Malcolm Rifkind: Blair is presiding over a foreign policy disaster, worse even than Vietnam or Suez

At long last, and as a result of the Lebanon crisis, the Cabinet is awakening from its torpor


It was remarked of Gladstone that "he could convince most people of most things, and himself of almost anything". Does that remind you of anyone? I have no doubt that Tony Blair believes what he is saying. He could not carry the burden of Iraq and other foreign policy failures if he did not. For conviction politicians there has to be an ability to shut out that which does not conform to the ideology or the goals that one has laid down.

But in a mature democracy, the Prime Minister's self-belief and conviction are not enough. I could not help thinking that as I watched him deliver his major foreign policy speech in California on Tuesday. There was the usual brilliant rhetoric; the motherhood and apple pie remarks dressed up as wisdom and insight; and the impassioned commitment to a new strategy without a single new or original policy to achieve it. There was also the continuing evidence that Blair remains in denial. Iraq is combined, by him, with Afghanistan and 9/11 as fundamental to the war on Islamic terrorism. Blair won't or can't accept it was his and Bush's invasion of Iraq that has destroyed that state and made it fertile ground for al-Qa'ida and other Islamic terrorists.

Likewise, he lumps together all terrorism in Muslim states as if they can all be explained as a single worldwide plot masterminded by Osama bin Laden. The reality is very different. Chechnya is not a battle between the forces of darkness and of light; it is a war between Russian nationalists and Chechen nationalists. Kashmir is not part of a single worldwide war on terror, but a conflict between India and Pakistan that has been going on since the 1940s.

These are not just debating points. They go to the heart of why Blair and Bush have presided over a foreign policy that has been the most disastrous of modern times, Vietnam and Suez included. These matters are directly relevant to the current agony of Lebanon and where we should go from here.

At long last, and as a result of the Lebanon crisis, the British Cabinet is awakening from its torpor and considering whether it should assert itself. Everyone knows that Britain's involvement in the Iraq war would not have happened but for Blair's total determination. The rest of the Cabinet were lukewarm at best, and most were appalled. But, with the exception of Robin Cook, they acquiesced with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Look at the contrast today. Jack Straw publicly disassociates himself with the policy. David Miliband and Hilary Benn allow their reservations to become known. Even Margaret Beckett, appointed to be Blair's echo, presses for a commitment to an immediate ceasefire and rebukes the Americans for the use of Prestwick to transit bombs to Israel. Such a cabinet revolt is much more important in Britain than in the US. America has a Presidential system where the Cabinet, except for the Vice-President, are appointed, not elected, officials. Bush can be outnumbered 10-1, but is constitutionally entitled to reject what is no more than the advice of his colleagues, including Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice.

Britain, however, remains a cabinet system despite regular appearances to the contrary. If Blair does not have the support of his Cabinet colleagues he is not entitled to pursue the policy. I can recall several occasions when Margaret Thatcher bowed to the views of her colleagues. She sulked, she fumed, but she was a stickler for constitutional propriety. Blair, so far, has treated his colleagues with contempt. But note the dog that isn't barking. Gordon Brown hasn't hesitated to give us his views on Africa, climate change and nuclear weapons; all far from his brief as Chancellor. If he wants to assert himself as the PM in waiting he should combine with Straw and the rebels on the Middle East and humble Blair. That way he would be Prime Minister in weeks.

Blair's contempt for his colleagues is more than matched by his indifference to the professional advice of the Foreign Office. He is constitutionally entitled to ignore them but he has been unwise in so doing. It has done this country untold harm.

Not only did he give exaggerated significance to intelligence reports from MI6 in the notorious dodgy dossier on WMD, he insisted, against advice, on visiting President Assad of Syria to try to convert him to Bush's and Blair's view of the world. He was humiliated at a public press conference by the Syrian President for his pains.

Now we have Blair trying to forge a meaningful British policy in the Lebanon crisis. His reputation as Bush's poodle is making that all but impossible. First we had the overheard conversation at the G8 Summit when he suggested that he, instead of Condoleezza Rice, should visit Beirut on the grounds that she would be expected to deliver results while he could "just talk". On Tuesday, we had the humiliating advice from the UN that Britain should stay in the background on Lebanon as its involvement with the US in the invasion of Iraq had destroyed our ability to be seen as an independent nation with our own foreign policy.

Tony Blair likes to adopt a moralistic tone and to suggest that modern foreign policy must be about values and not just about realpolitik and national interest. Of course, he is right, and no democratic politician would disagree with him.

His failure has not been due to his beliefs or values. It has been because both he and President Bush have been incompetent and arrogant in the execution of policy. They have rejected or ignored the accumulated experience of many of their closest advisors; they have preferred their instincts and the views of their ideological soulmates, many of whom know little of the Middle East, its culture and its history. The result is that moderates throughout the region are desolate and depressed while the extremists and terrorists think things are going their way.

Tony Blair, despite his political brilliance and his undoubted popularity with the American people, has become a liability and not an asset for the UK. He may have the courage of his convictions, and some of these convictions are quite persuasive. But he is pursuing them with a blind enthusiasm that ignores the harsh evidence of previous failed initiatives and which, no longer, commands the support, or even the respect, of most of the world.

This is a harsh judgement , and though I am a political opponent of the Prime Minister, I do not enjoy reaching it. I would, of course, prefer to see a Conservative government, but as this is not possible for several years, I can only hope Gordon Brown takes over as soon as possible. As was once remarked, in a different context, it could only get better.

The writer is MP for Kensington and Chelsea, and was Foreign Secretary, 1995-97

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