Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a commentator for National Public Radio, and editor
of "The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering
Earlier this week Tony Blair tried
valiantly to prod the BBC to ask him a question about the subject of
his monthly news conference: Britain’s strategic role in the world in
the post-9/11 era. He set up the event by outlining his government’s
just-completed review of Britain’s foreign policy, a 38-page document
released the same day. As Blair explained, the report addresses the
UK’s strategic alliances, the challenge of radical Islam, and the
nation’s willingness to use military power to meet this and other
If BBC political editor Nick Robinson read the report, he kept that knowledge discretely to himself. His question, the first of the news conference, managed to dismiss Blair’s remarks with the subtlety of a brick hurled at a Harrod’s display case: “What is your advice this morning for David Miliband?” (Miliband, the Environment Secretary, was rumored to be considering a challenge to Gordon Brown for Labour leadership when Blair resigns, but ended speculation on Tuesday by insisting he would not be a candidate.) Blair shot back: “You wouldn’t like to ask something on foreign policy, would you?” Not a chance.
The next question was about Brown’s popularity ratings, then something about inflation and Brown’s performance as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and on it went.It took some time, but eventually someone raised a foreign-policy issue: does the conflict in Iraq make humanitarian intervention in countries such as Sudan more difficult? “No, I don’t think it does,” Blair said, “unless you take the view that military intervention is an easy thing to do—it isn’t.” Blair repeated his deeply unpopular view that “an interventionist foreign policy” was in the long-term interest of Great Britain. His two cardinal principles: 1) Britain must remain an ally of America and a strong central partner in Europe and 2) Britain must be prepared to use soft and hard power to confront threats and advance democracy and human rights.
“We have examples going back over the last 20 years of a non-interventionist policy,” he said. “We had one in Bosnia in the early 1990s and over 100,000 people died before we realized we had to act.” No follow-up BBC questions on that one.
Next came a question (from another news agency) about Britain’s relationship with the United States. Blair’s answer was a reminder of the crucial asset of an ally at 10 Downing Street who refuses to succumb to the virus of anti-Americanism that has so much of Europe in its grip. “When 3,000 innocent people died on the streets of New York, America felt from that moment on it was at war,” he explained. “I believed the most important thing for us was to be with them in that fight. And I believe that still, and I hope in the future we’ll be strong allies of America.”
The BBC ignored yet another sober, rational explanation of the strategic threats to Great Britain and the moral principles guiding her foreign policy. Its editors and reporters chose instead to focus on political gossip, polling figures, and Blair’s possible successors. Political correspondent Nick Assinder, writing later about the news conference on the BBC News website, found none of Blair’s foreign policy arguments worthy of attention. His “analysis” piece instead complained that the prime minister “once again spent most of this press conference answering questions—or more accurately, not answering questions—on issues he would rather had never been raised.”
Blair did manage to raise another issue in this media circus—one that many politicians and journalists are desperate to avoid themselves. He warned that the political debates over the next few years might produce in United States a readiness to withdraw from the world, an outcome he considered disastrous. “In the rest of the world we underestimate the forces that are pushing the Americans toward disengagement,” he said. “When there’s a disengaged America, I think the Europeans on this side of the water will realize what they’ve lost.”
When Tony Blair steps down as British Prime Minister this year, Americans may come to feel the same way.