blair's war
homeprime ministerfracured allianceliberal dividediscussion
better angels - the kosovo war
 An excerpt from Tony Blair: Prime Minister, by John Rentoul

In his biography of Tony Blair, John Rentoul argues that Britain's involvement in the military action in Kosovo marked a turning point in the prime minister's articulation of his "ethically based" foreign policy. Blair's actions in 1998, in fact, have a striking significance now. Just as Blair tries to persuade his reluctant European allies that the use of military force against the Iraqi regime is necessary, he was similarly positioned in 1998 as NATO debated bringing military power to bear against Slobodan Milosevic. Blair and his foreign minister, writes Rentoul, "tried to cajole the various overlapping international bodies in which they worked towards making good their threat" after the Serbian dictator had ignored various ultimatums. This excerpt from Rentoul's book further explains Blair's role in Kosovo and its impact on his foreign policy, and analyzes the prime minister's performance in his "first real moral test."

 
 

'You lead, we die'

Blair's forceful seizure of the leadership of Nato was startling. The sudden ferocity of his moral conviction was quite out of character: until this moment, he had always been a highly cautious politician, and even on those occasions when he took risks he did so, as Peter Mandelson said, with great care and attention to detail.

On Kosovo, on the other hand, he took a high moral tone from the start, saying on the day the bombing started: 'Justice is all that those poor people, driven from their homes in their thousands in Kosovo, are asking for, the chance to live free from fear. We have in our power the means to help them secure justice and we have a duty to see that justice is now done.'

Then, when the refugees started to pour out of Kosovo, he recklessly committed himself to an objective which was not wholly in his power to deliver: returning them to their homes. That required a Serbian retreat and Nato occupation of the province. He pledged himself to that aim at a time when he could not have been sure whether the Nato alliance would hold -- and most importantly whether Clinton would stay the course. Despite his political and personal closeness to the President, he had no idea whether Clinton or the sceptical State Department could be levered into a more robust position.

Politicians are always keen to leave themselves a way out. Blair was no exception, and must have understood Clinton's reluctance to be dragged by the logic of escalation into sustaining casualties in a place so obscure that it required him to devote a television broadcast to a geography lesson. ...

Blair had always been careful to give himself an exit before. But not in this case. 'Success is the only exit strategy I am prepared to consider,' he said to applause in the most important speech of his first two years as Prime Minister. Like most important speeches, his address to the Economic Club in Chicago on 22 April 1999 was as much the product of the needs of the moment as of thoughtful philosophical reflection. The need of the moment was his single-handed campaign to influence American opinion in favour of a more vigorous conduct of the war, a campaign which he launched in the city which had been at the heart of US isolationism in the years before the Second World War. Although it was a speech of the moment, it was, unusually, not written on the plane or finished at five o'clock on the morning it was delivered. It had been written -- mostly by Blair, in longhand -- in London on the day before he left for Washington. In it, he developed the theme set out in Cape Town in January, in which he sought to establish the legal and moral basis for military intervention in 'other people's conflicts', which he rather self-consciously called 'a new doctrine of international community'.

The principle of non-interference was an important one, he said, but it must be qualified. 'Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter,' he said, before moving to anticipate the criticism of his moral activism with characteristic fluency.

Looking around the world there are many regimes that are undemocratic and engaged in barbarous acts. If we wanted to right every wrong that we see in the modern world then we would do little else than intervene in the affairs of other countries. We would not be able to cope.

So how do we decide when and whether to intervene? I think we need to bear in mind five major considerations.

First, are we sure of our case? War is an imperfect instrument for righting humanitarian distress; but armed force is sometimes the only means of dealing with dictators. Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options? We should always give peace every chance, as we have in the case of Kosovo. Third, on the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake? Fourth, are we prepared for the long term? In the past we talked too much of exit strategies. But having made a commitment we cannot simply walk away once the fight is over; better to stay with moderate numbers of troops than return for repeat performances with large numbers. And finally, do we have national interests involved? The mass expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo demanded the notice of the rest of the world. But it does make a difference that this is taking place in such a combustible part of Europe.

The doctrine was a thoughtful attempt to bridge the gap in international law between declarations of 'fundamental' human rights and mechanisms to enforce them. ...

In the Chicago speech, and in a series of interviews with the US media, Blair developed the idea (also used in the case of Sierra Leone) that regional groups of states, such as Nato, could take action to enforce international law, such as that against genocide, without express authorisation from the UN provided the action were consistent with the UN Charter.

The importance of putting Milosevic in the dock of history along with Hitler led to Blair's coinage, on the mass audience Larry King Live television show, of the tautological 'racial genocide' to describe the Serbian leader's policy towards the Kosovo Albanians. It secured an overwhelmingly favourable response from American commentators and from many political leaders, such as Republican congressman John McCain, who castigated Clinton's weak and vacillating policy. The cautious State Department was less impressed however, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott remarking acidly in private that 'Winston' Blair was 'ready to fight to the last American'.

The Nato summit was deadlocked, therefore. It produced the 'Washington Declaration', which expanded Nato's aims beyond the purely defensive provisions of the 1949 Treaty. This had been intended retrospectively to acknowledge Nato's role in Bosnia, although it now applied with some force in Kosovo. Blair did not get the hardening of the line against Milosevic he wanted, but [Nato chief Javier] Solana's 'review' of the military options kept the possibility of escalation alive.

That, however, was all Blair needed to ensure that Nato would prevail. The organisation's credibility was now at stake, as he explained in the Commons on his return:

If Nato succeeds, the next time someone tries such a policy and we make a threat it will be credible. Were we to fail -- which we will not and must not -- the opposite would happen: people would know that, when Nato threatened, it would not be a threat to be taken seriously. That is why people do not talk about Nato's credibility in some abstract sense; it is a necessary part of building peace and security for the long term.

Meanwhile, Blair was hailed not just in America as a great war leader. The Sun on 24 April praised his 'superb leadership' and declared: 'With true moral courage, Blair has seized control of Nato and made himself a giant of the free world.' Less than a year after asking if he were the most dangerous man in Europe, the Sun now promoted him above the goddess of leadership herself: 'Victory in what has now become a moral crusade of good against evil will transcend even Margaret Thatcher's triumph in the Falklands.'

Now that Nato was effectively locked into a 'victory or bust' stance, Blair's crusade was raised to its most strident level, replete with a range of historical references from Charlemagne to Gladstone. He and [his wife] Cherie toured Stenkovec No. 1 refugee camp in Macedonia on 3 May to chants of 'Tony, Tony'. He spoke to the refugees:

Our commitment to defeating this policy of ethnic cleansing, our commitment to allowing these people to return to their homes in peace -- that commitment is total ... This is not a battle for Nato, this is not a battle for territory; this is a battle for humanity, it is a just cause, it is a rightful cause.

... [On accepting the Charlemagne prize for European achievement on 13 May, Blair said:] 'There can be no half measures' in dealing with the brutality of Milosevic, he said. 'No compromise. No fudge. No half-baked deals.'

Four days later, he toured the 'front-line states' Bulgaria and Albania. At Sofia University he told the Bulgarians that William Gladstone was 'one of my political heroes'. He was big on 'opposing the persecution of the Bulgarians in the 1870s', which made him a useful role model:

The parallels between then and now are all too tragically clear. Today we face the same questions that confronted Gladstone over 120 years ago. Does one nation or people have the right to impose its will on another? Is there ever a justification for a policy based on the supremacy of one ethnic group? Can the outside world simply stand by when a rogue state brutally abuses the basic rights of those it governs? Gladstone's answer in 1876 was clear. And so is mine today.

Then, as now, it would have been easy to look the other way; easy to argue that bigger strategic issues were at stake than the fare of a few hundred thousand people in the Balkans. Some people made exactly that argument. Some do today. They were wrong in 1876 over Bulgaria; and they are wrong in 1999 over Kosovo.

Nato's success in Kosovo will be the biggest deterrent to tyrants the world over; and the biggest rallying call for democracy. That is why, whatever it takes, we must succeed; and the policy of brutal savagery that is ethnic cleansing must fail and be seen to fail.

Of course, there were parallels between the moral populism of Blair and Gladstone, who in the Midlothian campaign curdled the blood of the Liberal electorate with tales of Turkish atrocities against Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria. But the differences were perhaps more interesting. Gladstone spoke with the imperial confidence of Britain as the preeminent power in the world. Blair's moral ambition, on the other hand, was tempered by the political need to coax a coalition of powers into doing the right thing. Gladstone's morality was coloured by anti-Islamic sentiment, while Blair's morality was mobilised in defence of Balkan Muslims against Orthodox Christian persecution.

The next day, mobbed in a refugee camp in Albania, he was welcomed with the arresting placard, 'You lead, we die'. It was not criticism but hero-worship.

Endgame

Towards the end of May, the Russian foreign minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, as envoys of Russia and the EU, sensed that Milosevic was looking for a form of words to cover his retreat. Clinton immediately raised the stakes, agreeing to send further troops to Kosovo's borders. On 25 May, Nato approved the deployment of 50,000 troops to the region, and Blair used an active verb to describe their role: 'It is important to ensure that we have sufficient ground forces -- we will need them on any basis -- to do the job of getting the refugees back home.'

It was then sufficient for Clinton merely to make public on 2 June the fact that he would be meeting his joint chiefs of staff the next day to discuss the military options -- including ground troops -- and Milosevic effectively conceded all Nato's demands. If he thought Chernomyrdin had promised there would be a 'Russian' sector of a partitioned Kosovo, he would be quickly disabused. When the Serbs started to withdraw on 10 June, the bombing campaign was halted, eleven weeks after it began.

Blair was again hailed by the British press as the hero. ... But he wisely eschewed triumphalism, commenting on the steps of Downing Street: 'We began this air campaign with reluctance but resolve. We end it with no sense of rejoicing.' This was in stark and intentional contrast with Margaret Thatcher's injunction to journalists asking awkward questions about the bloodless recapture of South Georgia at the start of the Falklands War: 'Just rejoice at that news.' ...

One of the extraordinary facts about the Kosovo campaign is what little pay-off there was in terms of domestic popularity as a result of Blair's success. Although his stance had been generally supported by the British public, there was no hint of the fierce heat of patriotic pride which so burnished Margaret Thatcher's public image during the Falklands War, because it was not British territory that was at issue, and 'our boys' were not engaged and taking casualties on the ground. His moral certainty which blazed so brightly, and which was vindicated so completely, brought him fifteen minutes of tabloid adulation followed almost immediately by sullen complaints about traffic jams and trains not running on time. An attempt to capitalise on his 'strong leadership' in a party election broadcast for the European Parliament elections on 10 June fell embarrassingly flat. Whereas the 'Falklands factor' produced an instant electoral reward for Thatcher in local elections ... in May 1982, the Kosovo war had no effect in averting a dismal 28 percent vote for Labour, 8 points behind the Conservatives, on a profoundly apathetic 23 per cent turnout.

The verdict on the Kosovo conflict remains sharply divided. The war's opponents on left and right simply did not share the moral assumptions on which it was fought. They continued to point to the failures of the post-conflict administration in Kosovo as if they undermined the entire venture. Most of the Serb minority fled and it was difficult to protect the few who were left from the predictable desire for revenge. The critic with the greatest authority was Nelson Mandela, who argued that Nato should have sought to overcome the Russian and Chinese vetoes on the UN Security Council by persuasion: 'Tony Blair is a young man I like very much. But I am resentful about the type of thing that America and Britain are doing. They want now to be the policemen of the world and I'm sorry that Britain has joined the US in this regard.'

Blair's conduct of the Kosovo campaign earned him great respect with many other world leaders, however. He had earned the right to be a full member of their club. Until Kosovo, too, his meetings and phone conversations with Baroness Thatcher had been ceremonial occasions of Disraeli-like flattery for presentational purposes. He hardly needed her advice on the loneliness of leadership, and on the importance of sticking to one's beliefs, but the gravitas of war lent substance to her admiration of him. The armed forces were impressed too. 'He was robust and courageous,' said General Guthrie [chief of the British defence staff]. 'It was a brave thing to do, because you never quite know where a campaign like that is going to end up. It is not like a theatre script, with people speaking their lines and staying with their part.'

In Kosovo, Blair passed his first real moral test. 'Two thirds of what we do is reprehensible. This isn't the way a normal human being acts,' says the Bill Clinton character, Jack Stanton, at the end of the presidential election campaign in Primary Colors. He justifies the necessary compromises of politics by saying that Abraham Lincoln too sold his soul, 'just so he'd get the opportunity, one day, to stand in front of the nation and appeal to "the better angels of our nature"'.* Over Kosovo, Blair appealed to the better angels not just of the British electorate's nature, but of that of the whole 'international community'.

Judging that it was one of those moments which justified the compromises, he behaved out of character, risking humiliation for no significant political gain. If it had not been for his insistence that Nato's determination was total and that all military options were open, Milosevic might have succeeded.

Note:

For a brilliant exposition of how Lincoln produced the 'better angels' phrase in his first inaugural speech by rewriting 'the guardian angels of our nation', the leaden draft provided for him by his Secretary of State William Seward, see Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 158.

 
 

Excerpted from Tony Blair: Prime Minister by John Rentoul (Time Warner Books, 2002). Reprinted by permission of the author. Copyright: John Rentoul, 2002.

 

 

home : introduction : the prime minister : the fractured alliance : the liberal divide
the failure of diplomacy : interviews : readings & links : discussion : producer's chat
tapes & transcripts : press reaction : credits : privacy policy
FRONTLINE : wgbh : pbsi

posted april 3, 2003

top photograph copyright © najlah feanny/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

 

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Prison StateApril 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS