Leading article: The uses and abuses of military intervention


On one side of the Atlantic we had George Bush taking questions from an uncommonly sceptical White House press corps. On the other, we had Tony Blair delivering the first of three major lectures on foreign policy, the other two to be delivered to audiences outside Britain. This was a transatlantic double-act for the third anniversary of the Iraq war.

Mr Bush was assertive, combative and impatient. US foreign policy, he said, had changed utterly after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001; US security had become the imperative overnight. Mr Blair was in contemplative mode, positing a clash "not between civilisations, but about civilisation". The tensions and outright hostility now being observed were not between the West and Islam, but between "reaction" and "modernity". He called for the formulation of a "politics of globalisation" to match the "economics of globalisation" which, he said, were "well matured".

Now it is possible to disagree about how "well matured" the economics of globalisation is - especially in the wake of the Dubai Ports World controversy in the United States. But it is a bold politician who addresses big ideas and we take no issue with Mr Blair for trying. There are big ideas swirling around in the political ether at the moment, and one of these concerns how the industrialised democracies can relate to the Islamic world - and vice versa. Mr Bush still divides his post-11 September world into "us" and "the terrorists". We find Mr Blair's search for the broader picture preferable.

For all their differences in style and substance, however, on one theme the two leaders were united. There was no regret, no distancing from the debacle of Iraq. Each in his own way defended the decision to go to war as the right and responsible thing to do. And the message to be extrapolated from Mr Blair's speech, at least, was that if he were to be presented with the same set of circumstances again, he would have no hesitation in choosing the same course of action.

Additionally worrying was that Mr Blair's whole perspective seemed to rely on reheated ideas from the earlier years of his premiership. Thus yesterday's dominant theme was the virtue of an "activist" approach to foreign policy, based on values and interests. This, he said, had underlain his Government's approach to issues from Kosovo to Sierra Leone, to Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as climate change and poverty in Africa.

What we seem to have here is the "ethical foreign policy" pioneered by the late Robin Cook, extended into the use of military force to overthrow regimes that are judged threatening or simply undemocratic. What is more, Mr Blair suggested yesterday, the failure of the past decade had not been too much intervention, but too little. He listed Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma and North Korea as places where more could, and should, have been achieved.

While there may be truth in this, it clouds the question of Iraq, which accounts for the largest commitment of British and US troops by far, but for the highest human and material cost as well. Mr Blair brought in other old chestnuts too. Iraq and Afghanistan were always coupled, as though the military interventions were of equal legitimacy and for identical reasons. The escalation of violence in Iraq was seen less as indigenous resistance to occupation than as the work of "terrorists" from outside. That blame might attach to the US and British intervention warranted not a mention. So far as Iraq is concerned, it is hard not to see here a great deal of old thinking in a smart new presentation. The alternative - that Mr Blair might regard Iraq as a precedent worth repeating - is too frightening to entertain.

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