Adrian Hamilton: Why Blair changed his tune on the Middle East

At the weekend, the PM wanted to bring in Iran and Syria. By Monday night, they were the axis of evil
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Tony Blair took his country to war in Iraq deceiving the public over the extent to which he had committed Britain to Washington before the invasion, and deceiving himself over how much influence he could exercise over the US afterwards. He's now doing the same thing with the withdrawal.

Yes, he's full of how much experience and advice London can offer Washington now that the American public has voted against Bush's policy in Iraq. All over the weekend and again on Monday morning, No 10 was briefing journalists - and anyone else who would listen - about how the Prime Minister wanted a new policy in the Middle East that would bring in Iran and Syria, and how he could help to bring that about with his special contacts.

Come Monday night, however, Mr Blair gave a speech at the Lord Mayor's banquet which was the opposite of encouraging a new dialogue with these founder-members of President Bush's "axis of evil". If they wanted to come into the fold, he argued, they'd have to mend their meddling ways and their support for terror - exactly the same conditions which the White House has always imposed and which Blair himself listed in Los Angeles in the summer.

Why the change between morning and evening - or rather the lack of change? For that you had to go over to Washington, where President Bush was talking to reporters at a photocall and, far from changing to a more emollient line on Iran, was if anything toughening his line with Tehran, calling it a "threat to world peace".

"It is very important for the world to be united with one common voice," said Bush, referring only to its nuclear plans, "to say to the Iranians that if you choose to continue forward, you'll be isolated, and one source of isolation would be economic isolation"- words surprisingly similar to those used by Blair later in the day.

And why was Bush following this line? Because, by his side, was Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, on a visit to Washington. Their talks, said Olmert's spokesmen, were not primarily concerned with Palestine or Lebanon. "The Iran issue was the main issue on the table."

This was the first meeting between Bush and Olmert since Israel's invasion of Lebanon, the first since the incursions and civilian deaths in Gaza, the first since the Lebanese government started to collapse again, since the French peacekeepers nearly shot down an Israeli warplane in southern Lebanon, the first since the suggestion of a change in strategy in Iraq and the suggestions within the James Baker Study Group that the wider question of Middle East peace be allied with the issue of withdrawal - and it was Iran that was the primary focus of discussion!

That tells a lot about Israel's overrriding concern with Iran. But it also tells much about what drives America's policy. President Bush Jnr is not going to do what James Baker as Secretary of State did under Bush Snr and confront Israel. And this won't change with a Democrat control of Congress. Both Hillary Clinton, with a New York constituency, and Nancy Pelosi are virulent in their support of Israel. Jerusalem will not allow Washington to step back in its confrontation with Tehran, and so long as there is a weak government there, as in the US, with a need to show fresh victories, then military action against Iran is still on the cards.

This leaves Britain pretty much where it has been since the start of the operation, waiting to see where Washington will lead. At this stage, no one knows what precisely the President and his new defence secretary will do - whether they will go for quick withdrawal, or phased, whether they will seek to envelope it in regional talks or act to restart the Israeli-Palestinian discussions. It's all up in the air. But there is no particular reason to believe the administration will seek London's permission or approval, any more than it will show much concern about the humiliation of countries such as Australia that went along with the "coalition" because they thought it would earn them Washington's favour.

Blair will keep trying to suggest that he is pursuing home-grown thoughts independent of Washington. He has to if he is to escape the charge of poodleism. In a fascinating lecture in Cambridge this week on Blair's prime ministership from a historian's view, Professor Peter Hennessy put him firmly in the category of premiers, such as Churchill, imbued with a sense of themselves as men of "destiny", rather than the more modest pragmatism of Clement Attlee. Until the moment he leaves, Blair will try and summon up this image of a man of vision, fighting a lonely struggle against those who cannot see what he can see.

And he will, as he did apparently in his evidence to the Baker Study Group on Tuesday, press the case for an urgent settlement of the Palestinian question as his "legacy". But how he can do this, given the weakness and make-up of the Olmert government and Washington's refusal to put real pressure on it, is anyone's guess. Even he doubts he can do very much beyond words.

The truth is that the UK doesn't have much influence left in this part of the world and, in so far as it ever was regarded as a neutral and constructive presence in the Middle East, Blair threw that away by joining the US so closely in Iraq. He can't live it down by espousing new ideas and new concerns now.