When you hear the news of Tony Blair’s possible appointment as the Quartet’s peace envoy to the Middle East, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. His selection for the job takes American policy in the Middle East to new heights of absurdity. The proposal we all know was put forward and pushed neither by Russia, nor the EU, but by the US as a reward for years of good service. But the decision is lunacy itself. The guiding question could only have been: who is the most profoundly resented and bitterly hated man in the Middle East? Bar Bush, the honour could only have gone to Blair.
Blair is said to have offered himself forward for the job in one of his private conversations with Bush, who then proceeded to arm wrestle the Quartet to agree the appointment. But he has no idea of how deeply loathed he is in the region to which he wishes to be dispatched as peace envoy. When Arabs speak of Bush they refer to Blair as his “tail” and “mouthpiece”. The difference between the two in their eyes is between the master and his loyal servant. One lays down the policies, the other markets them.
Once more Blair’s boundless arrogance blinds him to what appears as clear as daylight to others. In the Middle East, his name is associated with catastrophe, with the inferno he has helped create in Iraq. For that is exactly what Iraq is today, whatever Blair may think, shrouded in a cocoon of hubris as he is. A recently issued Global Policy Forum report (June 2007) paints a hellish picture of violence, destruction of civil authority and cultural heritage, anarchy, insecurity, and poverty. It documents how hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died (500,000), more than 4 million have been displaced, including over 2 million (2.2 million) that have fled the country.
Whole cities lie in ruins. In addition to Fallujah which was heavily assaulted in April and November 2004, these include Tal Afar (September 2004, September 2005), Samarraa (October 2004, September 2005, March 2006), al-Qaim (May and November 2005), Haditha (October 2005), Ramadi (October 2005, June 2006) and Baquba (January 2007). “In Fallujah, a city of 300,000,” the report says, “over 216,000 displaced persons had to seek shelter in overcrowded camps in the cold winter months inadequately supplied with food, water and medical care. An estimated 100,000 fled in al-Qaim, a city of 150,000 … In Ramadi an estimated 70% of the city’s 400,000 left in advance of the US onslaught. These moments mark the beginning of Iraq’s massive displacement crisis.”
Aside from Iraq, it is for Lebanon that the people of the Middle East remember Blair. For when the whole world stood united in demanding a ceasefire, horrified at Israel’s brutal bombardment of the country that left more than 1,000 people dead and 700,000-915,000 homeless, Blair chose to stand with Bush and Olmert. Defying the international community, not to mention his own cabinet, backbenchers, party and public opinion, Blair insisted on giving Israel all the necessary political cover and whatever time it needed to “finish the job”.
There is an Arab proverb that goes “He utters a lie then believes it”. One wonders if that is the case with Blair, if he really does think that he can act as honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians and bring peace to the Middle East. But whatever goes inside the mind of our soon-to-be ex-prime minister changes nothing about the facts. For the truth is that when it comes to the Arab/Israeli conflict Blair is fit neither for the part of intermediary, nor for that of envoy.
Since moving into 10 Downing Street he has been a cheerleader for Israel’s policies, its repeated incursions, invasions, assassinations, land seizure, settlement, and building of the illegal separation wall on the scraps of land left, upon which the illusory “Palestinian state” he purports to champion is to be built. What he should do is join the delegations from Tel Aviv or Washington and sit at a table bearing the Israeli or American flags. He is neither “honest”, nor a “broker” but part of the crises raging in the region, in Iraq, Palestine, or Lebanon. To appoint him as peace envoy to the region is to twist the knife in a still bleeding wound, adding insult to injury.
If Blair is really convinced that he is well placed to do the job, he should perform the following test: take a walk, not in the streets of Baghdad, which he has helped destroy, but of Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, or any of the capitals of the region to which he wishes to be envoy – except Tel Aviv, of course. If he comes back in one piece, then he has my blessings.
But if Lionel Jospin was pelted with stones by Palestinians during his visit to Beir Zeit University in the West Bank -in spite of France’s relatively balanced positions in the Middle East – Blair should count himself lucky if he gets off so lightly.
It seems that Blair is set to remain a curse on Britain’s interests in the region, whether in 10 Downing St, or outside it. What was left for Britain after the fragmentation of its imperial power in the Middle East following the Suez Crisis of 1956 was a measure of soft power: some cultural, diplomatic, and economic influence. Much of this was damaged with the invasion of Iraq, after which protesters across the region began to burn the British flag alongside the American and a tiny effigy for Blair with Bush’s larger one. His appointment as Middle East envoy risks wiping out whatever is left of Britain’s standing in the Arab world.
Having failed to be appointed head of the World Bank, and rejected by most Europeans as president of the EU, and by Arabs as Middle East envoy, what is Blair to do?
In my view, Blair should return to the stage and have a go at chasing his long dream of being an actor. For that is what he has always been. As PM he blurred the boundaries between politics and acting. With him politics became one with image, sound bite, make-up, hair dye, designer suits, carefully rehearsed movements and fake smiles. It is time for him to leave politics alone and get back where he belongs.
First Published in The Guardian, Tuesday 26 June 2007