Adrian Hamilton: Every day he clings on, the damage gets worse

Blair still talks of an 'ethical' foreign policy. The reality is all too apparent
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Out of the mouth of babes, and babblers comes the truth. Britain, declared its Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, in her rambling interview on the Today programme this week, may have lost influence in the Arab street because of Iraq, but its influence with "governments" was still great.

So, with a casual complacency, are dismissed all the hopes and beliefs of a government that once talked of an "ethical foreign policy" appealing to the aspirations and wishes of people over the heads of their corrupt and authoritarian leaders.

Of all the damaging effects of Tony Blair's decision to go along with the invasion of Iraq, not the least has been the betrayal of his own ideals and the hopes of so many in his own party, Margaret Beckett included. Of course he still talks of an "ethical" foreign policy, of "shared values" and the hopes of ordinary people. But the reality is all too depressingly apparent. The Prime Minister talks of democracy in the United Arab Emirates, where an election of an advisory council this month was limited to just 1 per cent of the population. He talks of an "arc of moderation" against Iran, when what he means is an association of the unreformed Arab states of Egypt and the Gulf.

He declares his support for the Iraqi government, only to have the country's vice-president, Tariq al-Hashemi, accuse him of going back on everything he'd been told by the British premier - "brainwashed", the Iraqi Sunni leader presumed, by Bush. He says he is supporting the peoples of the Middle East, and then backs the attempts of Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to reverse the democratic election of a Hamas government. Even the Turkish prime minister, with whom Blair started his Middle East tour, has criticised his stance on Palestine.

As he set off on his travels last week, the British Prime Minister was making a mockery of all his rhetoric of ethics and corruption by intervening to stop the inquiry into Saudi arms sales on the grounds of "security". And he ended it pleading for major new arms contracts for British manufacturers in the Emirates.

This is not just a litany of hypocrisy. Were it so, it could be dismissed as just the normal deceit the West goes in for in the Middle East. It is the betrayal of our own ideals which makes it so bitter. For New Labour was right when it called for a different approach to foreign policy, and it was getting somewhere when, with Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary, it pursued the theme in terms of practical policy.

All over the Middle East, and indeed elsewhere, there are stirrings of change, a newer, better educated generation that is no longer satisfied with the old patriarchal, tribal ways of doing things, newly empowered women who are not prepared to accept traditional hierarchies.

You only have to look at Iran, to the recent municipal elections and the protests in the universities, to see the mood of change. It's there in Egypt and much of North Africa. It's there in the Gulf. The tragedy is that Iraq and the so-called "war on terror" have taken us backwards into supporting the very regimes that we were supposed to be distancing ourselves from - the Saudis, Egyptians, the Gulf states, and the Israel of the right. And in doing so we are only making it more difficult for the forces of moderation and reform which we claim to espouse.

The object of the Prime Minister's latest trip, said the briefing papers, was not to produce immediate results but to "listen". But "listen" is exactly what he didn't do, certainly not to the street, the public who could have told him precisely what Iraq had done to their hopes and their views of Britain.

That's the legacy of Iraq. Because of it, Blair can no longer see the world as it is and as it is developing. Instead, he has to see it in terms that justify his decision to hitch his wagon to the American star. And the more he is pushed on to the defensive, the more messianic his rhetoric becomes.

Iran, fundamentalism, Hamas, Iraqi insurgents and the Taliban become the apogees of evil not just because it suits Blair and Bush's Manichaean view of the world post-9/11, but because seeing them in more complex terms involves understanding, and understanding is the one thing the British Prime Minister cannot countenance, for fear of what he would then have to admit.

He has to go. From a domestic point of view, he can toddle on. The civil service machine has moved to support Gordon Brown, and Blair has little real room for manouevre other than making speeches. But abroad, each day he goes on, he inflicts more damage - to the world at large and reputation and ideals of his own country. New Year's day would not be too soon to announce his departure.