Every time I write about Tony Blair, I tell myself that it will be the last time. But then I find myself coming back, time and again, like a dog to its vomit. It isn’t because Blair is so interesting in himself. On the contrary, the more he appears in the media and utters his banal and narcissistic pronouncements, the more he reminds me of a cross between the gardener Chance in Being There and Bismarck’s depiction of Napoleon III as a ‘sphinx without a riddle.’
For me Blair’s interest, such as it is, derives from his political role, and particularly his role in the Iraq war and a dangerous and fervid promoter of the new 21st century militarism. Last week, there was a sharp and disturbing article by Chris Doyle , the director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), which drew attention to an aspect of the Blair phenomenon that I have always found striking and inexplicable; the often breathtaking shallowness that underpins so many of his judgements and positions – particularly when they have anything to do with the Middle East.
Doyle’s piece contains the following anecdote:
‘Shortly after Tony Blair set up shop as the Quartet Representative in the luxurious American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem he met a group of former Parliamentary colleagues. To the jangle of jaws dropping on the floor, he confessed that before he had come out there, he had not realised just how little he really understood about the Israel-Palestine conflict as Prime Minister. The reality on the ground was so much worse then he had ever imagined.’
This is the man who the ‘Quartet’ sent to bring peace to the Middle East, who once told the Labour Party Conference in 2001 of his determination to ‘re-order’ the post-9/11 world ‘from the deserts of northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan’.
This is not the first time Blair has made grandiose pronouncements on subjects he knows nothing about. In his book on the Iraq war, the Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele once described how Blair met three academic experts on Iraq at 10 Downing Street during the build-up to the Iraq war to discuss what might happen after the invasion.
You might think that consulting established experts such as Toby Dodge, Charles Tripp and George Joffe when you are about to go to war was the mark of a wise politician, willing to recognize the gaps in his own knowledge and keen to remedy them through consultation.
According to Steele, the three academics each made short presentations in an attempt to give Blair some insight into the complexities of Iraqi society and politics and the possible consequences of military action, but the would-be liberator was not interested in such trivia.
Charles Tripp told Steele that Blair ‘wasn’t focussed. I felt he wanted us to reinforce his gut instinct that Saddam was a monster. It was a weird mixture of total cynicism and moral fervour.’
Tripp later recalled how
‘At one point, Blair said something like: “Isn’t Saddam Hussein uniquely evil?”There was a muttering from this group of 21st-century academics as if to say: “What’s this man on about?” I thought, no, Saddam’s not unique, and as for evil, well, that’s his statecraft!’
George Joffe told Steele that he came away with the impression of ‘someone with a very shallow mind, who’s not interested in issues other than the personalities of the top people, no interest in social forces, political trends, etc’.
Once again, the most disturbing aspect of Blair’s ignorance is not just what it says about Blair himself. Since 2008 Blair has been giving a course at Yale University on ‘faith and globalisation’; governments pay millions for his advice; he picks up vast fees for speaking engagements to elite gatherings across the world; he continues to be regarded by the British and American media as the go-to man on anything to do with the Middle East; banks pay him huge salaries as a consultant.
Despite his disastrous record in Iraq, he continues to be taken seriously when he calls for new ‘interventions’ in Syria and Iran; when Newsnight commemorated the Iraq anniversary, he was given a twenty-minute respectful interview by Kirsty Walk; both Cameron and Miliband treat him like some wise elder statesman; according to Doyle ‘One politician visiting the US State department last year came away stunned at the high regard Blair was held in.’
All this for a man who again and again has demonstrated that he has no idea what he is talking about, whose record in Iraq – leaving aside the question of the criminality of the war – is one of gross negligence and recklessness. Yet the political and media elites continue to consider him an expert and an authority, as though nothing ever happened.
All of which suggests that Blair’s cliches and ill-informed assumptions and delusions about terrorism, Islam, the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are actually useful in some way – at least to some people and institutions, and that the reputation that he has acquired in certain circles was not achieved in spite of his shallowness and ignorance – but because of it.