I struggle to think of a former political leader as diligent as Tony Blair in the sullying of his own reputation. Mr Blair’s Iraq adventure with George W Bush was always going to cast a shadow. A minority will forever condemn him as a “war criminal”. Yet it is his single-minded, almost manic, quest for personal riches that will leave the darker stain on the historical record.
True, Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor, sold himself to Gazprom and now serves as a tireless cheerleader for Russia’s Vladimir Putin. France’s Nicolas Sarkozy displayed a certain fondness for “bling” even before he was turned out of the Elysée Palace. Neither come close to Mr Blair’s mission to join the global plutocracy.
Former political leaders have a right to earn a decent living, the more so when they leave office in their early 50s. Mr Blair makes much of his philanthropic foundations and hefty personal contributions to good causes. The trouble is that the boundaries between private profit and public service are hopelessly obscured – one assumes deliberately so – in the corporate labyrinth that is Tony Blair Associates.
When Mr Blair tours the palaces of the Gulf states it is never clear whether he is wearing his peacemaking hat as a member of the UN quartet seeking Middle East peace or drumming up personal business from oil-rich emirs.
The former UK prime minister is catholic in his choice of clients. Not so long ago he was a proselytiser for democracy. Now, along with the monarchs of the Gulf, he courts Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev. His excuse says he is promoting political reform; the reality is that he is paid handsomely in lending a cloak of respectability to a central Asian tyrant.
Add in the paid-for speeches, dealmaking with the US investment banker Michael Klein and a lucrative door-opening role at JPMorgan, and it all adds up to a tidy sum. Guesses of Mr Blair’s wealth put it at about £100m. Friends suggest this is a serious underestimate.
I suspect he does not want the money for its own sake. More likely, the private jet is a way to keep score, a salve for a bruised ego. The craving is for public approbation. Seven years beyond Downing Street, he has not come to terms with the loss of his seat at the top table.
Some will ask if any of this matters? Why cannot he be left with his own conscience? That might be so if Mr Blair had surrendered his presumed right still to be heard on the great issues of the moment.
The other day Mr Blair took up the subject of the Middle East and Islam. A well-trailed speech at Bloomberg was calculated to grab headlines by recasting radical Islam as the most serious threat to global security. It called for an alliance with Russia and China against the fundamentalists; and for western backing for secular strong men, such as Egypt’s former general Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, against democratically elected Islamists.
Governments should recognise the “titanic struggle” between those at ease with modernity and those obsessed with religious exclusivity. It was Islamists, and fellow travellers in the Muslim Brotherhood, versus the rest. Other choices – between democracy, the rule of law and authoritarian repression – must be subservient to this fight.
The contradictions and omissions here speak for themselves. Saudi Arabia– the most brutally theocratic of the region’s regimes and incubator of the Wahhabism that gave us al-Qaeda – goes unmentioned. So does Qatar, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Sunni radicals in Syria. Is Mr Blair loath to offend potential paymasters?
More worrying is the Manichean superficiality that has persuaded Mr Blair that everything that happens in the Middle East must be shoehorned into an epochal struggle between Islamists and modernity. Forget intense rivalries between states, confessional struggles between Sunni and Shia, ethnic rivalries, misdrawn post-imperial boundaries and the rest. All are mere sideshows against Mr Blair’s sweeping generality.
The analysis is at once ahistorical and simplistic. Of course, the jihadis pose a potent threat as they expand their influence in the failing states of the Middle East and Africa, and attract recruits, as they have done in Syria, from disenchanted Muslims elsewhere. Much of Islam does need to come to terms with modernity. But western support for secular tyrants is not a serious answer.
Mr Blair was a better prime minister than history will probably allow. As readers sometimes remind me, I thought him a remarkable politician. It was no accident that he won three elections. His organising insight – that successful democracies marry open economies with social justice – is as valid now as it was then. The pity is that it has been lost on today’s political lightweights. You would not find Mr Blair chasing after the xenophobic populists.
Doubtless, he bears a good share of the responsibility for what happened in Iraq – for the way Britain went to war and for the subsequent chaos. But, pace those who will forever claim he invented Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the intentions were no less honourable than those of critics content to pass over Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror.
This hardly matters now, even if the logic of Mr Blair’s latest position would call for him to support despots such as Saddam. The arguments have been lost to the lust for personal riches and attention – impulses as destructive in shaping history’s judgment as they are presently demeaning. One cannot help but reflect on the dignity shown in retirement by his Middle East comrade-in-arms Mr Bush.
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