Prime Minister Tony Blair addresses a joint assembly of the US Congress in Washington, DC on 17 July 2003

Making the hard choices

Tony Blair was right to take on the Taliban after 9/11

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

We can all remember what we were doing on 9/11. It was such a profound moment that no year is required. It was, in the words of the historian Tony Judt, the beginning of the twenty-first century. For those of us in politics, the change was immediate. All of us are still living with the changed world.

When I was walking from the First Minister’s office in St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh to Bute House in Charlotte Square, I thought I was going to a meeting of the Scottish Cabinet. Instead, I spent a hectic afternoon drafting the motion of condolence that was passed by the Scottish Parliament.

Down south, things were even more frantic. Tony Blair was in Brighton for his annual speech to the Trades Union Congress. The Prime Minister ripped up his prepared script — which had already been issued to the press — and said a few words that presaged the rest of his premiership, and have defined his reputation ever since:

This mass terrorism is the new evil in our world today. It is perpetrated by fanatics who are utterly indifferent to the sanctity of human life and we, the democracies of this world, are going to have to come together to fight it together and eradicate this evil completely from our world.

These weren’t Tony Blair’s final words on the matter — which came in his tour de force Labour Conference speech the following week. But the contrast with President Bush’s response to the terrorist attacks is instructive. The BBC documentary, 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room, was incredibly revealing on a number of fronts. One was the way that the sheer lack of real-time information, combined with the underpowered communications technology on Air Force One, left the President and his entourage in the dark about the threat. 

Even, infamously, to themselves as they crossed the States in search of safety. Another thing the documentary brought home was the way President Bush was unable to articulate a response to the attacks until he settled on the metaphor of “war”, from which came the line, at Barksdale Air Base in the President’s first statement to the nation: “Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly attacks.”

A week later, at Camp David, the line became the “war on terrorism”, and finally the “war on terror”. The persona was John Wayne in The Searchers and it raised the chant “USA! USA! USA!” when the President addressed firefighters at the site of Ground Zero — the famous “bullhorn speech” when the President speaking over the smouldering rubble responded to a call of, “I can’t hear you!” by saying: “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”

It is because of Blair’s consistent analysis that he has been so strong in condemning the US exit from Kabul

Tony Blair set out his position in his party conference speech a week later. Speaking after leading Labour to a historic second landslide victory, he devoted far more time to Afghanistan and foreign policy than to the domestic agenda of his second term. He drew the differing strands together in a closing figure of speech: “The Kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us.” The passion came in his articulation of the challenge to which the world community had to rise: “I say to the Taliban: surrender the terrorists; or surrender power. It’s your choice. We will take action at every level, national and international, in the UN, in G8, in the EU, in NATO, in every regional grouping in the world, to strike at international terrorism wherever it exists.”

This was an impassioned defence of international intervention because it had recently worked in Kosovo:

The sceptics said it was pointless, we’d make matters worse, we’d make Milosevic stronger and look what happened, we won, the refugees went home, the policies of ethnic cleansing were reversed and one of the great dictators of the last century, will see justice in this century.

He also cited the human cost of not taking action:

And I tell you if Rwanda happened again today as it did in 1993, when a million people were slaughtered in cold blood, we would have a moral duty to act there also. We were there in Sierra Leone when a murderous group of gangsters threatened its democratically elected Government and people.

Critics of Tony Blair see joining the war in Afghanistan as a sign that New Labour was too eager to ally itself with the USA. In truth, he had set out a very clear doctrine of “liberal intervention” during his first term, in his Chicago speech in 1999. 

There were five clear tests: Are we sure of our case? Have we exhausted all diplomatic options? Are there military operations we can sensibly undertake? Are we prepared for the long term? Do we have national interests?

Blair’s firm resolve after 9/11 was rooted in this analysis, and at its core was “strategic patience”. As he said in that Labour conference speech: “To the Afghan people we make this commitment. The conflict will not be the end. We will not walk away, as the outside world has done so many times before.”

It is because of his consistent analysis that Tony Blair has been so strong in his condemnation of the rushed US exit from Afghanistan. But while the Iraq War has dented his reputation as Prime Minister, Blairite ideals on “liberal intervention” have now become mainstream in British politics. 

The public outrage, channelled by MPs, in the emergency Commons debate on Afghanistan echoed so much of the Chicago speech. Concern for the rights of women and the education of girls. Alarm at potential human rights abuses. Support for a longer-term presence in-country. Tom Tugendhat’s moving speech, right down to its unwavering support of the armed forces, was pure Blair.

But “we are where we are,” as all tin-eared departmental briefings to No 10 start after a disaster. The question now is what are the lessons for the future, of both how we reacted to 9/11 and the final US retreat from Kabul?

The initial insights of Tony Judt were and are right:

In the twenty-first century, war will be made by civilians. It will be the definitive “faith-based initiative”, requiring neither guns, tanks, ships, planes, nor missiles. Like other faith-based initiatives it will bypass the conventional state. All it will need is planning skills and a willingness to die for your beliefs. Everything else — machinery, technology, targets — will be furnished by civil society, its victim. The point of such warfare will not be to achieve an objective, much less win a final victory. It will be — it already is — simply to make a point.

Yet, Blair, Bush and the allies were right, too. A country containing ungoverned space from which terrorist organisations can launch deadly attacks such as 9/11 cannot be ignored. 

But the transatlantic consensus has now fractured. The Biden Doctrine signals the US moving away from the position of world policeman. This should not have been a surprise. As Vice President, Joe Biden’s position was clear — the US task was to go into Afghanistan, find Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, deal with them, then leave. As President, he has been consistent: diplomatic and economic pressure, not military intervention is the way to deal with human rights abuses.

The inability of the UK to offer any realistic alternative to the US presence in Afghanistan was telling

It was clear after the Trump presidency that something profound had shifted permanently in the Western alliance. The US can no longer be regarded as an unshakable ally. If there can be one President Trump, then the West needs a plan in the event of another. This is not to say that President Biden is isolationist. It is to observe that the spirit of Palmerston is back: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

The inability of the UK, and the EU, to offer any realistic alternative to the US presence in Afghanistan was telling and, in many ways, shaming. If NATO has relied too much on the US — and it has — so has the UK. There is an alternative, but it would be costly and controversial. The UK needs to develop deeper defence co-operation with France. A nuclear power, unafraid of intervention, who avoided the quagmire of Iraq: why should we not partner with them?

That was the underlying logic of passionate speeches on all sides in the House of Commons debate. As is the mass resettlement of Afghan refugees. But both run counter to the dominant populist discourse. They are hard arguments to make precisely because they are the right ones to make. In the end that’s why Tony Blair is still relevant to the wars some damn as being “his”. His ability as leader lay not just in making hard choices but in getting people to know why those were the right ones. That’s the kind of leadership we need now.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover