Is Bush Blair’s poodle?

The Bush administration is heir to the ‘humanitarian warfare’ masterminded by arch-interventionist Tony Blair.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

It has become a truism in British political and media circles that prime minister Tony Blair is a poodle to President George W Bush’s rottweiler, an obedient little panting pet who fetches, rolls over and supports the bombing of civilians as and when his master demands it. But how true is this truism?

You cannot open a newspaper or magazine in Britain these days without seeing some commentator calling on Blair to sever his links with Bush. Following the now-infamous ‘Yo, Blair!’ exchange between the two leaders at the G8 gathering in Russia, Guardian journalist Ros Taylor described Blair as Bush’s ‘servant’. Bush is a ‘straight-talker’, she argued, who ‘exploits and fends off Blair’s feeble equivocations’. Under the headline ‘Yo, Bush! Start treating our prime minister with respect’, the Daily Mirror said the unguarded chat reinforced ‘the damaging public image of Blair as the US president’s poodle’ (1).

More recently, as Blair refused to distance himself from the Bush administration’s line on the Israel-Lebanon conflict, the left-leaning weekly the New Statesman demanded of Blair: ‘Unhitch us from the Bush chariot.’ Sir Stephen Wall, a former foreign policy adviser to Blair, warned that we should not leave it to Bush ‘to set the bearings of our moral compass’ (2). The Blair-as-poodle argument has even made it into the pop charts. Earlier this year the Pet Shop Boys, those ageing survivors of 80s synethesiser pop, had a hit with ‘I’m With Stupid’. ‘See you on the TV / Call you every day / Fly across the ocean / Just to let you get your way’, they sang, painting a picture of Blair as arsekisser-in-chief to America’s commander-in-chief.

Accusing Blair of being Bush’s poodle is lame, and wrong. It’s lame because it is excuse-making masquerading as a political critique. Instead of holding Blair to account for his role in sending British bombers and soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq – and elsewhere before that – the poodle-bashers let him off the hook by claiming that he has simply been hoodwinked or coaxed into taking such action by the apparently ‘straight-talking’ Bush. As Ros Taylor argued, Bush’s ‘handling of the PM is masterful’ (3). This is champagne anti-imperialism: faced with a British prime minister who has spent a large part of his time in office butting into other states’ affairs, Blair’s critics merely, and politely, call on the PM to ‘do the decent thing’ and return home. They reserve their ire for Bush, while effectively offering the political and journalistic equivalent of therapy to Blair, hoping that appealing to his better senses will help to break Bush’s alleged spell over him. As a critique of Blair’s interventionism, this is as about as lame as it gets.

And it’s wrong because it vastly underestimates the extent to which Blair has influenced the Bush administration’s military antics. The Bushies have borrowed and updated the language of Blairitie interventionism to justify their invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and their current stance over Israel-Lebanon. In many ways, they can be seen as the heirs to Blair’s ‘humanitarian warfare’, which the PM was pursuing long before Bush came to power in 2001. Could it be that Bush is Blair’s poodle?

Of course it is true that Britain is subservient to America in international affairs. This is a consequence of geo-political shifts since the end of the Second World War rather than of some personality failure on Blair’s part. As British politics professor Wyn Grant said rather sensibly, as everyone else was busy analysing the deeper meaning of the ‘Yo, Blair!’ exchange, that conversation ‘only reflected reality’: ‘The US-UK relationship throughout the whole period since the Second World War has always been an asymmetrical one. It’s always been one in which the US has been dominant.’ (4) In the postwar period, America emerged as the strongman of international affairs and leader of the Western world. Britain, meanwhile, which once oversaw an Empire that covered much of the globe, lost more and more territory and influence in colonial conflicts and uprisings from India to the Middle East to Africa. Like most other Western European states, Britain was well and truly under the influence of America in the Cold War period.

The ‘special relationship’ that developed between America and Britain, particularly under Thatcher and Reagan in the Eighties and Blair and Bill Clinton/Bush in the Nineties and Noughties, has been beneficial for both sides. It allows America to present its global domination as a partnership between various Western states, and allows Britain to punch above its weight in international affairs, to continue playing a key supporting role in global politics, from Afghanistan in the Eighties to Kosovo and Iraq more recently, long after it lost its real power on the world stage.

But it is wrong to see Blair as merely tripping in Clinton’s and now Bush’s shadow. Rather he is better seen as these presidents’ chief propagandist, the man who provided a new justification and gloss for American militarism in the post-Cold War period. It is worth remembering that Blair, often in tandem with Clinton, was executing bloody interventions before his alleged ‘master’ Bush entered the White House. He was a key architect of the NATO-led Kosovo bombing campaign in 1999. He sent British troops to Sierra Leone in 2000. And he had already bombed Iraq on the dubious grounds that it had WMD that posed a threat to world peace in 1998, a full five years before doing so again with Bush in 2003.

These interventions do not only show that Blair is more than capable of launching wars without first being schmoozed by Bush over a beer in his Texan ranch – they were also a blueprint for Bush’s later wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Blair, together with Clinton, wrote the script for today’s new forms of humanitarian intervention, which profess to be about delivering democracy, upholding human rights or liberating people from tyrannical regimes. Bush is lambasted for two aspects of his foreign policy in particular: for his naive and pseudo-religious view that the world can be split into Good and Evil, and for his cavalier attitude towards state sovereignty and the authority of the United Nations. Both of these traits he inherited from the Blair era of humanitarian warfare.

So, many have slated Bush for his super-reductionist, black-and-white worldview, in which you’re either ‘with us or against us’. Peter Singer, writer on ethics (and ‘animal liberation’, among other things), recently argued in a book titled The President of Good and Evil that: ‘No other president in living memory has spoken so often about good and evil, right and wrong.’ He points out that Bush spoke about evil in 319 speeches between taking office in 2001 and 16 June 2003 – or in 30 per cent of all the speeches he made. Singer also says that Bush most often talks about good and evil in relation to international affairs, where he doesn’t only speak about ‘evil deeds, or even evil people, [but] evil as a thing, a force’ (5).

It was Blair who first injected international affairs with such a simplistic and sometimes lethal new moralism. Shortly after coming to power, Blair unveiled his ‘ethical foreign policy’, where good wars would be launched against bad people. During Britain and America’s Kosovo campaign of 1999, for which Blair took prime propagandistic responsibility, the PM explicitly stated that this was a new kind of military interventionism, not for land or influence but for ‘what is right’. Blair declared: ‘We are fighting not for territory but for values.’ (6) In a precursor to Bush’s focus on evil post-9/11, Blair described the Kosovo campaign in 1999 as ‘a battle between good and evil; between civilisation and barbarity; between democracy and dictatorship.’ (7) In 2002, Bush, in a speech about the ‘war on terrorism’, borrowed directly from such Blair-speak, but if anything he was a little more modest in how he put it: ‘Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree…. There can be no neutrality between justice and cruelty, between the innocent and guilty. We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name.’ (8)

Another tactic of the Bush administration is to argue that whatever the dangers involved in war, doing nothing is more dangerous still. Here, in the absence of any convincing argument for America’s role in world affairs, US leaders use the politics of fear, of risk-aversion and avoiding unpredictable consequences, to justify their military excursions. The ‘Bush doctrine’, which springs from the US National Security Strategy unveiled in 2002, puts the case for ‘pre-emptive action’ to deal with the terrorist threat from abroad, because America is now apparently ‘menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few’ (9). In relation to Iraq, Vice-President Dick Cheney argued: ‘The risk of inaction is far greater than action.’ (10)

This, too, is borrowed from Blair’s foreign policy. During the Kosovo campaign, Blair and Clinton continually argued that inaction was ‘the greatest evil’, and their supporters used the phrase: ‘Inaction is not an option.’ In October 2001, justifying the war on Afghanistan, Blair said: ‘Whatever the dangers of the action we take, the dangers of inaction are far, far greater.’ (11) It was Blair who moralised international affairs, and it was Blair who elevated risk-avoidance as a justification for military action.

Bush is most loudly attacked for overriding the UN and ignoring state sovereignty. Since the Iraq war in 2003, numerous journalists, academics and lawyers in the West have accused Bush of having a cowboy-ish disregard for the rules and regulations of international affairs, as if the president single-handedly consigned the UN’s writ to the dustbin of history. In fact, yet again, Blair led this charge; the PM played a key role in the late Nineties in seeking to change international law to make military interventionism easier. In April 1999, Blair gave a speech at the Chicago Economic Club, in which he called for a decisive move away from the old UN emphasis on respecting nations’ sovereign independence and towards more pro-active forms of military intervention to topple ‘regimes that are undemocratic and engaged in barbarous acts’ (12). This became known as the ‘Chicago doctrine’, and it is known to have had a big impact both on Clinton and the necons who were then waiting in the wings. Blair put this theory into action when he bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 without the unanimous backing of the United Nations Security Council – and he was cheered by some of the same people who in 2003 slated Bush for bombing Iraq without UN backing.

For Blair, ‘Where a population is suffering serious harm as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect.’ (13) These are the same arguments that have been adopted by Bush and Co: that the West is good, and it has a responsibility to topple tyrants and protect people from harm. The Bush administration has merely taken Blair’s style of moral warmongering to a new level, using arguments and ideas developed by Blair over the past nine years to justify its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Morally and politically, these are as much Blair’s wars as they are Bush’s.

If there is a difference between Blair and US presidents Clinton and Bush, it is that Blair really believes that he is a moral warrior for good against evil, whereas for the Americans such arguments are more of a convenient off-the-peg justification for their search for moral purpose through military interventionism. And it is Blair’s unflappable self-belief in his historic role as a knight in shining armour that makes him such a livewire in international affairs.

What the liberal commentators berating Blair for being Bush’s poodle really seem to dislike about Bush’s military interventionism is that it appears brash, uncouth, clumsy. Blair, you see, did it with more panache, making sure to speak about Good and Evil in modern secular terms rather than in Christian fundamentalist tones, and being careful to execute moral-military stunts that lasted a couple of months at most rather than full-scale military invasions. Blair is a good old British warmonger, a moral warrior with style, whereas Bush is loud and outspoken and a bit too gung-ho for British tastes. Again, as far as challenging Western intervention goes, such a stance is as lame as it gets.

There is a deep and bitter irony to these commentators’ criticisms of Blair for sucking up to Bush. The truth is that Blair’s ‘ethical foreign policy’, which many of them supported tooth and nail, was the midwife to Bush’s good-guy interventionism. Many of these writers cheered Blair when he elevated moralism over realpolitik in international affairs, and they positively encouraged him to ignore the UN (as he did in the bombing of Yugoslavia) in the interests of doing what was right and proper and just. It is theirs and Blair’s earlier transformation of international affairs into a stage for their own moral and political gratification which subsequently gave rise to the Bush administration’s new style of warmongering. Blair is no poodle. Rather, it is more accurate to say that Bush’s warmongering is the Blairites’ ‘humanitarianism’ let off its leash.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) Yo, Bush! Blair mocked as US poodle, Yahoo! News, 18 July 2006

(2) Unhitch us from the Bush chariot, New Statesman, 31 July 2006

(3) Malapropist and servant, Comment Is Free, 18 July 2006

(4) Yo, Bush! Blair mocked as US poodle, Yahoo! News, 18 July 2006

(5) The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W Bush, Peter Singer, Dutton, 2004

(6) Turning point?, Z, 2004

(7) Blair promises to help refugees, BBC News, 5 April 1999

(8) Statement, Committee on International Relations, US House of Representatives, 17 March 2004

(9) National Security Strategy, GlobalSecurity.org, September 2002

(10) Blair losing influence on US over Iraq, Guardian, 30 August 2002

(11) Full text: Tony Blair’s speech (part one), Guardian, 2 October 2001

(12) The Blair doctrine, Online NewsHour, 22 April 1999

(13) See Cross-border terrorism: a mess made by the West, by Brendan O’Neill

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