Global ethics gone astray

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2007, 12:00am

Tony Blair's oh-so-lovingly choreographed speech promising his departure as British prime minister on June 27 showed how the worst in the leader easily triumphs over his most eloquent intentions. BBC World television offered almost four hours of wall-to-wall coverage, down to the 15-minute speech in which Mr Blair choked back tears to tell the world he was really a good guy who had backed his buddy, US President George W. Bush, in Iraq to get rid of a wretched tyrant.

He admitted he had not always lived up to the highest expectations and had made mistakes, for which he begged forgiveness. But, in signing off with a flourish, he said he had been 'very blessed' to lead 'the greatest nation on Earth'.

What mastery of hype and spin. It reminded me of British statesman Benjamin Disraeli's comment about his rival William Gladstone, who he said was 'inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity ...'

Too bad the rest of the world was not buying it. America's CNN, in its morning programme, devoted just four minutes to note the prime minister's departure timetable.

Even Gordon Brown, whom Mr Blair finally endorsed through gritted teeth, was not buying it. Launching his own campaign, Mr Brown pointedly talked of 'a new government' with 'new ideas' and 'new leadership for this new time'. Just to rub it in, he declared: 'I have never believed that presentation should be a substitute for policy,' and: 'I do not believe that politics is about celebrity.'

Britain's left-wing critics have been the most vituperative, dyslexically rendering the prime minister's name as 'Bliar'. Several bloggers to The Guardian newspaper claim Mr Blair is a war criminal whose name should be listed alongside Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, and that he was responsible for the deaths of 100,000 people in Iraq.

The British prime minister may feel he is being harshly judged. After all, he turned the Labour Party from a broken shell, when Margaret Thatcher reigned, to the natural party of government. He has worked hard to try to do something about the most pressing problems hurting mankind, especially in putting Africa back on the map.

But his reputation will live and die for his decisions on Iraq. Mr Blair has described his policy both in Kosovo and in Iraq as 'liberal interventionism', though perhaps he might have thought twice about his use of the word 'liberal'.

Going to war to topple Saddam Hussein was a highly selective decision. What about the other tyrants? Why are there no Anglo-American boots on the ground in Myanmar, Sudan, North Korea, Iran or Zimbabwe?

If he is to assert the importance of an ethical dimension to policy, Mr Blair should get his facts right and be prepared to apologise when he is wrong. The reason - or excuse - that Mr Bush and Mr Blair gave for invading Iraq was to seize weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons have been found and no apology has been forthcoming.

Equally, if the real reason for invasion was to overthrow a dictator of an oil-rich state, the invaders should have created a less repressive regime for the long-suffering Iraqis.

None of this should be any comfort for Mr Brown. He sat beside Mr Blair for 10 years without even a hint of criticism or unhappiness about the decision to invade Iraq, or the subsequent conduct of the war. He has been the head of the International Monetary Fund committee, in which capacity he has talked of the need for reforms in the global financial architecture, while letting Paul Wolfowitz into the World Bank without a murmur.

It is said by those ubiquitous 'Westminster sources' that Mr Brown will take a cooler line towards Mr Bush, but it is also said that Mr Brown is a eurosceptic and will be cooler to Europe. Perhaps Mr Brown believes the nonsense that Mr Blair uttered about his country being 'the greatest nation on Earth', one that can conduct its own nationalist foreign policy. It is childish, and dangerous to believe that one country, whether it is Britain, the US, Japan, China, or anywhere, is the greatest on Earth.

All countries have their own histories, their proud moments and shameful ones, but in a rapidly globalising world, it would be more constructive to acknowledge that we do best by learning from each other.

Mr Blair is right in that there is a need for an ethical dimension to policy, and the world badly needs international rules. But his greatest mistake was to proclaim an ethical policy and then stray from it without being humble enough to admit fault.

Other countries, including an increasingly assertive Russia, and China, are in no mood to bow to bullying from the US or Britain. Nor are the poorest countries: within 24 hours of Mr Blair's formal decision to quit, the UN voted for Zimbabwe to take the chair of a committee on sustainable development. International ethics have gone with the wind.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator