Adrian Hamilton: Obama the realist, Blair the fantasist

Thursday 02 September 2010 00:00 BST

Compare and contrast President Obama speaking at the end of US combat operations in Iraq on Tuesday and Tony Blair talking of his continued belief in the rightness of the operation on television last night. Tony Blair, of course, was responsible for sending in the troops, which Obama was not.

Nonetheless, the contrast between Obama and Blair's view of the world is striking. Obama doesn't go in for high rhetoric about a war which his government is now ending. His view of the consequences of the invasions is pithy and direct: "A war to disarm a state became a fight against an insurgency. Terrorism and sectarian warfare threatened to tear Iraq apart. Our relations abroad were strained. Our unity at home was tested." The US has learned, he argued, the cost of foreign intervention and to reduce its ambitions. Partnership with a nation in charge of its own destiny, not a reworking of the whole Middle East, is now what it seeks, in Afghanistan as in Iraq. The US needs to put the chapter behind it.

No such modesty, or reflection, from Tony Blair. Instead we still have the Manichean vision of an evil in Islamic fundamentalism that stalks the land and has to be confronted by a principled West. Iraq was just part of a bigger picture of global threat. As he said to Andrew Marr: "There is not a single part of the Middle East that is not touched by exactly the same problem we have in Iraq and in Afghanistan today, and my view is that the West has got to understand this is a generation-long struggle and we've got to be in it."

One's immediate reaction to this nonsense is to think that it is time for the nurses with a restraining jacket. This is delusion way beyond the level of hyperbolic self-justification. But it does provide the answer to those Blairites who witter on about how we must draw a line under Iraq.

How can you close the book on Iraq when the man himself goes on pursuing a vision of the world that is mad, bad and dangerous even to contemplate? Far from learning from the mistakes of Iraq, he is now going on to support the idea of bombing Iran, whose interference, in his wild view, was the only reason that the occupation of Iraq didn't work – as if it didn't have natural interests in its neighbour nor had desperately offered its co-operation at the time of the invasion only to be rebuffed by Washington and London.

The trouble with this General Jack D Ripper from Dr Strangelove approach to international relations is that there are still a lot of people on the right in America who believe it, and pay Tony Blair a small fortune to get them worked up in after-dinner speeches. And there are also many in Israel wanting to start just such a war.

It's not that Blair refuses to apologise for his mistakes which makes him such a continuing potential menace (he doesn't really believe that he made any), but his refusal to learn from them. The simplest lesson – and one, I think, that Obama instinctively understands – is that the days of the West organising the world to suit their vision of security and peace are over. If Iraq didn't prove that, then Afghanistan is doing so now.

Blair went with enthusiasm into Iraq, alongside George Bush, for a range of reasons which have been trawled over ever since. But he also went in with an assumption. It is that war is easy – and that, contrary to everything everyone who had been in war told him, it doesn't have real consequences in lives lost, disruption to society and, above all, violent struggles for power between tribes and sects in the aftermath. To put it down to outside interference from Iran is simply a means of escaping responsibility for the outside interference of ourselves.

Blair, like Bush, never thought these things through not just because of their belief in the absolute superiority of Western arms, but because they never saw Iraqis as anything other than people in the abstract, to be saved but not thought of as individuals. Yes, Blair now regrets the loss of life among British soldiers. But there is no hint of a compassion towards the civilians of Iraq whose world was turned upside down by his messianic vision.

How Blair's attitude to war and its effects can be squared to a religious conscience, one leaves to the Vatican which so embraced his conversion, and to Yale University which has set up a course for him to teach morality. But for the world at large, we have a man with exactly the same Victorian attitudes towards a global struggle between Good and Evil and the West's duty to sort it out that brought us all the death and destruction of Iraq in the first place.

Little could illustrate more clearly the limits of the Western approach to the Middle East, and Blair's part in it, than the peace talks due to start in Washington this week. Blair is there as Middle East Envoy for the "quartet" of UN, US, EU and Russia, formed to further the cause of an Israeli-Palestinian accord. The title of Middle East envoy, which Blair has held ever since leaving No 10, is something of a misnomer. He's not there to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians but to promote economic growth and security in the Palestinians territories as a prelude to peace.

Which is precisely what has not happened. The Palestinians remain divided between Gaza, run by Hamas, and the West Bank, run by Fatah. Their divisions may be their own responsibility, but the West has hardly helped by trying to isolate Hamas and imposing ever more onerous security obligations on the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, Israel has done its best to prevent any development through control of borders. Blair's job seems to have been just to keep the thing from boiling over with an input of occasional investment. But he never went to Gaza before Israel's invasion, nor, as far as anyone can make out, challenged Israel on its policy towards the West Bank.

The Washington talks may get somewhere. But the grim thought, shared through most of the Arab world, is that they're just more of the same. The Palestinians have to attend because they can't be seen refusing peace but hold no cards and, so long as that is so, the Israelis will simply use talks to keep them weak and divided. Appearances, that's what Blair is master of. No wonder he's there.

For further reading

'Innocent Abroad: an Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East' by Martin Indyk (2009)

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