The Perfidious Comparison: Why Barack Obama is not another Tony Blair.

Barack Obama’s election victory was greeted with a sigh of relief by most of the world, glad to see the back of George W. Bush.  In theUnited Kingdom,America’s first African-American president was also heralded in with a good royal dose of cynicism by political commentators.

Whether it be that the honourable political commentator was of right-wing or left-wing persuasion, all agreed, the euphoria which greeted Barack Obama’s victory in November 2008 was comparable to that which greeted United Kingdom’s Tony Blair upon his first election victory in 1997. As such, and imperially armed with this superficial wisdom, they grandly implied that only disillusionment will materialise from the euphoria of Barack Obama’s victory. British commentators as politically diverse as John Pilger, Richard Littlejohn, A.C.Grayling, Marina Hyde, John Rentoul, Charles Moore and others drew this turgid comparison. Yet a close inspection of certain statistical facts and campaigning strategies which brought both candidates to power, could not be further apart.

Let’s begin by drawing a comparison with the statistics. In 1997, Tony Blair won the general election having had 13.5 million vote for him on a 71.1% electoral turnout. Yet in 1992, the year of the previous British election, John Major, the then Conservative Party leader scored an unexpected victory with over 14 million votes cast on higher turnout of 77%.[1]

The figures for Barack Obama’s victory over his republican rival are totally different.  In 2008, the election turnout in the United Stateswas much higher than in the 2004 election.  The 2008 election may have inspired up to 10 million more citizens of the United Statesto register and vote and it was this turnout which seems to have clinched it for Obama.[2] Whereas, for Blair’s first election victory the electoral turnout and share of the popular vote was less than it was in the previous British election.  Barack Obama received more of the popular vote than George W. Bush had in his election victory in 2004. In his concession speech John McCain, Obama’s republican rival in the 2008 presidential race, alluded to these numbers and acknowledged that his victory was based on,

            “…inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president…This is an historic election and I recognise the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight…

It would have been impossible for John Major or any other member of the Conservative Party to have expressed a similar sentiment to the outcome of Blair’s first election victory in 1997 because John Major had received more votes in 1992 than Tony Blair had in 1997 and also the popular electoral turnout was higher in 1992.

In other words, Obama’s victory was partly based in an appeal that compelled hitherto sceptical voters to register and vote, while the Blair victory of 1997 was largely due to the disillusionment with the previous Conservative government of John Major and by making his (New) Labour party electable by, inter alia, turning it to the right.

Then there are certain strategies which assisted them to be elected leaders of their respective movements which are simply incomparable.  In order to become leader of the Democratic Party and then the United States, Obama employed his long term political partner David Axelrod to lead his campaign. This fact was out in the open and everyone knew the central role that David Axelrod played in Obama’s electoral campaigns.

Not so with Tony Blair. In his campaign to become the leader of the Labour Party he needed to conceal the central organiser behind his leadership bid.  Officially, his campaign managers were Mo Mowlan and Jack Straw. Yet unofficially the central person behind his campaign in his leadership bid was Peter Mandleson, a person extremely disliked by other members of Blair’s campaign.  Tony Blair made sure that Mandleson orchestrated his leadership challenge out of view from members of his own party, the public and media.[3] In his party leadership victory speech, to the bewilderment of his official campaigning staff, Blair thanked a certain “Bobby”. Blair went on to strongly allude that not everyone knew who “Bobby” was but he thanked him. “Bobby” was Tony Blair’s code name for Peter Mandleson.[4]

If one pays close attention to Barack Obama’s acceptance speech to be the Democratic candidate at the Democratic convention one realises that there are certainly no cryptic messages of gratitude because maybe there was no need for subterfuge in his campaign. There were no cryptic messages of gratitude to a certain “Joey”, “Eddie” or even “Ali”. And if even if there was a need for subterfuge, it may not have been in the character Barack Obama to do so.

It was also not in the character of Barack Obama to enlist the support of the (English speaking) world’s leading media mogul.  Barack Obama ran a campaign to become the leader of his party and then theUnited Stateswith phrases such as, “…power does not concede…” Tony Blair on the other hand, delivered himself and his party to the ultimate expression of media power from the very beginning of his tenure – the Murdoch empire.

Rupert Murdoch’s British media empire exerts a strong influence in determining election outcomes. In the British election of 1992, Murdoch’s highest selling British tabloid ‘The Sun’ boasted that it had won the election for John Major’s Conservative Party. In 1995, Tony Blair, upon becoming the leader of the Labour Party, made a 50 hour round journey to deliver a speech at Murdoch’s NewsCorp leadership conference in Australia. It was this journey that made Murdoch switch his support to Tony Blair. As author Michael Wollf writes in his account of Rupert Murdoch’s dealings, “ his historic shift in the 1990’s to Tony Blair came after Blair made a pilgrimage to Australia…” to kowtow before the media mogul’s empire.[5] Furthermore, Blair’s “submission” to Murdoch shaped “the Blair candidacy and New Labour.”[6]  As such, in the run up to Blair’s first election victory, Blair was allowed to use the pages ‘The Sun’ to propagandise his election campaign.[7]  This is an understated far cry from the way Murdoch’s Fox channel treated Barack Obama in the United States in 2008.  In the run up to the Presidential elections Obama rightly complained that the Fox channel was portraying him as, “suspicious, foreign, fearsome – just short of a terrorist.”[8] One of Murdoch’s main tabloid’s in theUnited States, the New York Post supported John McCain in the American elections.

Another act of highly possible subterfuge, that Tony Blair was a full party to, was the intelligence that justified theIraqinvasion of 2003.  Whereas, Barack Obama in the run up to theIraqwar referred to it as a “dumb war” and “not based in reason”, Tony Blair and his government supplied arguably some of the most exuberantly unempirical intelligence to justify the illegal invasion.

It was the Blair government which George W. Bush quoted in his State of the Union address of 2003 when referring to Iraqi purchase of Uranium from Niger. There was also the 45 minute threat that Blair informed the world of, or as George Tenat, former CIA director said, “they-can-attack-us-in-45-minutes shit.”[9] So contrary to the pernicious myth peddled by certain leaders of the British antiwar movement that Blair was a mere ‘poodle’ and that the he was “dragged” or “taken” into the war at the “behest of President Bush”, Blair was central to the propaganda and justification of the war.

Inevitably and quite naturally, George W. Bush and Tony Blair were joined by Rupert Murdoch in their illegal and bloody assault on Iraq. Murdoch thought that the main advantage of the invasion would lead to a $20 barrel of oil. This financial outcome has not yet materialised but a decimated country with hundreds and thousands killed, millions displaced, thousands of American soldiers dead and the British De La Rue company printing Iraqi currency has emerged.

Contrary to Blair, opposing the Iraqi war was a central plank to Barack Obama’s victory, first to win the candidacy of the Democratic Party and then the November presidential election. Therefore Barack Obama’s victory can not only be seen as a victory over George W. Bush’s legacy of illegal war and financial bankruptcy but also as an indirect victory over Bush’s willing cohorts, Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch.

Then, if the euphoria that greeted Barack Obama and Tony Blair in their respective first election victory’s are as qualitatively and statistically different as chalk and cheese, who can we compare them with?

In realm of political actuality, it seems that Tony Blair has more in common with Dick Cheney than some members of the British commentary herd would (embarrassingly?) care admit. Both are ostentatiously secular politicians who infuse their warmongering with religiousity and are only too happy to be positively associated with multinational corporations. However, they differ in the fact that Dick Cheney broke off his links with Halliburton upon entering the Bush administration and Tony Blair has a very cosmopolitan veneer.

As for Barack Obama, upon taking into account all the challenges that he has inherited, there is certainly no need to further burden him with comparisons to a uranium waving, warmongering, subterfuge monkey and it would be advisable if the post-imperial British commentary herd withheld their royal, but cynical, prejudgements until the end of his presidency.

Originally published by Arab Media Watch in June 2009.

[1] Colin Ralings and Michael Thrasher, British Electoral Facts 1832-1999, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), pg. 64-66

[2] Jerry Harris and Carl Davidson, ‘Obama: the new contours of power’, Race & Class (Vol.50, no.4, April – June 2009), pg.8-9

[3] “The central figure in the ‘real’ Blair campaign was Mandelson.” in John Rentoul, Tony Blair, (London: Little, Brown and Company, 1995), pg.389

[4] Ibid., pg. 6-7

[5] Michael Wolff, The Man Who Owns the News, (London: The Bodley Head, 2008), pg. 397

[6] Ibid., pg. 280-281

[7] Margaret Scammell and Martin Harrop, ‘The Press’ in David Butler and Dennis Kavangh (eds), ‘The British General Election of 1997’, (Basingstoke, Macmillan Press Ltd, 1997), pg. 160

[8] Wolff, op. cit., pg. 398

[9] Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack, (London: Simon and Schuster, 2004), pg. 190

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