Blair has one last chance to defy Bush

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These are extraordinary times in Britain when criticising the lynch-mob execution of Saddam Hussein – which for many in the region turned a wicked and murderous tyrant into a dignified Arab victim – appears to be regarded as a brave expression of independent thought. Can things get more humiliating? Yes, they probably can. 

Looking back on the whole Iraq debacle, it is interesting that Tony Blair now denies he has been pathetic – declining to press on US president George W. Bush the case for multilateralism and restraint – and insists that he has in fact been bravely complicit – a true believer in every Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld decision. So perhaps this week he will be cheering a US military surge in Iraq and giving the president a thumbs-up as he rejects the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report. 

The prime minister’s total identification of the British national in­terest with the implacable folly of White House policy weakens moderate opposition in America to Mr Bush. Throughout 2002 and 2003, Mr Blair’s uncritical support for US policy hamstrung those in and outside the administration, like Colin Powell, who were trying to re­strain the neoconservative hawks. How were their warnings about the international implications of the headlong drive for war helped by Mr Blair’s promise that whatever happened he would back the president? Not only did we fail ourselves to exert any recognisable influence over the conduct of US policy, we also reduced the influence of those we might have regarded as like-minded internationalists in Washington.

Now Mr Blair seems set on repeating the error, arguing that the only good friends of America are those who take their cue from Bush-Cheney. The Baker-Hamilton report offers a difficult but plausible way out of the present bloody mess. At its heart is the proposition that Washington should internationalise the pressures on Iraqi leaders – émigré politicians, militia warlords and gangsters – to stabilise the country around devolved governing institutions and shared oil revenues. America should work with the United Nations, the five permanent members of the Security Council and Iraq’s six neighbours. Far better for America to share political responsibility in Iraq in this way than carry the can alone. 

The International Crisis Group, which has put forward similar proposals, has answered the question as to why neighbours, and particularly Iran and Syria, should help America escape the disastrous results of its policy. They, too, will suffer if Iraq falls apart, exporting its poisonous divisions (as well as refugees) to the whole region. 

Support from Syria and Iran will require Washington to make clear that its policy is not directed towards regime change in those countries, however desirable that may be. Syria needs to understand that the inquiry into the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister, has to be completed, though it is not directed at overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad. We should want an independent and sovereign, though not necessarily pro-American, Lebanon and should press hard for serious negotiations between Syria and Israel over the occupied Golan Heights. 

Iran is not going to surrender what it regards as its main political assets in the region – its relations with Syria, Hamas and Hizbollah – nor accede to UN pressure on nuclear policy without a new serious engagement with America and Europe. 

Present western policy on Iran, with the most modest of sanctions in place and no tougher agreed sanctions likely, will only lead inexorably to Iran pursuing a military nuclear ambition with no constraint whatsoever: this would be the worst of all worlds. We should accept that Iran can develop a civil (though not military) nuclear capacity under a stringent and intrusive inspection regime. Iran is more likely to agree and, if stronger sanctions are needed, it would be easier to rally Security Council support behind this policy than any other. 

Is Mr Blair prepared to stand up to Mr Bush over engaging Iran and Syria and would he oppose a military strike by America or Israel on Iran? Jack Straw, former UK foreign secretary, did not improve his chances of keeping his job by publicly rejecting this option. 

We know that Mr Blair believes that the Middle East peace process should be revived and that this is at the heart of the region’s problems. He has himself tried to raise the process from the dead, though there is inevitably a sadly Walter Mittyish aspect to his Middle East diplomacy these days, with his credibility in shreds because of Iraq.

But it really could help, as Angela Merkel, German chancellor, prods Mr Bush into calling the quartet out of retirement, if Mr Blair were to work with other European Union leaders to develop a position that went beyond limping a few paces behind whatever Washington is prepared to do. There will be no successful renewal of Middle East peace talks unless Europe is prepared to develop its own position without allowing the US and Israel to gut whatever Brussels proposes.

Europe, like Mr Blair himself, has to take its growing share of responsibility for the deaths and destruction of hope in Palestine and Israel.

• Lord Patten will answer your questions on the points raised in this article in an online Q&A. Post him a question here

Lord Patten is chancellor of Oxford University and former EU commissioner for external affairs

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