British Prime Minister Tony Blair hastened to announce practical steps in an attempt to gain from the winds of the recent congressional elections that went against President George W. Bush’s ship that was using ancient navigational maps which do not take into consideration the new currents and their perils. Blair’s subtle diplomacy is as wise as it is indirect. He does not embarrass his allies nor does he provoke his adversaries. He used the traditional Prime Minister’s speech to explain British foreign policy during the Lord Mayor’s dinner at the Guildhall, a venue in the district of money and banks, after the election of the Lord Mayor of London, John Stuttard. Blair outlined the priorities of his policy commencing with solutions to issues in the Middle East and Iraq, and the war against terrorism.
Using a video link the next day, Blair convened with the Iraq Study Group in Washington, headed by former US Secretary of State James Baker III. Prior to that conference meeting, sources at 10 Downing Street leaked reports that the British leader had advised the Americans to change their strategy in Iraq and search for solutions outside of it, especially by focusing on a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, supporting the Lebanese in reinstating their independence and stability, and engaging Syria and Iran in a dialogue in light of the role they can play in the aforesaid three issues. Blair’s strategy has been clear for the past three years and his latest speech further supports his prior two speeches in Canberra (March) and Los Angeles (July) about his foreign policy’s priorities and the safeguarding of the values of the liberal world, which are the same values shared by the Muslim democrats and the peace advocates inside and outside of the Middle East.
The Congress elections resulted in a referendum in which the American people expressed their rejection of the rigidity in attitude and the foolish mistakes committed by the radical approach adopted by the neo-conservative wing. The Democrats gained control over the House of Representatives, which includes the committees of International Relations, Armed Services, Homeland Security, and Energy and Commerce. Blair is respected and admired by both the Republican and Democratic congressmen. He is a brilliant attorney and an eloquent speaker who has won the hearts and the respect of those he addressed whether under former President Bill Clinton or the incumbent President Bush. Blair’s immediate support after al Qaeda’s September 11 attack and his principled stance to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the US also saw him reminding the world of its historical role during the Second World War and the sacrifices it made on European shores in an attempt to rescue them from the Nazi brutality. This reserved for Blair a special place in American hearts especially after the lack of gratitude shown by many European leaders during that war, in addition to their ungrateful attitudes towards the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe.
But the changes in the Capitol Hill have removed the wax that has been accumulating in the ears of the White House making it more attentive and receptive to the counsel given by London, which is more familiar with the Middle East and whose politicians and diplomats enjoy the trust and respect of the wise among the Middle Eastern leaders. Donald Rumsfeld’s departure from the Pentagon is not merely President Bush’s symbolic sacrifice of the personality that represents all the accumulated mistakes and negative aspects of the US policy that transformed the Iraqi people’s elation at the sight of Saddam’s collapsing statue and an end to the Baathist dictatorship into a tragedy and a quagmire that was hard to escape – Rumsfeld’s dismissal clearly signaled the search for a new strategy. Robert Gates, who will now be at the helm of the Pentagon’s ship, enjoys extensive experience in security having had a long professional career at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He is also Baker’s partner in the Iraq Study Group and his viewpoints on the region are similar to the British leader’s analysis of the situation. In his report to the US Foreign Relations Council in 2004 and in several other articles, Gates proposes engaging Syria and Iran in a dialogue while offering incentives and sanctions at the same time. He stressed that dialogue and openness can activate the civic society as an instrument for change in the two countries. He also proposed a tradeoff in which to dismantle the Iranian opposition Mujahideen-e Khalq Organisation (MKO) in Iraq in return for Iran’s to stop supporting the Shia militias in south Lebanon. A politician with Baker’s experience, one who belongs to the school of political realism, can profit from the experience of a man like Gates who has served in the CIA and the National Security Council by adding him to the Iraqi Study Group. And Blair’s testimony, or rather his advice, to the Baker commission on the video link last Tuesday emphasized the need to practically implement the proposals made by Gates. James Baker was one of the most efficient and capable US secretaries of state. However, he and his colleague, Lee Hamilton and the 13 others in the study group including Gates, are not magicians who can perform miracles. They hope to be able to provide the White House with a wider range of options, a list of the potential risks and dangers, in addition to proposing a budget in order to set the timetable for withdrawal from the crisis that has become Iraq.
From a realistic point of view, it is not fair for the world to expect Baker and his group to offer the ideal solution on how to pullout from Iraq when the country is in a state of total collapse. We may agree with the British prime minister on the need to find a just solution for the Palestinian issue with preliminary steps to save the lives of Palestinian and Israeli civilians alike. And we may agree with him on the need to lay the groundwork for a joint dialogue with Iran and Syria. But what are the chances of success for Blair’s initiatives in view of the realities in the Middle East? Hamas, the organization that won the Palestinian general elections and that formed the government, refuses to be committed to the agreements that the previous government had signed, moreover refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist. This dissipates any hope that the Israelis could accept any negotiations for a settlement of the Palestinian issue while Hamas is still in power.
In response to Blair’s initiative, Iran encouraged the militias that it supports in southern Iraq to blow up a British patrol boat in Shatt al Arab, which led to the death of four Britons. Furthermore, intelligence reports indicate Iran’s role and activities in forming a leadership for al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden and al Zawahiri that would be more cooperative and sympathetic toward Iran. There seems to be no indication that Iran is willing to abandon the extremists. Moreover, it would be hard for the international community to pay the price for Iran’s cooperation to bring about stability in Iraq: It would be the world’s acceptance of Iran’s right to develop a technology that would enable it to make nuclear bombs. It also means that the world will have to overlook Iran’s role in backing Hezballah and other extremist organizations. Furthermore, Iran is obstructing the peace process between Palestine and Israel and is publicly calling for the destruction of the Jewish State.
As for Syria, it will not cooperate until the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri is resolved, particularly since the evidence seems to be pointing at Syrian leaders. Syria also wants to regain the Golan by resuming its negotiations with Israel from the point at which they had stopped under the late President Hafez al Asad. The investigation into al Hariri’s assassination is not an Anglo-American one but an international one. Thus, it would be difficult for Blair to rescue the Syrian leadership from this predicament even if he wanted to.
On the other side, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is suffering from an unenviable domestic political situation. The rightist opposition led by Benjamin Netanyahu will exploit any concession that he tries to make to Syria and will interpret that as “a reward for Syria for backing Hezbullah and Hamas for their attacks and for igniting the war in the summer.” Thus, Olmert will not be able to persuade the Israeli voter of the usefulness of negotiations with Syria. Moreover, the Israeli voter is traditionally suspicious of any initiative that comes from Britain, which is considered to be an Arab ally historically.
The new political map in Washington has given Blair a bigger chance to convince Bush of a wiser policy. Unfortunately, however, the current political map in the region makes the implementation of his policy almost impossible.