The man who turned amorality into an art form
Published in The Daily Mail (January 12th, 2013)
When Tony Blair visited Beijing a few weeks ago to open a prestigious conference on philanthropy, he showed he had lost none of the evangelical fervour that once dazzled British voters.
Giving an impassioned sermon to an A-list audience on the crucial role of compassion, the former Prime Minister spoke of how societies should be measured not just by what people do for themselves, but by what they do for others.
‘The best philanthropy is about changing the world,’ he proclaimed. ‘Flourishing philanthropy is an essential part of a flourishing society.’
Blair told well-heeled listeners paying nearly £1,500 a head how he found a new role after politics doing good deeds around the globe. He had seen how people’s lives had been improved through his efforts, he said.
It was the perfect start for China’s first major forum on philanthropy, where guests included Bill Gates, the multi-billionaire Microsoft founder who is giving away much of his fortune, and Andrew Forrest, Australia’s richest man and another generous charity donor.
‘We need philanthropy to lessen hostility towards the rich,’ Blair warned them.
Heartfelt words for a man said to have raked in nearly £20 million last year, big chunks of it by delivering platitudes dressed up as profundities to gullible global paymasters.
It was the sort of event the former Labour leader seems to love: a private jet to take him there, a £3,000-a-night hotel suite, and networking with the super-rich.Yet his sanctimonious speech was little more than hypocritical hogwash coming from a man who, to my mind, has turned amorality into an art form.
For all his honeyed words about serving humanity, this is a man who used his contacts book from Downing Street to launch a lucrative career advising absolute monarchs, wealthy bankers and despots.
Yesterday, it emerged that his money-making operation may be about to expand even further after talks over a commercial alliance with one of the most highly-paid bankers in the world.
Michael Klein, 48, an American who was once the leading investment banker in London for the huge firm Citigroup, is now an international deal-broker who once earned $10 million for two weeks’ work. He is described as ‘very clever and a very canny operator’, and it is thought that he and Blair have worked on a number of deals together in the past.
The combination of their two enterprises would create an extremely powerful and lucrative platform for Blair to ply his trade around the world: the Prime Minister who promulgated an ethical foreign policy already spends much of his time serving the sleazy interests of repressive autocrats from Africa to central Asia. His moral blindness has no borders.
Take the mystery of his fee for that Beijing speech. Sources in China said he was handed about $200,000 (around £125,000) to deliver the lecture on philanthropy.
But when I asked his office if he was paid — which might seem at odds with the spirit of both the conference and his speech — they flatly denied it. His spokeswoman gave me an unambiguous, one-word answer: ‘No.’
Yet when I queried this, saying that it conflicted with what I had heard from Beijing, her reply changed. He was not personally paid, she said, but a payment went to one of his charities.
Such smokescreens are all too familiar from this politician with such a tenuous relationship to the truth. Most shamefully, this was shown with the distortion of intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq, which backfired so badly with disastrous consequences for millions of people.
Not that Blair, 59, shows any signs of guilt, or of retreating to a quieter life. Indeed, he seems obsessed with trying to recreate the whirlwind world he once inhabited as Prime Minister.
Recently he has been to a dizzying list of countries including Germany, Guinea, India, Jordan, Kuwait, Liberia, Nigeria and the U.S., as well as China, nurturing his byzantine web of businesses, charities, consultancies, speechmaking and diplomacy.
Friends and admirers say he is making pragmatic efforts to improve governance around the world. ‘I don’t think he is this money-grabbing, morally compromised individual he is made out to be,’ said one. ‘On the whole, I still give him the benefit of the doubt.’
But critics fear that divisions between his many operations are blurred. Anti-corruption campaigners have raised concerns that some of his business links conflict with his diplomatic role as a peace envoy in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, young executives from J.P. Morgan, the bailed-out U.S. bank paying him a reported £2.5 million a year, are put to work at the heart of African governments advised by one of his charities.
But criticism seems to have no effect on Teflon Tony. Recently he was back in Britain, joking with journalists in Westminster at a Lobby lunch. He sidestepped a question about his earnings while undermining the policies of current Labour leader Ed Miliband, an ally of his detested successor Gordon Brown.
Now, the British Government has given £2.23 million to a Libyan dissident and his family to stop a court case threatening to reveal embarrassing details of how British officials helped to round up Gaddafi’s enemies across the world.
Sami al-Saadi says he was forced on board a plane in Hong Kong, flown to Tripoli, imprisoned and tortured. Britain did not admit liability, but it is safe to assume that hush money would not have been paid if the allegations were groundless.
Now, I understand from lawyers that a second case, involving Gaddafi’s most prominent opponent, is likely to go ahead.
Abdul Hakim Belhaj, the former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who led the attack on Gaddafi’s Tripoli fortress in 2011, wants his story heard in open court unless there is an official apology.
He says that MI6 was involved with his detention in Malaysia in 2004, from where he and his pregnant wife were flown in hoods and shackles to Libya. Once there, he claims he was tortured and isolated for four years by Gaddafi’s goons.
Blair, who held private meetings with Gaddafi after leaving office, dodged questions on these cases last month on the grounds that legal action was being pursued. Perhaps he should offer to recompense taxpayers for the multi-million-pound payout, given how his government prostituted British interests to appease a bloody dictator.
Days after Gaddafi’s fall, I stood in the wrecked home of the British high commissioner to Libya and found piles of secret documents revealing the disturbingly close links between Blair and the oil-rich tyrant in Tripoli.
There were obsequious letters from Downing Street to Gaddafi, suggested questions from our security services to put to detained dissidents, and even offers to use British special forces to train the regime’s most feared troops.
Little wonder that Saif Gaddafi — whom Blair infamously helped with his dodgy PhD thesis at the London School of Economics — called him ‘a personal family friend’.
Another friend of the former British PM was ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, who used to lend Blair a luxury villa on the Red Sea for holidays. When the Arab Spring erupted and protesters poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Blair hailed his corrupt pal — who embezzled billions — as ‘a force for good’.
These days he ignores such uncomfortable facts as he jets around the world discussing good governance and declaiming support for democracy movements in the Middle East.
But then this is the man who earned a seven-figure sum advising the Kuwaiti royal family, now facing growing protests from a generation frustrated by the lack of real democracy in that country.
Or take his dubious activities in central Asia. Three years ago, Blair was thought to have been paid £90,000 by an obscure oligarch to officially open a methanol plant in Baku. ‘I’ve always wanted to visit Azerbaijan,’ he gushed.
Despite immense wealth from natural resources, one in five of this troubled nation’s citizens has fled in search of a better life elsewhere. Human rights activists have recounted savage beatings by security forces, while the website Wikileaks revealed that U.S. diplomats had compared the president, Ilham Aliyev, to mafia dons in the Godfather film trilogy.
Mr Blair, however, met Aliyev and praised a leader with ‘a very positive and exciting vision for the future’.
Even more disheartening are Blair’s dealings in Kazakhstan, where President Nursultan Nazarbayev is reported to have paid an astonishing $13 million to hire him in 2011.
The Kazakh government was delighted by the coup: ‘We could not have a better adviser,’ said one official. No wonder — a nasty regime had bought itself a fig-leaf of respectability, albeit for a small fortune.
It seems they did not just get Blair but his acolytes: former spin doctor Alastair Campbell was spotted at the airport in the capital Astana, and Lord Mandelson has reportedly been paid to speak by the state’s sovereign wealth fund. Business leaders close to New Labour are also active there.
Blair insists that the money he was paid by the Kazakhs is being spent on supporting political, economic and social reform there, and praises the country’s progress. He does, however, seem to have a soft spot for oil-rich nations run by repressive rulers.
Nazarbayev is a former Soviet leader who wins elections with unbelievable levels of support, jails human rights activists, tortures prisoners, shoots striking workers and intimidates independent journalists. His family is said to have salted away more than $1 billion.
One leading rival was found shot dead three weeks before an election. The official verdict was that he shot himself twice in the chest before shooting himself in the head.
On YouTube there is a long and tedious Soviet-style video exalting this supposed visionary. Prominent among those giving praise is Blair, who says that Nazarbayev is putting his country on the right path, even comparing it to thriving Singapore.
It is hard to equate this toe-curling tribute to a tyrant with the pious politician who claims to be driven by the desire to shape a better world.
One New Labour insider told me that Blair was transfixed by money and power. ‘His view of the world is totally realist,’ the source said. ‘So there is nothing to inhibit him from doing business with some of the world’s most awful people.’
Blair is already a pariah in some places. Last summer the South African Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu pulled out of a summit on leadership in Johannesburg because of his attendance. ‘My appeal to Mr Blair is not to talk about leadership, but to demonstrate it,’ he said.
Now, another African human rights hero is calling on Blair to stop propping up the regime in Rwanda, which is accused of atrocities and war crimes.
Paul Rusesabagina is the hotel manager who became a Hollywood icon thanks to the film Hotel Rwanda. It told how this gentle man defied savagery when genocide engulfed his nation, saving the lives of 1,268 people who sought sanctuary behind his gates.
Since then, he has displayed similar courage standing up to the murderous regime of President Paul Kagame. It has clamped down on internal dissent, sent hit squads to kill dissidents overseas and provoked chaos in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, inflaming the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II.
Kagame has been helped by huge sums in foreign aid, but in recent months even his biggest backers in Britain and America suspended funding after the United Nations showed that he was fomenting unrest again in the Congo.
Blair, however, still supports this monstrous man through his personal charity, the African Governance Initiative, which is advising governments in five countries in Africa. Indeed, their relationship is so close that Kagame even put a £30 million private jet at his disposal.
Paul Rusesabagina sent Blair a letter recently begging him to use his influence to stop the bloodshed in the Congo.
‘Please do not let your personal friendship with President Kagame stand in the way of your conscience,’ he implored. ‘Show the moral leadership that I know you are capable of and denounce President Kagame.
‘The price that has been paid to carry you and President Kagame around on these planes is too high.’
Will Blair listen to this admirable man, who pledged to fight for human rights amid the carnage of genocide? Don’t hold your breath.
For all that fine talk about philanthropy and serving others, it is hard not to wonder these days if any price is too high for Mr Blair.