THE BLOG

Tony Blair Under Attack Again

Last month was not the first time that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has come under collective censure. In 2004, 50 former British diplomats, all experts on the Middle East, had sent him a letter which stated, inter alia, that they had "watched with deepening concern" as Britain followed the U.S. into war in Iraq in 2003. They also criticized Blair's support for the so-called "Road Map for Peace" between Israel and Palestine which included retaining Israeli settlements in the West Bank. A delegation of these diplomats was also received by Blair. According to a friend of mine, a retired British ambassador with extensive Middle East experience, Blair was not well-briefed on the historical context of the British involvement in the Middle East in the 20th century. When one of the ambassadors referred to the role of Gertrude Bell -- one of the architects of modern Iraq -- Blair responded: "Who was Bell?" My friend said that the delegation was aghast at the lack of knowledge of a person who was at the helm of British foreign policy making.

Blair's glory days were in the 1990s, when he led the Labour Party to three successive victories against the Conservative Party. His ideas for continuing to modernize Britain after Thatcher touched a popular chord among his supporters. However, his first major misstep was in supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq led by President George W. Bush. He was Bush's main supporter and cheerleader for an enterprise which, with the benefit of hindsight, was a disastrous failure and has led to untold misery for the Iraqi population. According to some informed British sources, the fiasco in Iraq perpetrated by Blair who brushed aside cautionary advice by some of his colleagues, was the biggest foreign policy blunder since the 1956 Suez crisis. The British government has instituted an inquiry headed by a former British official, John Chilcot, into the whys and wherefores of the British participation in attacking Saddam's Iraq in 2003. Reportedly, the inquiry has stalled over whether the correspondence between Blair and Bush on the eve of the invasion, plus some telephone messages exchanged between the two, should be included in the inquiry report. The report will become a public document. According to some analysts, the report would constitute a "whitewash." And, according to Blair's predecessor, former British Prime Minister John Major, the Chilcot inquiry "will leave suspicions unresolved and those suspicions will fester and maybe worsen."

Blair relinquished the Prime Ministership after 10 years in power, in 2007. He was relatively young at 54 years of age to hang up his boots. Almost immediately he was appointed Envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East which consists of the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), the U.S., and Russia. It is common knowledge that the Quartet and its Envoy have had very little to show by way of achievement regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or other pressing issues requiring its attention. This could have been one of the reasons, and perhaps the primary reason, why another campaign calling for Blair's removal from his post was launched by a group of eminent personalities. These signatories included, among others, three former British ambassadors, who had served in the Middle East under Blair, Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London, renowned Professor Ilan Pappé, and Clare Short, former British Secretary of State for International Development. The letter castigates Tony Blair's recent attempts to "absolve himself of any responsibility for the current [Iraq] crisis by isolating it from the legacy of the Iraq war... we believe that Mr. Blair, as a vociferous advocate of the invasion, must accept a degree of responsibility for its consequences." The letter contains the damning sentence: "It is our view that after seven years, Mr. Blair's achievements are negligible, even within his narrow mandate of promoting Palestinian economic development."

Interestingly, the open letter is also critical of Blair's business interests. According to the signatories:

Tony Blair's conduct in his private pursuits also calls into question his suitability for the role. Mr. Blair has been widely criticized for a lack of transparency in the way he organizes his business dealings and personal finances, and for blurring the lines between his public position as Envoy and his private roles at Tony Blair Associates and the investment bank JPMorgan Chase.

Philip Stephens, in an article in the Financial Times (FT) two months ago, suggested that Mr. Blair's wealth was estimated at £100 million. He continued to suggest that "he [Blair] does not want the money for its own sake. More likely, the private jet is a way to keep score, a salve for a bruised ego."

Most politicians are reputed to have hides resembling those of rhinoceroses. Blair is no exception. Predictably, a spokesperson of Blair has brushed off the open letter calling for his removal. The statement said, "these are all people viscerally opposed to Tony Blair... they include the alliance of hard-right and hard-left views which he has fought against all his political life. Of course he completely disagrees with them over the Middle East..." No other person or institution, to my knowledge has come to Blair's defense.

Whether the latest broadside against Blair would be successful in persuading the Quartet to remove him as a continuing liability, is an open question. The Quartet itself has been noticeably ineffective in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the past seven years. It is obvious that a dispassionate and impartial Envoy, instead of Blair (who continues to be excoriated by his opponents), might have performed better in a volatile region which seems to be suffering from a paroxysm of turmoil and instability.

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