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     Volume 6 Issue 35 | September 7, 2007 |

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Food for Thought

Blair the Peacemaker and Other Bad Jokes

Farah Ghuznavi

Tony Blair

These are strange times indeed. For those who enjoy black humour, there is much fodder to be had; personally, I prefer my humour light, and I'm finding it increasingly difficult to find much to laugh about. Take the recent change of guard at the highest level of British politics: well before Gordon Brown finally achieved his long-delayed entry into Downing Street, the outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair had already begun manoeuvring towards his new life as an international diplomat. For those who had just heaved a sigh of relief at Blair's departure from Downing Street, that relief proved to be short-lived. He overcame Russia's reservations, to be made Middle East envoy on behalf of the Quartet i.e. the US, Russia, the EU and the UN. Given his less-than-shining record of activity in the Middle East, this seems more than a little strange!

While his official remit will be to promote Palestinian economic development and advise on building the institutions of a future Palestinian state, there are widespread reservations about Blair's ability to act as an honest broker in the Middle East not least because of his unflinching support for every excess of the Bush administration, as well as his failure to call for an end to the Israeli bombing of Lebanon last year. The fact that senior United Nations officials have attempted to present Mr. Blair as “a star player who will bring energy to the Middle East peace process” says more about the lapdog personality of the current Secretary General of the UN than it does about any talents that Mr. Blair might have.

Kurt Waldheim

All this raises the question of why Tony Blair has in fact been selected as Middle East envoy. While the situation for the Palestinians is incredibly dire because of the recent infighting between Fatah and Hamas, Blair's school of thought presents this as a “new opportunity for peace in the Middle East” (presumably by following a “divide and rule” approach…) In a nutshell, while the wider world is increasingly desperate to see some signs of progress towards an enduring settlement in the Middle East, there are a number of (not very well) hidden agendas at play here.

President Bush urgently needs to be seen to be taking some positive action after his foreign policy disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan; similarly, the Israeli Prime Minister is looking for some achievement to com pensate for his Lebanese fiasco with Hezbollah. As for the rest of the Quartet, the EU's desire for a settlement reflects its current leadership, which includes Nicolas Sarkozy of France (who is not warmly inclined towards Muslims anywhere) and Angela Merkel of Germany (who clearly just wants them to go away and stop bothering the rest of Europe). The unheard-of pliancy of the UN is self-evident, and Russia is battling to reclaim its status as a world power--all these factors contribute to an international drive for some kind of imposed solution in the Middle East, however unfair it might be to the Palestinians.

Gordon Brown

And in essence, this is what makes Tony Blair so attractive as a choice for the post of Middle East envoy. While the last incumbent James Wolfensohn resigned from the job because he was frustrated in his attempts to promote measures to make Palestine a viable state or to obtain a real commitment from Israel to the much-discussed “two-state solution”, Blair will not be deterred by a lack of substantive progress. After all, he has always been stronger on rhetoric than concrete achievements! And his loyalties cannot be disguised by any amount of wordplay, since he is known to be a particularly “close friend” of Israel, as he was described by Jerusalem upon his retirement. In the words of one commentator “The West wants a short-term solution on its and Israel's terms and, in Tony Blair, they have a man after their own desires.” (UK Independent) The veteran journalist Robert Fisk put it best: “James Wolfensohn who was originally 'our' Middle East envoy… left in frustration because he could neither reconstruct Gaza nor work with a 'peace process' that was being eroded with every new Jewish settlement and every Qassam rocket fired into Israel... I bet he [Blair] doesn't mention the Israeli wall which is taking so much extra land from the Palestinians. It will be a 'security barrier' or a 'fence' (like the famous Berlin 'fence' which was actually called a 'security barrier' by the East German authorities at the time). There will be appeals for restraint 'on all sides', endless calls for 'moderation', and none at all for justice (which is all the people of the Middle East have been pleading for over the past 100 years).”

And the Palestinians should undoubtedly be worried about what lies ahead with the advent of this new envoy, since backstabbing features high on Mr. Blair's list of accomplishments. Despite public awareness of the enmity between him and Gordon Brown, the current British Prime Minister, Blair has gone to considerable lengths to cover up the extent of his animosity towards Brown. This includes the pretence that he has handed over the post of Prime Minister with any degree of grace.

However, the recent leaking of a confidential document gives the lie to this, and proves that Tony Blair had initially planned to sack Gordon Brown from his post as Chancellor of the exchequer immediately after the last election. This paper provides the draft speaking notes for the Prime Minister, a briefing for the “new Chancellor” and a list of personal qualities Mr. Brown's successor should have!

It also emerged recently that Cherie Blair had repeatedly urged her husband to fire Mr. Brown, and that Mr. Blair had told his friends of his plans to ditch the Chancellor. The changes were to be abrupt and ruthless, and the proposals indicate that Mr. Brown was to be kept in the dark about the proposed changes, while his own civil servants would be asked to work on those plans without telling him!

On the leaked list of actions that were to be taken by the Prime Minister in the first week after the election, the first item deals with the planned reshuffle (displacing Mr. Brown), while the second priority would be to discuss the high-level plans with the new Chancellor. So clearly Mr. Blair meant business…

Indeed the tension between the two men was so high that others in the government complained of being treated like children in a dysfunctional relationship. The former educational secretary recently stated that this tension “made decision-making impossible”. Indeed, Blair was heard to complain that Brown's influence over domestic policy had stifled many of his reforms, stating that “Every time I've ever introduced a reform… I wish in retrospect I had gone further”. Given the harm his so-called reforms have already done to date, we clearly have something to thank Gordon Brown for damage control!

Although many of the changes listed in that document were subsequently brought in, preparations to radically reshape the Government and split the Treasury were rapidly abandoned after Mr. Brown stepped in to rescue Labour's struggling election campaign. The Prime Minister had initially tried to sideline the Chancellor from the campaign by putting one of his staunchest allies in charge, but when Labour continued to slip in the polls, it allowed Gordon Brown to conclude a deal (in return for rescuing the failing campaign) that effectively ensured that he would be Mr. Blair's successor.

In addition to the dirty tricks and gutter-level political manoeuvring that has characterised Tony Blair's operational style albeit with a firm veneer of glossy double-talk his time in office has also seen a growing venality in public life. The Blairs have been repeatedly criticised for taking “freebie” holidays in Italy, Egypt and Barbados including accepting invitations from the likes of the unsavoury Silvio Berlusconi, when he was the premier of Italy.

The latest proof of this kind of shameless greed has been the Blairs' request to continue using the Prime Minister's mansion in Buckinghamshire until their 3.6 million pound London home in Connaught Square is ready for occupation. The Chequers estate ranges over 1000 acres, costing 1738 pounds a day to maintain. Opposition MPs have suggested that Mr. Blair should pay the market rent if he is going to stay there since he will otherwise “effectively be living in a huge country estate at the tax payer's expense.”

Nor are the Blairs' new neighbours in London excited at the prospect of their arrival in Connaught Square. What has alarmed the residents of the area is the extent of the precautions being undertaken to ensure that the former PM and his family are protected from anyone who may wish to take revenge for the war in Iraq or any other grievance. According to the neighbours, if the Blair family are really so much at risk, they should consider the fact that it may not be wise to live in such a crowded part of central London. On the other hand, if it is safe for them to live there, they should not require anything approaching the current levels of security being proposed.

There is little doubt that Mr. Blair has aroused a great deal of negative passion during his time as Prime Minister, and not only among the lunatic fringe. As one letter to the newspapers pointed out, “Under Blair's leadership, Britain has colluded in the invasion, occupation and utter devastation of Iraq, blocked UN action to end Israel's invasion and bombardment of Lebanon, conspired with the EU, US and Israel to impose a crippling economic blockade on the Palestinian people, and refused to implement the earlier wishes of the European Parliament to suspend Israel's preferred trading status with the EU. And now this war-mongering, hypocritical, war criminal's apprentice is to be appointed a peace envoy to the Middle East of all places”. That says it all…!

A recent survey by the Independent newspaper in the UK has channelled some of the animosity generated by Mr. Blair into an amusing exercise based on asking different commentators what they would give the departing Prime Minister as a farewell gift. Among the suggestions that this generated were the following:

“I would give him a sackcloth and ashes. If he is going to become a Catholic, he has to learn repentance.” (Joan Bakewell, Columnist)

“I would give him a chemistry set. Tony Blair can then build the weapons of mass destruction he has always wanted. He took us war on the basis of these weapons, which did not exist. He also may be in need of a bullet-proof vest, in case he meets any of his new Arab neighbours when he moves house”. (Andrew Gilligan, Journalist)

“I would buy Tony Blair a green card so that he can move to the US for the rest of his life. It would suit him, and have clear advantages for me”. (Andreas Whittam Smith, Journalist)

“It will be an enormous culture shock to go from Prime Minister to private citizen. A phrase book might help with the Blairish translation included:

The right to a fair trial = 19th century nonsense
The right not to be banged up without trial = 13th century nonsense
Universal human rights = 20th century nonsense
Policy = Press release
Legislation = Many press releases stitched together
Guantanamo = Anomaly
Kidnap and torture = Extraordinary rendition”
(Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, a human rights/civil liberties organisation)

“I would give the Prime Minister five plastic water guns to play with, to mark each of the five wars that he has been involved in.” (John Kampfner, Journalist)

But frankly, my personal favourite remains the suggestion by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former foreign secretary, who said “I would make him the British Ambassador to Baghdad. The Iraqis would be very grateful and so would the British. And he could hardly complain!” If only…

There has been a great deal of speculation that one of the reasons behind Tony Blair's determination to take on the role of Middle East envoy is related to his desire to leave behind an enduring legacy. Given that many feel his legacy is in fact defined by the growing mistrust towards politicians created by actions such as his decision to take Britain to war in Iraq, and widespread disgust over the financial scandals ranging from the Blair family's weakness for freebies to lingering suspicions over the "cash for honours" affair, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that the ex-Prime Minister would indeed be looking to leave behind a more dignified legacy. But the hubris involved in the idea that he could take the lead in solving the intractable problems in the Middle East (which he has directly contributed to worsening!) is quite mind-boggling.

Indeed, to give the last word to Robert Fisk, one may recall "another man with Blair's pomposity, a certain Kurt Waldheim, who actually believed he could be an "envoy" for peace in the Middle East despite his little wartime career as an intelligence officer for [the German army during the Second World War]"! If only one could believe that Blair the war-monger will someday be discredited as he so richly deserves to be, and as thoroughly as Waldheim ultimately was...


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