Shortly after Tony Blair set up shop as the Quartet Representative in the luxurious American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem he met a group of former Parliamentary colleagues. To the jangle of jaws dropping on the floor, he confessed that before he had come out there, he had not realised just how little he really understood about the Israel-Palestine conflict as Prime Minister. The reality on the ground was so much worse then he had ever imagined.
This was a Prime Minister who had (rightly) placed a great deal of emphasis on resolving this central issue in the Middle East, yet here he was admitting that he had been profoundly ignorant about it.
Despite this Blair refuses to consider that this ignorance also extends to Iraq and other countries in the region with grave consequences. Has he once owned up to a lack of understanding of the complexities of Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Libya, Lebanon, Iran or Syria? In each case he has acted as a cheerleader for aggressive intervention. I have spent my professional career and academic life studying the Middle East and it is a daily learning experience. For Blair, it has been sufficient to identify a threat and presume that a military option will solve the problem. For Blair, understanding the intricacies of these countries and peoples is immaterial. This was why he systematically side-lined Arabists at the Foreign Office and ignored the advice of other Middle East experts.
In his shoes, sending British troops to invade a far off country I had never visited and knew little about, I would have surrounded myself with the best experts available. It was hard to find even one Iraq expert who believed that the war as planned in 2003 would succeed. The late Sir David Gore-Booth, Britain’s former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said to me only days before the war. He said, “Chris, they will never invade Iraq. It is too crazy. It cannot work.” Not for the first time, I argued that one should never underestimate the insanity of politicians.
It is not just his ignorance and arrogance that hinders him - Blair is a man of conflict and conflicts of interest. An envoy or representative should be studiously impartial and build the trust of all sides. He boasts on his website of 87 visits to Jerusalem in 5 years but other than a richer sun tan and the removal of a handful of checkpoints, there are few pitiful successes he can point to. Worse, he has failed to challenge the status quo of thickening Israeli occupation and multiple sieges of Gaza. He even actively lobbied against the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations.
Blair should stick to Palestine but instead makes regular media appearances commenting on crises all over the region. On Egypt, even as Mubarak’s goons were brutalising Egyptian citizens, he described dictator as a “immensely courageous and a force for good”. Despite being the Quartet representative to the Palestinians, he sees no conflict of interest in him calling for intervention in other neighbouring states. But imagine if he publicly opposed any tough line on Iran and how quickly the Israelis would move to get rid of him. Compare Blair to the UN-Arab League Envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi. He is focussing on Syria crisis not commenting on events in Mali and Gaza. Blair should divest himself of all conflicts not least his commercial dealings with interested parties. He should also not be accepting $1m dollar awards from Israeli institutions.
Yet why should Tony Blair’s opinion now matter? In an ideal world, Blair’s record as a serial and continuous failure would allow us to ignore his say on Middle Eastern matters. I wished BBC Newsnight had done the same; instead they aired an extensive interview on 26 February 2013 in which Blair offered nothing new and nor a way forward. The debate would have been richer and more constructive if he had not been part of it.
The problem is that Blair’s views do still seem to count. One politician visiting the US State department last year came away stunned at the high regard Blair was held in. He has close access we learn to David Cameron. Blair remains the Quartet Representative for as long as in his words he “remains useful”(it is not clear who would take a decision to dispense with his services).
Given that one cannot ignore him, his position on Iraq and other conflicts matters. In his Newsnight interview, Blair continued to adopt the ‘what if we had not got rid of him defence’. This is a clever political device because it is impossible to disprove. How can we know what Iraq would have been like if Saddam had remained in power? However, it does not in any way excuse him of his failings.
These arguments over Iraq may be tiresome to many but are still hugely relevant because we still have yet to learn the lessons from that catastrophe. It is not sufficient to try to justify the Iraq war just because Saddam Hussein was evil. There has to be a coherent strategy to improve the situation in Iraq. Our entire record on Iraq from 1979 until today has been disastrous. We armed Saddam despite his brutal record. We turned a blind eye to his chemical weapons use and genocide. We imposed brutal sweeping sanctions, which killed hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iraqis whilst strengthening the regime, and topped it off by prosecuting a war and occupation in a manner that was ill conceived and poorly executed. Blair’s failure to acknowledge this and his role in the failure is worrying given his continued influence.
Evidence would suggest we are still capable of making all the same mistakes. Today, western states still impose sweeping sanctions on various states, which hurt ordinary people. We still arm and prop up repressive regimes, many of whom employ Blair. We still have no successful mechanisms for conflict prevention and resolution. Our record on state building and reconciliation leave much to be desired. All this has had a huge impact on how we deal with the current conflict in Syria and the looming crisis with Iran.
Whatever one's views on Syria and what the international community should do, the last thing that Syrians need is a call to arms from Tony Blair. This is what he is now threatening to do. In fact, for those who believe that a western military intervention is required to end the crisis, silence from Blair would be helpful. Should anyone take advice from the architect of the most disastrous intervention in recent British history?
Once again Blair is presenting the case for intervention in Syria and Iran as a case of good versus evil. Once again he glazes over the hugely complicated issues of what an intervention and aftermath entail. It is never enough to call for intervention – that is easy to do, not least when you are out of office. You have to present a coherent strategy to transform the situation and end the crisis. You have to demonstrate that intervention will not make matters worse. Blair did not do that on Iraq ten years ago. He is not doing it again with Syria and Iran today. Blair is right that inaction will have devastating consequences. Yet action does not always have to be bombs and bullets. Syria deserves the well thought political strategy Iraq and Iraqis never got.