THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Tony Blair: the Chilcot Report and the Post-Iraq Middle East
The British have a complicated relationship with the USA. The old wartime joke that Americans are "overpaid, oversexed and over here" reflects a sense that we need America, but we resent the fact.
So a British Prime Minister has to perform a delicate juggling act. On the one hand, ignoring the US government is dangerous, as Prime Minister Anthony Eden found out in 1956. His very foolish project to invade Egypt and take over the Suez Canal was brought to an abrupt halt by President Eisenhower, putting an end to the idea that Britain was a great power, or that she was in any way an equal partner with the USA. But on the other hand, the British will not forgive a Prime Minister who seems slavishly to toe the American president's line.
When Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, some on the left thought he was in President Lyndon Johnson's pocket because he refused to condemn the Vietnam war. They were wrong, as we now know: Wilson held firm against Johnson's increasingly angry demands that he should commit troops in Vietnam. But the perception was enough to damage Wilson.
That's one of the reasons why Iraq was so devastating for Blair's reputation. In his case, the perception turns out to be correct: Blair did not feel he could diverge at all from President Bush's line. The recently released and long awaited Chilcot Report into the Iraq war shows that he wrote to the President very early on: "I will be with you, whatever." That was a pledge, which neither the people, nor Parliament, nor even his cabinet, were told about.
The rest of the letter contained Blair's own very sensible doubts about the proposed invasion, but these were ignored and brushed aside, and still he followed slavishly.
And that is one reason why Blair's reputation is still high in the US, but at rock bottom in Britain. Sir John Chilcot's enquiry put it diplomatically in his recently released report on the events leading up to the Iraq war: "The UK's relationship with the US has proved strong enough over time to bear the weight of honest disagreement. It does not require unconditional support where our interest or judgments differ."
George W Bush: "Blair sacrificed his career for me."
Another reason for Blair's low standing in his own country is what he has done since he gave up the premiership. The day he resigned as Prime Minister in 2007, he accepted an appointment as Middle East representative for the Quartet – which means the US, the UN, the European Union and Russia. President Bush insisted on giving him the job: he was accepted very reluctantly by the other three members of the Quartet. Bush explained to an aide: "Blair sacrificed his career for me."
Most people never get the chance to make a contribution to Middle East peace. Blair got that chance, and it is hard to understand or forgive the fact that Blair seems not even to have tried. He used the job as a calling card around the Middle East. One of his first visits was to the Emir of Kuwait, and he came away, not with a contribution towards Middle East peace, but with a £27 million contract for his consultancy firm, Tony Blair Associates.
His predecessor in the job, former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, put it to me succinctly: "For Tony Blair to say 'I would like to talk to you about the peace process' is a very different entry point from saying 'I would like to get an oil concession in the east of your country for a client or I would like to become an adviser to your country.'"
Wolfensohn, in the eleven months he held the peace envoy's job, worked at it pretty well full time, and exerted himself to make friends on both sides of the divide. He had the trust of the Israelis, who considered him a man of honour but not a pushover; and he so effectively overcame the instinctive distrust of the Palestinians for an American Jewish millionaire that their key negotiator Hanan Ashrawi told me: "Jim Wolfensohn resigned because he is a man of great principle and courage who did not want to be used."
She added: "They had to find someone who would play the game, and Tony Blair accepted the role." Palestinian negotiators never thought of Blair as anything other than an Israeli mouthpiece. He spent far less time in the region than Wolfensohn had. He claimed to be there for a week a month, but according to a diplomat in a position to know, "He'll arrive on a Monday evening and leave Thursday morning."
He has now been relieved of the role after US Secretary of State John Kerry finally lost patience with him. He had been a passenger at best, a liability at worst.
In the Middle East, even when he turned up there, no one ever knew which Tony Blair they were meeting: the Middle East peace envoy, the businessman who ran a government consultancy firm, or the founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Outside the Middle East, he was not at all choosy about his clients – he was happy to take the money of some of the most bloodthirsty of Eastern European tyrants, and sing their praises in return.
Iraq was always going to be a stain on Blair's reputation in Britain, and in Europe. But he could have gone some way towards rescuing it if he had put his heart and soul into the job of Middle East envoy. No one expected him to bring about peace in the Middle East, but if he had been seen to be trying, it would have earned him some sort of rehabilitation.
But his focus was on making money. And he has made money – about £65 million on our estimate. That's why the British have lost patience with him, and the Europeans too.
That's why, when he was a candidate for the post of President of the European Council, and was at first thought to be certain to get the job, he was in the end turned down for a man few people had heard of. Europe had still not quite forgiven him for Iraq – but if he had made a decent job of being Middle East Peace Envoy, they would probably have given him a chance.
Francis Beckett is co-author of Blair Inc – The Man Behind the Mask (John Blake Publishing).