It’s been a good year for that jetsetting businessman, philanthropist and peace envoy Tony Blair. In September GQ Magazine voted him ‘philanthropist of the year.’ Now Save the Children have given him its ‘Global Legacy Award’ at a ‘gala dinner’ in New York attended by various A-List film stars, celebrities, and the latest incarnation of Lassie.
The first award received a great deal of criticism from left and right and prompted even Gary Lineker to note that GQ had finally discovered irony. Yesterday’s award prompted more muted outrage. Russia Today said that it provoked a ‘torrent of criticism’ before listing precisely two critical tweets, one of which was posted by George Galloway. The Daily Mail condemned Save the Children’s decision to reward a man who had spent billions of taxpayer’s money on foreign overseas – not exactly a criticism delivered from the moral high ground.
There is something incestuous as well as incongruous about the award, given that the UK director of Save the Children is Justin Forsyth, who was recruited by Tony Blair in 2004 to direct the government’s efforts on poverty and climate change. Forsyth was one of the key movers in the Make Poverty History campaign, a campaign that was cited as part of Blair’s ‘legacy’ yesterday. He went on to become Strategic Communications and Campaigns Director under Gordon Brown, before accepting a £160,000 appointment at Save the Children in 2010.
So on one level the award raises the possibility that a charity officer may have helped reward a politician who once employed him for his work on poverty campaigning that both of them were once involved in. But it also raises a number of wider questions about Blair’s ‘legacy’ and also about the role that he has played on the global stage.
Blair received the award largely for his work in Africa, from his promotion of debt relief when he was in office to the various projects and initiatives carried out by his Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) since leaving it.
There is no doubt that some of Blair’s achievements in Africa have been positive. Who could object to supporting health worker teams fighting Ebola? Or fighting malaria in Sierra Leone? Or helping the Rwanda government improve its power sector? We might ask about the kind of world we have, in which African governments must rely on rich philanthropists to get such things done.
We might also note the fact that Blair’s philanthropy has been inseparable from his relentless and astonishing transformation into a capital accumumulation machine and his questionable financial arrangements and shady dealings with a succession of autocrats and dictators.
And then there is the little matter of the Iraq War.
Blair’s defenders would like to present the war as an unfortunate ‘mess’ that has sullied an otherwise entirely benevolent record, but the catastrophic consequences of that conflict cannot be dismissed so easily – except by those who have no interest in recognizing them – and it is particularly shocking that Save the Children should have granted this award to one of the principal architects of a war whose consequences fell particularly heavily on Iraqi children.
Two million Iraqi children were displaced as a result of the Anglo-American occupation and the insurgency that followed. A 2009 UNHCR report found that 93, 500 children had disappeared as a result of kidnapping, forced recruitment or abduction by armed groups. Reports of the numbers of Iraqi children orphaned by war, occupation and sanctions range from 400,000 to as high as 4.5 million.
That is some ‘mess’, and Blair was one of those who did more than anyone else to make it happen. He colluded with George Bush to facilitate a war of aggression, which he falsely presented to the public as a ‘preemptive’ war. There is nothing that Blair can do in Africa or anywhere else to ‘balance’ this crime.
Yesterday he referred obliquely to the war in a speech that was filled with the usual emollient and grandiose pieties for which he has become famous, in which he proclaimed:
From the beginning of humankind there has been brutality, conflict, intrigue, the destructive obsession with a narrow self-interest. But throughout all of human history, the cynics have never extinguished that relentless, unquenchable desire to do good. To act not only in self-interest and sometimes to even to act in defiance of it.
It is difficult not to see these pronouncements as yet another attempt to justify the Iraq war. Blair has always regarded his willingness to take unpopular decisions as a true mark of ‘leadership’ and a sign of his own greatness, and he has made it clear again and again that he regards his decision to support the invasion of Iraq as a a brave and essentially noble act, regardless of the ‘brutality, conflict, intrigue’ that he was directly involved in.
That decision certainly harmed him politically in the short-term, but it was not in defiance of his own long-term interests. Had he refused to go along with it, it is difficult, if not impossible to imagine that he would have been as well-rewarded by American banks and financial insitutions as he has been. And it doesn’t actually matter whether he regarded his decision to support the war as another consequence of his ‘relentless, unquenchable desire to do good’.
Good intentions are no excuse for a historical crime of such magnitude. By ignoring this component of Blair’s ‘ legacy’ Save the Children has helped to do what Blair what like the world to do, and transform that war into a tragic ‘mistake’ and a minor historical footnote.
In doing so, it shamefully ignored the consequences of that war and its ongoing consequences and Blair’s relentless promotion of global violence ever since. And for a leading campaigning charity to behave in such a way is really rather unedifying and even sickening.