum makes it even harder for established states to deliver basic security for their citizens; just look at the “state of emergency” jitters in France (90,000 security staff deployed) before Euro 2016 football tournament. This is all happening at a time when the economic challenges of globalism (China’s exports, financial fragility) make the promise of domestic security harder. We all need to eat and to sleep under a non-leaky roof behind a door we can safely lock.
Barack Obama, who underestimated Isis and the disruptive possibilities for the Middle East, has made a lot of mistakes, Bobbit’s article concedes. Brexiteers will immediately say the president also made one in advising Brits not to vote to leave the EU.
But it should be easy to see why he did it, right or wrong. The international order is fragile enough without weakening one of its more stable components. Sensible cooperation, not reassertive nationalism must be the answer.
Blair’s response to the failures he helped trigger in the Middle East is to suggest the international community should find the will and capacity to build a non-military structure that will nurture fledgling democracies, not let them sink or swim, driving their refugees in our direction. You could call it his idealistic side showing.
How best to move forward? Which is the best choice on 23 June? Honest men and women can disagree about this, but only if they think a bit harder about the real choices Britain faces. There’s still time for both sides to raise their game. A few speeches which don’t insult the voters intelligence would not go amiss.
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