The shadow of the United States-Israel military relationship looms over Tony Blair's peace-envoy role in the middle east.
[This article was first published on 28 June 2007]
Tony Blair's departure from office after ten years as Britain's prime minister on 27 June 2007 was swiftly followed by his appointment as peace envoy in the middle east, representing the Quartet powers (United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations). The decision will be welcomed with great satisfaction by the US and Israeli governments; some of the region's authoritarian regimes (not least Egypt and Jordan) will quietly accept it; and several senior Fatah figures may be content to see a foe of Hamas and Hizbollah acquiring this role.
But probably the warmest welcome will come from al-Qaida and its propagandists. In their eyes it is a gift: the projection into the Muslim and Arab heartland of a high-profile figure with the closest of links to the "far enemy" in Washington, and clear evidence that the west is both resolute in support for Israel and has little real interest in a genuine peace settlement with the Palestinians.
This view may be unfair, in light of Blair's track-record in helping to bring peace between bitterly opposed factions in Northern Ireland and his professed interest in all three "religions of the book"; but there is no doubt that its adherents will depict the appointment as a validation of al-Qaida's claim of a western war against Islam.
Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001
The special relationship
Al-Qaida's satisfaction at this turn of events lies partly in its ability to connect it by proxy with the deep-rooted relationship between the United States and Israel. Two aspects of this are notable. First, there may be more criticism of Israel in the US than a decade or more ago, including among leading Jewish organisations and individuals; but more important is that zealous pro-Israel sentiment has been appropriated by a "Christian Zionist" tendency that represents a pool of support six times larger in voting terms than the American Jewish community (see "Christian Zionists and neocons: a heavenly marriage", 3 February 2005).
Second, and even more significant, is the evolving relationship between the US and Israeli defence forces. The history of this relationship is characterised by substantial US arms sales to Israel, abundant military aid, and numerous joint projects such as the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system (several columns in this series have dissected the US-Israel bond; see, for example, "Israel, the US and the world: a conflict of perceptions" [24 July 2002] and "The US and Israel: a marriage under pressure", [7 August 2006]).
In the last four years, as the US army and marine corps have become mired in the bitter counterinsurgency war in Iraq, the bonds have become closer still. The process started within a few months of the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime, when the insurgency began to develop and the US ground forces found themselves increasingly out of their depth. Vietnam was long in the past and was, in any case, a largely rural war. The United States had special forces, some of them even trained in urban counterinsurgency, but their numbers were far too small to have much effect in Iraq.
Thus a US military whose regular army and marine-corps units were floundering, quickly turned for advice from the one country that had been fighting insurgents in the region, both in Lebanon and in the occupied territories. This led to the rapid consolidation and expansion of existing links with Israel.
By December 2003, less than nine months after the occupation of Iraq, a high-powered delegation from the US army's training and doctrine command (Tradoc) - including its commander, General Kevin Byrnes - was in Israel for a five-day programme of work with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), hosted by the head of Israel's ground-forces command, Major-General Yiftah Ron-Tal (see "After Saddam, no respite", 19 December 2003).
Byrnes was accompanied by the head of the US army's infantry school at Fort Benning, Georgia, Brigadier-General Benjamin Freakley. The meeting was meant to be low-profile, though the usually well-informed American defence journal, Defense News, managed to secure this quote from one US military source:
Israel has much to offer in the technological realm, while operationally, there are obvious parallels between Israel's experiences over the past three years in the West Bank and Gaza and our own post-offensive operations in Iraq. We'd be remiss if we didn't make a supreme effort to seek out commonalities and see how we might be able to incorporate some of that Israeli knowledge into our plans."
From a US military perspective such an approach was entirely appropriate. Indeed, the military would in principle be negligent if it did not avail itself of the extensive experience of a long-standing and close ally. By late 2003, with scores of young American soldiers and marines being killed and hundreds being seriously wounded every month, this made eminent sense. From any kind of radical Islamist perspective, however, the forging of even closer US-Israeli ties was yet further proof of the "Crusader/Zionist assault on Islam".
In the ensuing months, US forces came to rely even more on Israel experience, weapons and technologies (see Barbara Opall-Rome, "Israeli Arms, Gear Aid U.S. Troops", Defense News, 30 March 2004 [subscription only]). In April 2004, Defense News reported a four-day event in Israel in which surveillance and weapons systems developed specifically for use against Palestinians were demonstrated to staff from US special-operations command, the marine corps's war-fighting laboratory and the army's national ground intelligence centre (see "Between Fallujah and Palestine", 22 April 2004).
More recently, there has been the extraordinary development of an extensive new Arab-style town built in Israel's Negev desert by the US army corps of engineers as an urban counterinsurgency training centre for use by Israeli and American troops (see "A tale of two towns", 21 June 2007).
It is worth emphasising once again that this is entirely understandable from an American perspective. The continuing costs in Iraq - over 300 troops killed and 1,500 wounded in the past three months alone - means that any help, advice, weapons or technologies from Israel must be utilised.
In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here
Paul Rogers's latest book is Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control (Routledge, July 2007). This is a collection of papers and essays written over the last twenty years, with two new essays on the current global predicament
Four benchmarks for Blair
Tony Blair's intimate association with the Bush administration and his unwavering support for the war in Iraq makes him complicit by proxy in this strategic Israel/US connection; the result is that it is almost impossible for him to be taken seriously by establishment or popular opinion across much of the middle east, let alone among the more radical factions.
Does this mean that his engagement as the new middle-east peace envoy will prove an utter waste of time? Most likely yes, but this outcome is not inevitable; Blair's own approach could make a difference.
If he is prepared to engage in around five years of low-profile, media-averse effort, gathering around him an expert group from a wide range of perspectives, that would be a start. If he is prepared to engage systematically with the Syrian and Iranian governments, and with people connected with Hamas, Hizbollah and cognate groups, that too might be a source of some confidence. If further he is prepared to "speak truth to power" (in this case, the elites of the middle east), that would be even better. If he is willing to avoid any kind of consultancy or remuneration from any western financial or business group, let alone arms company or security outfit, that would also be of great value.
Under such circumstances, it is just conceivable that Blair might have a useful role to play. If he fails these benchmarks, then the road from Downing Street to Jerusalem will be more than a lost cause: it will prove a dangerous diversion from the critical need to move towards a resolution of possibly the most dangerous conflict of the age.