Tony Blair’s opposition to an immediate ceasefire in the Lebanon war last summer precipitated his downfall. Now that he has announced the date of his departure from Downing Street, his entire Middle East record needs to be placed under an uncompromising lens.
Blair came to office with no experience of, and virtually no interest in, foreign affairs, and ended by taking this country to war five times. Blair boasts that his foreign policy was guided by the doctrine of liberal interventionism. But the war in Iraq is the antithesis of liberal intervention. It is an illegal, immoral and unnecessary war, a war undertaken on a false prospectus and without sanction from the UN.
Blair’s entire record in the Middle East is one of catastrophic failure. He used to portray Britain as a bridge between the two sides of the Atlantic. By siding with America against Europe on Iraq, however, he helped to destroy the bridge. Preserving the special relationship with America was the be all and end all of Blair’s foreign policy. He presumably supported the Bush administration over Iraq in the hope of exercising influence on its policy. Yet there is no evidence that he exercised influence on any significant policy issue. His support for the neoconservative agenda on Iraq was uncritical and unconditional.
Blair failed to understand that America’s really special relationship is with Israel, not Britain. Every time that George Bush had to choose between Blair and Ariel Sharon, he chose the latter. Blair’s special relationship with Bush was a one-way street: Blair made all the concessions and got nothing tangible in return.
American policy towards the Middle East was doomed to failure from the start, and the end result has been to saddle Britain with a share of the responsibility for this failure. The premise behind American policy was that Iraq was the main issue in Middle East politics and that regime change in Baghdad would weaken the Palestinians and force them to accept a settlement on Israel’s terms. The road to Jerusalem, it was argued, went through Baghdad. This premise was wrong. Iraq was a non-issue; it did not pose a threat to any of its neighbours, and certainly not to America or Britain. The real issue was Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and America’s support for Israel in its savage colonial war against the Palestinian people.
When seeking the approval of the Commons for the war, Blair pledged that after Iraq was disarmed, he and his American friends would seek a solution to the Palestine problem. He has utterly failed to deliver on this promise.
True, Blair was the driving force behind the “road map” that envisaged the emergence of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel by the end of 2005. But Sharon wrecked the road map. In return for the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Sharon exacted a written American agreement to Israel’s retention of the major settlement blocs on the West Bank. Blair publicly endorsed the nefarious Sharon-Bush pact. This was the most egregious British betrayal of the Palestinians since the Balfour declaration of 1917.
Blair and Bush have also betrayed the Iraqi people. To begin with, there was much brave rhetoric about bringing democracy to Iraq and turning it into a model for the rest of the Arab world. But the rhetoric was empty. The neoconservatives who drove American policy were interested in overthrowing Saddam Hussein and in nothing else.
The allied invasion of Iraq was not an isolated episode but part of the so-called global war on terror. But the overthrow of the Ba’ath regime in Iraq only exacerbated the problem of terrorism. The invasion of Iraq has given a powerful boost to al-Qaida and its confederates by damaging Britain’s reputation and radicalising its young Muslims. The London bombs may not have been a direct result of the Iraq war - but they are indisputably a part of the blowback.
What we have in Iraq today is chronic instability, an incipient civil war, endemic violence and anarchy, an upsurge of terrorist activity of every kind, and a national insurgency to which the allies have no answer. The neocons did not bother to plan for postwar reconstruction. Occupation was accompanied by devastation and destruction on a massive scale and a civilian death toll estimated by one source at 655,000.
The allies pride themselves on having brought democracy to the Iraqi people, but they have failed in the primary duty of any government: to provide security for the civilian population. The upshot is that America and its pillion passenger in the “war against terror” are now embroiled in a vicious, protracted and unwinnable conflict.
Blair has the audacity to say that God will be his judge over the Iraq war. This is a curious attitude for a democratic politician to adopt. History will surely pass a harsh judgment on Blair. He has the worst record on the Middle East of any British prime minister in the past century, infinitely worse than that of Anthony Eden, who at least had the decency to accept responsibility for the Suez debacle.
Avi Shlaim is a professor of international relations at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.