Aspectre is stalking British television, a frayed and waxy zombie straight from Madame Tussaud’s. This one, unusually, seems to live and breathe. Perhaps it comes from the Central Intelligence Agency’s box of technical tricks, programmed to spout the language of the White House in an artificial English accent.
There is another possible explanation. Perhaps what we see on television is the real Tony Blair, the man who believes that he and his friend alone have the key to the horrifying problems of the Middle East. At first he argued against a ceasefire in Lebanon. Then, after another Israeli airstrike killed dozens of Lebanese women and children, he finally admitted, in California – reluctantly, grudgingly and with a host of preconditions – that military force alone would not do the trick, and now seems to have told his people to look for something better.
The catastrophe in Lebanon is the latest act of a tragedy rooted in European anti-Semitism and in the expulsion of an Arab people from their ancestral home. Both sides claim the right to self-defence. Neither hesitates to use force to pursue aims it regards as legitimate. No single event is the proximate cause of the current mayhem – neither the Israeli onslaught on Lebanon, nor the Hizbollah rockets, nor the Israeli assassination of Palestinian leaders, nor the suicide bombings. The causes go back in almost infinite regression. In the desperate pursuit of short-term tactical gain, both sides lose sight of their own long-term interests.
The Israelis remember the Holocaust and the repeated calls from within the Muslim world for the elimination of their state, and they react strongly to real or perceived threats to their existence. Whether their government’s methods can achieve their ends is for them to judge. A liberal Israeli columnist has argued that “in Israel and Lebanon, the blood is being spilled, the horror is intensifying, the price is rising and it is all for naught” – a reminder that Israel remains a sophisticated and in many ways an attractive democracy.
But whatever our sympathy for Israel’s dilemma, Mr Blair’s prime responsibility is to defend the interests of his own country. This he has signally failed to do. Stiff in opinions, but often in the wrong, he has manipulated public opinion, sent our soldiers into distant lands for ill-conceived purposes, misused the intelligence agencies to serve his ends and reduced the Foreign Office to a demoralised cipher because it keeps reminding him of inconvenient facts. He keeps the dog, but he barely notices if it barks or not. He prefers to construct his “foreign policy” out of self-righteous soundbites and expensive foreign travel.
Mr Blair has done more damage to British interests in the Middle East than Anthony Eden, who led the UK to disaster in Suez 50 years ago. In the past 100 years – to take the highlights – we have bombed and occupied Egypt and Iraq, put down an Arab uprising in Palestine and overthrown governments in Iran, Iraq and the Gulf. We can no longer do these things on our own, so we do them with the Americans. Mr Blair’s total identification with the White House has destroyed his influence in Washington, Europe and the Middle East itself: who bothers with the monkey if he can go straight to the organ-grinder?
Mr Blair has seriously damaged UK domestic politics, too. His prevarication over a ceasefire confirms to many of our Muslim fellow citizens that Britain is engaged in a secular war against the Arab world and by extension, against the Muslim world. He has thus made it harder to achieve what should be a goal of policy for any British government – to build a tolerant multi-ethnic society within our own islands. And though he chooses not to admit it, he has made us more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. These are not achievements of which a British prime minister should be proud.
But in spite of the disasters he has wreaked abroad, in spite of the growing scandal and incoherence of his performance at home, Mr Blair is still a consummate politician. How else can one explain the failure of his party to do the decent thing and get rid of him? Why else does it still appear as though he alone controls the timing and circumstances of his departure? One day we may feel sorry for Mr Blair for the damage he has done to his place in history and to himself. But that moment is not yet. For now, he should no longer attempt to stand upon the order of his going, but go. At once.
Sir Rodric Braithwaite, UK ambassador to Moscow 1988-92 and then foreign policy adviser to John Major and chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, is author of Moscow 1941 (Profile, 2006)