No prizes back home – Blair feted in US with peace award
While his political enemies have branded him a war criminal, Tony Blair, former British prime minister, will be awarded on Monday the prestigious Liberty Medal in the United States for “advancing peace”.
The ceremony will be held in historic Philadelphia, The City of Brotherly Love, where Blair will be honored for "advancing the cause of peace." The news, however, has already struck a discordant tune for the many detractors of "Teflon Tony". Indeed, Blair has not been able to shake accusations that he exaggerated the threat of Iraq’s military capabilities in order to rally public support for Britain’s military participation in the US-led war against Saddam Hussein.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Certainly there were some bright periods of sunshine during Blair’s tenure as British prime minister. Indeed, although it easily escapes the public’s attention in these apocalyptic, post-9/11 days, Blair played a critical role in advancing peace in Northern Ireland in the run up to the historic Good Friday Accord, which established the Northern Ireland Assembly and, most importantly, the end of sectarian violence. That accomplishment certainly deserves some notice.
In a throwback to those kinder, gentler times when only sensational sex scandals seemed to be our gravest concern, none other than William Jefferson Clinton will present his former British counterpart with the prestigious award. Clinton’s very presence alongside his long-term political friend and ally may help restore the shine on Blair’s more outstanding political endeavors.
“It was a privilege to work with my friend Tony Blair to help end 30 years of sectarian violence and broker a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, to stop the killing in and mass exodus from Kosovo, and to develop policies that would improve living conditions for people in both our countries,” said Clinton, who also serves, incidentally, as Chair of the National Constitution Center, the organization that has nominated Blair for the award.
“Now, as a private citizen, Tony continues to demonstrate the same leadership, dedication and creativity in promoting economic opportunity in the Middle East and the resolution of conflicts rooted in religion around the world, and is building the capacity of developing nations to govern honestly and effectively," former President Clinton said.
Blair responded, "It is an honor to receive the Liberty Medal. I am deeply indebted to the National Constitution Center for adding my name to such a distinguished list of recipients. Freedom, liberty and justice are the values by which this medal is struck.”
He then mentioned his work in Africa and in the Middle East peace process, where he has served as Quartet Representative since 2007.
“Freedom, liberty and justice are the values which I try to apply to my work on governance in Africa and on preparing the Palestinians for statehood. They are the values which drive the work of my faith foundation as we try to show that people of different faiths can live together constructively, in peace and harmony.”
And of course there was a generous nod to Clinton, as well as the war in Kosovo, which some might argue further discredits Blair's legacy.
“It is a particular pleasure to receive this award from my great friend and ally President Clinton,” added Blair. “Bill Clinton's friendship, counsel and support were so very vital as we worked towards peace in Northern Ireland. I was proud to stand with President Clinton as we fought to end the genocide in Kosovo. And I am just as proud to receive this award from him. I accept it, not as recognition of what has already been achieved, but as a sign that we share an ambition and determination to achieve so much more in the future."
The first Liberty Medal, established in 1988 to commemorate the bicentenary of the US Constitution, was awarded to Lech Walesa, founder of the Solidarity movement in Poland.
Other recipients have included South Africa leader Nelson Mandela; former Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. U2 lead singer Bono is also amongst the honorees.
Blair plans to donate the $100,000 award money to the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, two organizations he has created since leaving office.
Blair's battle over history continues
Clinton’s two-term tenure as US president (1993-2001) overlapped Blair’s tenure (1997-2007), and the two leaders enjoyed a political chemistry between them that is quite rare. That political honeymoon, however, came to an abrupt end with the election of George W. Bush, followed shortly afterwards by the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11th, which ushered in the US conservative's controversial “war on terror.”
Speaking of Tony Blair and George W. Bush, it would be difficult to name two political leaders whose personalities clashed more (In his recently released book, “A Journey: My Political Life,” Blair gave a characteristically tongue-in-cheek British assessment of his US counterpart, describing him as a man of "immense simplicity in how he saw the world"). Not only was the relationship between the two leaders awkward and strained, but following the outrage of 9/11 Blair may have felt extremely obliged, critics argue, to assist the United States, even when the strategy offered by Washington appeared to be fatally flawed.
Meanwhile, another book has hit bookstores in the UK that provides quotes from ex-South African President Nelson Mandela, who was reportedly livid when he found out that Blair was committed to helping the United States oust Saddam Hussein with a military invasion.
Labour MP Peter Hain, whose biography of the ex-South African president appeared on Monday, quoted the anti-apartheid activist as saying all of Blair’s previous good deeds were "blown out of the water" by the war.
According to Hain, "He [Mandela] rang me up when I was a cabinet minister in 2003, after the invasion, and said, ‘A big mistake, Peter, a very big mistake. It is wrong. Why is Tony doing this after all his support for Africa? This will cause huge damage internationally.’”
"He clearly felt very, very strongly that the decision that the prime minister had taken – and that I, as a member of the Cabinet, had been party to – was fundamentally wrong and he told me it would destroy all the good things that Tony Blair and we, as a government, had done in progressive policy terms across the world.
Hain said he told Mandela that he respected his sentiments, but that the prime minister had "acted out of conviction".
Blair was forced to cancel book-signing events in his homeland after anti-war demonstrations – with activists incensed that Washington’s so-called “poodle” had gotten Britain helplessly mixed up in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – threatening to upstage the events.
By comparison, Blair’s reception in the United States, as today’s award ceremony demonstrates, has been positive and not marred by the protests that follow the former prime minister around the UK. Perhaps this is a testimony to the American public’s general willingness to accept the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the death tolls and massive expenditures these battles have cost the United States. Indeed, the Bush administration’s poorly-named “War on Terror” never went down particularly well in the United Kingdom, and it is unfortunate for Tony Blair’s political legacy that so much of his tenure was consumed by this war of no escape.
All things considered, it is interesting to imagine where Blair would now stand in the hearts and minds of the British public if he had simply refused to assist the United States in unseating Saddam Hussein.
Joining the United States in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan post-9/11 was understandable, but agreeing to send British troops into Iraq, given the fact that UN weapons inspectors on the ground were reporting the absense of weapons of mass destruction, was an entirely different story that will continue to haunt the political legacy of Tony Blair, probably forever.
So with that thought in mind, let's let Blair enjoy his evening as a real American hero. Following Bush around the Middle East for as long as he did, he has certainly earned it.