Blair's Middle East legacy

The departing UK prime minister leaves the position with the Middle East in crisis.

    Blair at Baghdad airport, he says he has no regrets over Iraq [Gallo/Getty]










    One word will dominate Tony Blair's legacy as British leader at home and abroad: Iraq.

    The prime minister's support for George Bush's 2003 invasion has made him synonymous with the spiral of violence into which the country has been plunged.

    Blair says he is a conviction politician, and has often said that, although no evidence of weapons of mass destruction was found, removing Saddam from power was the right thing to do.

    On his last visit to Iraq as prime minister in May, Blair insisted that he had no regrets about invading Iraq and that the situation there was improving.

    Minutes after he spoke, mortars were fired at the British base where he was speaking.

    And many Iraqis, facing the daily terror of suicide attacks and sectarian killings, are not inclined to agree.

    Dr Omar Nazdi, a professor of political science at Baghdad University, says of Blair's legacy in the region:

    "Tony Blair has destroyed British prestige in Iraq and across the Arab world.

    "No one who has their eyes open can say that Iraq is not worse now than it was before.

    "Two things have driven him from power. The Iraqi armed resistance and British public opinion which was always against the invasion of Iraq."

    Bush ally

    Blair shares many of his convictions with George Bush, forming a personal bond based on a shared commitment to Christianity.

    As a personality he has more diplomatic skill than George Bush and did not rub people up the wrong way like Bush did.

    Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut

    But by allying himself so closely with the US leader he made himself deeply unpopular both in the Middle East and at home.

    Across the region, Blair has backed support for military action or punitive sanctions to deal with the challenges posed by Hezbollah, Hamas and other armed groups.

    In Lebanon, Blair was criticised for his refusal to call for a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah despite the civilian casualties.

    And that country remains split down the middle on Blair, says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, with his policies virtually indistinguishable from those of the US.

    "As a personality he has more diplomatic skill than George Bush and did not rub people up the wrong way like Bush did.

    "But in the long run, Bush is the senior figure and people listen more to the US as the larger player.

    "In the beginning there were expectations that Blair would take a more European line on the Middle East, but that has not been the case."

    Relations with Iran have also soured over the course of the Blair years, culminating in the seizure of British military personnel who had allegedly strayed into Iranian waters earlier this year.

    Dr Mohammed Mirandi, a political analyst working at the University of Tehran, repeats a complaint of people across the region.

    "Blair's problem has been that he has followed the policies of George Bush. If he adopted a more rational view then relations with Iran might improve."

    Good relations

    Despite his unpopularity with many in the Middle East, he has good relations with political leaders in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf states.

    Blair has good relations
    with Gulf states [EPA]
    Relations with Saudi Arabia are so good that Blair was recently prepared to halt an inquiry into an alleged bribe paid by a British arms manufacturer to a Saudi prince saying that "national security concerns" were more important.

    And there have been successes.

    Blair played a significant role in negotiations that normalised relations between Muammar Gaddafi's Libya and Western powers.

    And he has repeatedly reached out to Syria, most recently sending his senior envoy to Damascus in an attempt to kickstart peace negotiations with Israel.

    Ethical policy

    And the early Blair years in in the Middle East were not always this way.

    One of the unique features of the early Blair government was its attempt to shape an "ethical foreign policy".

    No longer would Britain sell arms to corrupt dictators, Blair's Labour party said, a policy associated with the sleaze of the previous Conservative administration.

    In 1998, Robin Cook, then foreign secretary, was prepared to anger the Israeli government by visiting illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

    But Blair was and remains an interventionist, his convictions telling him that the world can and should be changed, through military force if necessary.

    In 1998, in his first term in government he sent UK troops to Kosovo, in an attempt to end Serbian attacks on ethnic Albanians.

    In 2000, troops were on the move again, this time to Sierra Leone, originally to evacuate UK nationals amid fears of a return to civil war, but later to bolster an ineffective UN force.

    Unlike Iraq, however, British public opinion was largely behind those actions.

    A new envoy?

    The September 11 attacks in 2001 changed everything.

    Blair agreed with Bush's analysis that Western democracies were facing a profound threat from armed Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda and that these groups could be defeated only through the use of force.

    And Blair has always defended his close relationship with George Bush by saying his influence in Washington helped fight the British corner.

    The British prime minister consistently pressured the US leader to throw his weight behind the root cause of much of the conflict in the Middle East - the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

    But he has so far failed to do this, with Bush, unlike his predecessor Bill Clinton, more comfortable leaving the issue to his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.

    Blair's relationship is the key factor in
    his image in the Middle East [EPA]
    Blair had backed Bill Clinton when he blamed Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian leader, for the collapse of the Camp David peace talks in 2000.

    But Blair supports the creation of a Palestinian state and knows from the long years of torturous negotiations in Northern Ireland that two seemingly intractable parties can find compromise.

    In a speech to the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles last year, Blair admitted that the West had failed to win the battle of ideas over the Middle East.

    He said that even in the West "a vast part of opinion is not remotely near understanding" that the conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon are "part of a wider struggle for the soul of the Middle East".

    Blair promised to "bend every sinew of our will to making peace between Israel and Palestine, we will not win, and this is a battle we must win".

    With Blair leaving office, the talk has been him becoming more, not less, involved in the region as envoy for the Quartet group of international powers on the Middle East.

    And the prime minister certainly feels personally that he has work left to do in the region.

    "I regard it as a priority," he said in 2004.

    "I regard it as something that I will feel a sense of personal failure if we cannot get movement back into this process."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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