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 An interview with Timothy Garton Ash

A fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford, Timothy Garton Ash is the author of several books on Central and Eastern Europe in the late-20th century, including History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s (2000) and The Magic Lantern: The Revolutions of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (1990). In this Web-exclusive interview, he talks about what Prime Minister Tony Blair represents to British liberals divided over the war with Iraq, what Blair represents to Europeans and Americans -- and why he may be "the last best hope of liberal internationalism." Garton Ash spoke to FRONTLINE's Wen Stephenson on March 28, 2003.


I want to ask you about the liberal divide over this war. You wrote a column defending the position of "tortured liberal ambivalence," a phrase that captures what many people are feeling. There are a lot of tortured souls over here in the States. I'm wondering if the same is true in Britain. Are liberals divided, both among and within themselves?

photo of ash

I think that it's actually different here. In North America, you have a group of liberal interventionists shaped by the experiences of Bosnia and Somalia and Rwanda and Kosovo, who are actively making a case for the war. In Britain, you have one or two of those, but I would say that liberal opinion is much more torn or actively opposed to the war, because there is the added dimension of worries about American power as such, and the unilateral exercise of American power. So I think the balance is different.

But when I wrote the column in The Guardian entitled "In Defense of the Fence," exploring liberal ambivalence about the war, I expected to be attacked from both sides. Instead, I got a tremendous response from an awful lot of people, saying, "Yes, this is what I feel. I really am very torn. I don't know what to think." There is what I called the "axis of ambivalence." There's an awful lot of people out there who were very strongly in favor of intervention in Kosovo, as I was, were very strongly against U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, as I was, and on this one are absolutely torn.

Of course, those who support the war, or at least cannot bring themselves to oppose it, do so for various reasons, among them the hope that the war will bring democracy and human rights to the Iraqi people. What do you say to them? And what's the difference between the liberal version of this and the neoconservative version of this in Washington, the Perle-Wolfowitz version of spreading democracy, remaking the Middle East?

I think that's a very interesting question. Because if this had been an argument for humanitarian intervention following soon after the massacre at Halabja and the killing of the Kurds, or indeed, soon after the first Gulf War and the repression against the Kurds and the Shiite Arabs, I would have been absolutely for it. But it's 10 years later, and the case for war is advanced by politicians in Washington who have not been great fans of humanitarian intervention, to put it mildly. I mean, actually, Bush came into office criticizing the kind of humanitarian interventions that the Clinton administration had implemented. So there was a real problem about motives and intentions here.

I think that the weapons of mass destruction are a further, separate justification, and a very important one. I think weapons of mass destruction are among the greatest threats we face, and there can be a case, when all else fails, for pre-emptive strikes against them. But the trouble is that neither of those rationales has been fully demonstrated in this case, and that Blair and Bush have jumped around between the various justifications.

Related Features

))) The Liberal Divide
Paul Berman, Timothy Garton Ash, and David Rieff discuss Blair, the liberal case for war, and the divided left.

))) The 'Slightly Unexpected' Leader
A Web-exclusive interview with John Rentoul, chief editorial writer for The Independent and author of Tony Blair: Prime Minister (2001), who discusses Blair's character, his political influences, and the evolution of his "ethically based" foreign policy.

Related Links

))) "Beyond the Sandstorm"
by Timothy Garton Ash
"Three visions of the future compete. Blair's is best, but can it ever be realised?" (The Guardian, March 20, 2003)

))) "In Defence of the Fence"
by Timothy Garton Ash
"Colin Powell did not convince me. But nor does the peace movement." (The Guardian, Feb. 6, 2003.)


Now, having said that, I think there is something that liberals in Europe just don't get, and that is what I call "conservative Wilsonianism," what you get from someone like Perle or Wolfowitz, which is a strange combination of a very hard-nosed realpolitik of American power, plus a genuine interest in democratization and self-determination. And that's a very odd mixture which we don't often have in Europe.

I think what we in Europe should be doing about it is saying, "Yeah, we take very seriously what you say about democratization in the greater Middle East, and this is what you need to do to make that real: one, support the opposition in Iran; two, get serious about democratizing Saudi Arabia; three, get serious about Israel and Palestine." In other words, as it were, to take the Perles and Wolfowitzes at their word.

A phrase that's been used on both sides of the Atlantic, I believe, is "liberal imperialism." How do you define that? Isn't there a type of U.N.-sponsored, multilateral liberal imperialism, and a unilateral American type?

There are, and I think they're very different things. I mean, imperialism is obviously a problematic word, because it carries so much baggage with it. Raymond Aron called the United States an "imperial republic." And clearly, the United States, whether it likes it or not, is an imperial power. But that doesn't mean that it's an imperialist power, going around creating colonies.

Now, I am in favor of that kind of, if you like, liberal imperialism which we are practicing in Bosnia or Kosovo, where the international community intervenes to prevent attempted genocide, and then tries to put these countries on their feet again. I think it gets very worrying when you only have one or two countries -- that is to say, the United States and Britain -- going into Iraq and proposing, at least from what one gathers on the Washington side, to have a sort of American colony.

Let me take the discussion of politics here to a different level. There are also those who make a case for viewing a war (not necessarily this war, at this time) against the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein as a war against a latter-day version of 20th-century totalitarianism, against a kind of "Islamic fascism." What do you think about that? Could this be seen as a war of ideology? Is it wise to see it as a war of ideology?

I think that there are two issues there. One is, what does the theocratic fascism of Osama bin Laden have to do with the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein? My view is that they are very different things. They're both very bad things, but they're very different things. And the connection between them has not been well established.

The other question is, are we -- whoever "we" are -- entitled, morally entitled, to intervene because a regime is fascist or totalitarian? And I think that the bar for intervention has to be set quite high. I think there has to be evidence of attempted genocide. And I'm prepared to acknowledge that a systematic attempt to get hold of weapons of mass destruction, particularly by someone like Saddam, who's already used them, is a further justification for intervention. Weapons of mass destruction do change, as it were, the terms of world order.

But I don't think we can -- much as I would, in many ways, like us to -- I don't think we can let ourselves in for an international order in which the mere existence of an unpleasant dictatorship justifies armed intervention by the international community. Much less by a single power. I think that sovereignty should be limited, but nonetheless, I think that sovereignty, a society of states, is an important element of international order, and that is imperiled by a too-liberal doctrine of intervention.

It's probably fair to say that Tony Blair is more a man of ideas than George W. Bush, although I don't know to what extent Blair is truly a man of ideas.

I think that Blair is a thinking politician, and someone who is trying to think strategically. I don't he's a great intellectual, but I think he is a politician of ideals, certainly, and who tries to think strategically.

Some would say that he's done a better job, if you want to put it in the positive, of making the case for this as a kind of "war of ideas," a war for democracy and human rights, and even refer to Blair, as I'm sure you've heard, as "the leader of the free world." And in that column, "Beyond the Sandstorm," in The New York Times and The Guardian, you endorsed what you call a "Blairite vision of a new postwar order of world politics." Yet you don't support this war. So I'm just wondering, what does Tony Blair represent? What kind of a figure is he? I don't expect you to speak for all people of the left in Britain, but what does he represent for liberals?

I'm tempted to say, the last best hope of liberal internationalism. I think he is a genuine liberal, much more than he is a socialist. I think he's a Gladstonian liberal in international affairs, almost more than Gladstone was. I think he genuinely believes the West should try consistently to promote respect for human rights, pluralism, democracy. And I think he's actually more of a liberal interventionist than I am, certainly much more of a consistent liberal interventionist than George W. Bush is.

His problem is that the people who are now actually driving for intervention -- namely the Bush administration -- are not classic Gladstonian liberal internationalists like him. They have a very different agenda. And it's rather difficult to be the leader of the free world when you are a rather small cat walking beside a very large tiger. But I do generally believe that he's the best liberal internationalist we've got. And his problem is that he's got Donald Rumsfeld on one side of him, and Jacques Chirac on the other.

And yet, there is such animosity, such intense hostility toward Blair from so many within his own party. There's a sense that something tragic has occurred.

Well, it has.

He's almost a Shakespearean figure at this point.

Well, certainly, you can see it on his face, can't you?

From that perspective, what has Blair wrought? You may remember a cover story that was in The Atlantic Monthly several years ago called "The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done." It was by Peter Edelman, who resigned from the Clinton administration over welfare reform. What is the worst thing Tony Blair has done, in the eyes of those who are so opposed to him right now? What has he wrought?

Look, I think the worst thing Blair has done, in the view of many on the British left, is to have become George W. Bush's poodle. That's the simplest way to answer it. But if we take a closer look, then there are a couple of different things going on here. One is that Tony Blair is not typical of his own party, just as Churchill was not typical of the Conservative Party of his time. And there's a lot about Tony Blair, this liberal English public-school boy, that his own party hasn't liked for a long time. And Iraq is, in a way, the last straw for many people in his party. They have lots of other domestic reasons for disliking what Blair has been doing, and this is the last straw. So that's Labor, and a lot of people on the left. This is it. Last straw.

For a lot of other people, his position is genuinely tragic, and I count myself among them, in the sense that I think he is attempting to do absolutely the right thing in attempting to keep America and Europe together. But he finds himself like a man standing on two boats, each of which are being rowed in opposite directions. And that is the tragedy of his position, that he is ending up doing the splits, but doing the splits in a good cause. I wouldn't describe that as a mistake. I mean, I think he was trying to do the right thing.

I think that his biggest tactical mistake was to let the Germans go entirely with the French last year.

What does Blair represent to Europe, and to Europe-leaning Britons?

Well, there's a great irony in his position, which is that here is a man who came to power resolved to be the most European prime minister yet, resolved to sort out Britain's relationship with Europe, and here he is, six years later, arm in arm with the United States, and at loggerheads with much of Europe. Not all of Europe, but much of Europe. So to many British pro-Europeans, he represents a great disappointment, a disappointment of their best hopes. And much of the criticism of him comes from pro-Europeans of the left, and equally, in much of continental Europe there is great disillusionment with Blair.

Does Blair, in some ways, think more like an American than most of his countrymen?

Well, I would say that the occupants of Number 10 Downing Street have quite often been remarkably close to the United States. One thinks of Thatcher. One thinks of Churchill, obviously. And Blair is another. And of course, the Blairites were fascinated by Clinton and how he'd come back to power there. They're fascinated by programs like welfare for work. They know America well.

And also, of course, he's religious in a way that many, many European leaders no longer are. So that's another, if you like, quote/unquote "American" aspect of him.

On the other hand, in many respects, he's a European. I mean, in his respect for international law, his desire to go through the United Nations, his emphasis on aid, on the Third World, his support for the welfare state, for social justice, and his approach to Israel and Palestine. There's a long list of issues on which he is actually European. So he's not just the American in Europe. He's a man between.

I think that what he represents to American liberals is very complicated, because as you well know, there's a tendency for American liberals to identify more with Europe, in many ways, than with the prevailing conservative tendency in the States now.


And so they see somebody like Tony Blair, and they want to identify with him. And then they see his stance on the war. This is what makes him, I think, such the focal point, a truly pivotal figure for American liberals, because of this complex relationship with Europe. Blair's Europeanness gets to the heart, I think, of how American liberals feel about him.

That's right. And by the same token, I think that neoconservative anti-Europeanism is also, in large measure, anti-liberalism. That is to say, Blair represents a hope for American liberals precisely because of some of his European qualities. And I think that is right. After all, Gladstone, who is in many ways, beside Churchill, a great role model for Blair, was a European liberal. And he was a man who was pleading for humanitarian interventions in Europe, and he always thought of Britain as part of the Concert of Europe. And so this is also an argument about whether the United States remains part of a trans-Atlantic West or not, or whether it sees itself as a new kind of imperial power.

You've described Blair as a "Gladstonian Christian liberal interventionist." When we talk about Blair's Christian world view -- which he does perhaps share with Bush -- it seems to me that there's almost something missionary, something crusading, or world-saving, about both.

I think that there clearly is a missionary element to Blair. He looks like a preacher man. And the preachiness is something which alienates a good many people in cynical old Europe, and indeed alienates people in British politics too. I think that actually the presence of religion in the public rhetoric of the Bush administration is something which is a problem for many Europeans, but also particularly for people in the Arab and Muslim worlds. And I think that probably Blair is a tad more sensitive in that respect. You don't hear him invoking God quite as familiarly as President Bush.



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posted april 3, 2003

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