Adrian Hamilton: Blair's misunderstanding of the Middle East

The isolation of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizbollah is serving to increase extremism rather than draw its teeth
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The Independent Online

You don't have to be a friend of Tony Blair to believe that the furore over his overheard conversation with President Bush at the G8 meeting has been blown up out of all proportion. We already know how close Bush and Blair are to each other and how completely the Prime Minister follows the President's agenda. Try and think of a single issue on which our Prime Minister has asserted his independence in the past five years, if you doubt it.

But if the conversation in St Petersburg adds anything to our knowledge it is for the extraordinary offer by Blair to go out to the Middle East to pave the way for Condoleezza Rice. It's not the revelation that he is happy to act as the US Secretary of State's sherpa that takes one aback - you could say that it at least shows he's willing to help - but Blair's view that if Condi Rice goes out on a peace-making mission, "she's got to succeed, as it were, whereas I can go out and just talk."

There you have the true philosophy of the man. Talk is sufficient unto itself, without consequence or purpose. "He went out and just talked" - it could be the epitaph of Blair's whole period in office.

What is truly appalling, however, is not what Blair said in private but what he and President Bush said in public. The violence in Middle East, said president Bush was "encouraged by Syria, financed by Iran". And Blair backed him, declaring that what was at stake here was whole future of the Middle East and progress towards peace and stability. It was clear, he said, that Iran and Syria "do not want this process of democratisation and peace and negotiation to succeed."

This - repeated in the Commons on his return - is pretty heady stuff. Demonisation of the people you may need to help bring peace is never the best basis for future diplomacy. Nor is erecting a vast, Manichaean conspiracy the best way of approaching the complex and difficult task of bringing warring parties together.

But, quite aside from that, it shows a profound misunderstanding by both Bush and Blair as to what is going on in the Middle East. Pace Blair, the peace talks on Palestine were not tootling along happily, and the movement to democracy in the Arab world progressing according to plan, until these nasty people in Tehran and Damascus decided deliberately to wreck it.

The opposite is the case. Middle East peace talks were stalled, the Israeli government had decided to go it alone on a unilateral withdrawal plan, and the international community had decided to isolate and bring down the newly-elected government of Hamas in Palestine when the Gaza incursion took place. You have to understand that before you can understand what happened next.

Nor, pace President Bush, is there any real evidence that either Iran or Syria ordered the Hizbollah seizure of Israeli soldiers. It is true that Damascus and Tehran support, arm and wield considerable influence over Hizbollah, and Hamas. But there is at least an argument - and a belief among those who know them best - that neither is entirely happy with the result. At this stage in the game it doesn't necessarily suit Iran to confuse its nuclear negotiations with a potentially explosive situation in Lebanon, nor is President Assad's regime in Damascus nearly secure enough to seek a re-entry into Lebanese politics this way.

It may be that it furthers the interest of some elements in both countries. But you don't need outside influence to explain why Hamas, isolated and under pressure, and Hizbollah, resisting rising international demands to disarm, should embark on these risky ventures.

It is the same with the view that would have the Middle East the subject of some all-embracing Sunni-Shia divide in which the majority Arabs oppose Iran and Syria, as witnessed by Saudi Arabia's decision so decisively to condemn Hizbollah.

It may be, as US officials and academics propound, that we are seeing a such a split, in which the Sunni kingdoms and would-be kingdoms of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Jordan and Egypt are gathering their forces to defeat this new Iran-led Shia arc through the region.

But the more plausible reason is concern at the radicalisation of politics in their own countries which the success of Hamas and Hizbollah represents. What they want from the West is the kind of support for their regimes which Blair and Bush are supposed to be moving away from.

The reality of the Middle East today is that politics is being radicalised, largely to the benefit of the Islamists, Shia and Sunni. The choice is either to meet this by tackling the issues on the ground and drawing the radical elements such as Hamas into the democratic, international system, or to see them as a challenge which must be faced down by a policy of total confrontation not only of the militants themselves but of their backers outside as well.

Widening this conflict, as Bush and Blair seek in their rhetoric, would certainly suit Israel. Jerusalem would dearly love the international community not only to intervene to disarm Hamas and Hizbollah but also to enter direct confrontation and even military action against Syria and Lebanon. All its enemies would then be castrated in one decisive sweep.

But is such a widening of the conflict really what the rest of the world wants, let alone the poor, benighted civilians of Lebanon, Palestine and Israel?