Ask the expert: Blair, Bush and the Middle East

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“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”, writes Chris Patten, chancellor of Oxford University and former EU commissioner for external affairs, in the Financial Times.

Lord Patten believes that “the Baker-Hamilton report offers a difficult but plausible way out of the present bloody mess”, but, he argues, Tony Blair’s failure “to exert any recognisable influence over the conduct of US policy also reduced the influence of those we might have regarded as like-minded internationalists in Washington.”

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? Has Blair’s support for Bush undermined the Baker-Hamilton proposals to seek an international solution to Iraq?

The FT’s Rob Minto put your questions to Lord Patten.

Download and listen: Rob Minto puts FT.com readers’ questions to Chris Patten

Chris Patten - Blair has one last chance to defy Bush


Rob Minto: Lord Patten, in your article you argue that there’ll 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. One of our readers asked a question: “how would such European influence be co-ordinated and delivered in a way which would be accepted as authoritative by both sides?” That was from Richard Moon.

Chris Patten: The quartet has included the European Union as well as the UN and Russia and the original road map was a document actually drawn up by European Foreign Ministers, in particular the Danish.

The insight that the road map offered was that we should encourage both sides to move at the same time. Political development should be parallel rather than sequential in the Middle East. What’s happened so far is that invariably one side has refused to shift because it’s said the other hasn’t shifted.

The essentials of the road map have been ignored by the US and certainly by the parties on the ground. What Europe should do is insist that we go back to the approach advocated by the road map. Europe should also recognise that, while America is going to play the major international role with Palestine and Israel, there is an important role for Europe to play and that it can’t simply echo whatever Washington says.

The trouble at the moment is that there isn’t really a US policy on Palestine and Israel, which means that Europe has latched itself to a vacuum. I think it is more likely to push the Americans into being more proactive if Europe itself was prepared to be more proactive, arguing for what was proposed in the Geneva Initiative, which is still the best way forward for Palestine and Israel.


RM: Well, one of our readers, Sami Al-Sayed from Bahrain, has suggested the will and enthusiasm of Europe to resolve the Arab/Israel problem lost its momentum a long time ago. Should the US be begging Europe to mediate rather than the other way around?

CP: No, the US shouldn’t be begging Europe to mediate but Europe should recognise that there is more likely to be a settlement if the international community as a whole takes a hand and pushes both parties into negotiations.

I was one of a large number of former presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers who last autumn advocated bringing together an international conference to press Israel and the Palestinians to go back to negotiations. I think international pressure has to include Europe as well as Russia and the UN and the Americans.


RM: One of our readers, Mary Seaton, in London, asks: “isn’t Europe’s influence on America’s Middle East policy relatively weak compared to the weight of America’s Israel lobby?” You mentioned Europe. Do you think she has a point?

CP: I do, particularly if Europe doesn’t speak up.

It doesn’t seem to me to be outlandishly provocative for Europe to support more explicitly the principal conclusions of the Geneva Initiative which was, after all, the work of both the Palestinians and Israelis. And nor does it seem to me to be absurd for Europe to press very hard for the outline of an agreement which was after all almost reached at both Camp David and Kaaba under President Clinton.

Since then we’ve drifted further and further away from peace and there has been more and more bloodshed. Every time one thinks that things couldn’t get conceivably any worse in Palestine, they do.


RM: A lot of our questions have been about Iran and the likely scenarios of what the US might do with regards to Iran. John Wosner in London says, “I cannot see why you believe any negotiations with Iran at this time are going to succeed even though Europe’s engagement with her over many years has failed to produce any constructive results.” Do you share that view?

CP: One of the problems at the moment, and it affects Syria as well as Iran, is that it appears that a regime change is the centrepiece of American policy in the region.

It’s extremely difficult to engage the Iranian impression that what you’re actually trying to do is to get rid of the existing regime, whatever we outside might think of it. It’s certainly more extreme than it was, arguably more extreme because we didn’t try to connect constructively with the previous government of President Khatami. I think that we’re heading into a diplomatic cul-de-sac in our dealings with Iran.

Present policy isn’t going to prevent them from putting themselves in a position where they could in the future develop nuclear weapons and we’re going to be humiliated since we won’t be able to assemble an international coalition enforcing sanctions tough enough to get the Iranians to do what we would like.

I think we have to engage constructively with the Iranians. I think that we have to recognise that we’re unlikely to be able to stop them completing the fuel cycle and at least developing the capacity to produce civil nuclear power.

I think we should concede that point but hedge it with an intrusive inspection regime and postpone their development of nuclear power as long as we can but also ensure that it’s as transparent as possible. That way I think we’re more likely to be able to prevent them developing a nuclear military option.

Present policy will accomplish nothing. Sanctions won’t work because they won’t be tough enough and they’ll go on developing their nuclear capacity. At least an alternative would re-engage them. Unfortunately what has happened, with the refusal to talk to them by the Americans and with the chaos in Iraq, is that Iran has been made into an even bigger and more significant regional player.


RM: One of our readers, DK Matai of London raises the possibility of a pre-emptive strike on Iran by Israel or America and asks “what’s the probability behind such an action. Where will it leave European powers and the world including China and India should such an action materialise?”

CP: I said in my article that I hoped that Mr Blair would speak out against any such option. It’s noticeable that it didn’t seem to do Jack Straw’s career chances at the Foreign Office any good by saying that he thought that it was inconceivable that that Americans would use military force against Iran. I think it would be an absolute disaster. I don’t think it would work - at best it would only put back their development of nuclear weapons by a short time.

Secondly, it would guarantee that they would commit themselves to developing nuclear weapons. Thirdly, it would encourage them to behave even more irresponsibly in the region and, fourthly, it would presumably have a devastating impact on the flow of oil.

So, I think it would be a complete disaster and would throw away such moral authority that we still have and I hope that privately and, if necessary, publicly that the British government and other European governments will say that.


RM: You mention Prime Minister Tony Blair and we’ve had many questions on his role. One question from Luca Salice in London is, “is there anybody in the UK willing to challenge Blair’s foreign policy blunders as the Baker Hamilton Commission has done in the US? The Tory’s don’t seem keen at all.”

CP: I think the Conservatives have been a little more outspoken than they were, for example, in arguing that it’s extremely sad that Baker Hamilton has been sidelined in the way that it has. There were, of course, a number of Conservatives who opposed the Iraq invasion in the first place, not just me from Brussels.

I think I can say that every living former Conservative foreign minister was against the invasion of Iraq and there are some Conservatives, like Kenneth Clarke, who are vociferous in expressing their opposition. So, a number of Conservatives and a number of the Labour Party were strongly against what happened. The trouble is that we live in a world in which it’s very easy for a prime minister and a cabinet to simply go to war on their own. I think one result of what’s happened in Iraq is that far more authority will be put in the hands in the future of Parliament.


RM: Dr Sajjad Ishaque from Guildford in Surrey claims that “the democratic process in this country has failed to stop Blair from going to war. Is it the country’s failure that only one man decides?” One thinks of the large protests in London and the opposition within the Labour Party.

CP: I think it is a failure of our democratic system. I think that will history will judge Blair on Iraq in much the same way that it judged Anthony Eden on Suez. I think they were both policies to a very considerable extent driven by a Prime Minister with appalling consequences.


RM: P. Hydes from Barnsdale asks, “is it the likelihood of Blair disassociating himself from the US and the neoconservatives unlikely as to do so would be to admit the mistakes of his Iraq policies to date?”

CP: I fear that may well be true. It does rather raise the question of why he aligned himself so early and so wholeheartedly with the policies of neoconservatives and American unilateralists.

This isn’t a question of whether or not Mr Blair and the rest of us are pro or anti American, it’s a question of whether or not we agree with the policies of this particular American government. Mr Blair seeks to fudge the distinction. You can be pro American, as I am, while being very critical of the policies pursued by Mr Bush and Dick Cheney and it does no service to the transatlantic relationship to pretend that that’s not the case.

After all, a large majority of Americans are opposed to what is happening in Iraq and nobody claims that that therefore makes them un-American. I think that Mr Blair convinced himself that, first of all, when push came to shove, whatever happened, Britain had to be enthusiastically behind the US. Fortunately Harold Wilson didn’t make that mistake over Vietnam.

Secondly, I think he thought he could be genuinely influential with the United States both over its Iraq policy and over the Middle East and there is no evidence whatsoever that that had actually happened. When you read the library of books on the Iraq adventure you don’t find very many references to Blair or Britain. We’ve been literally taken along for the ride.

Unfortunately one result of Mr Blair’s uncritical public support for President Bush’s policy is that American moderates, who might have been able to reign in American policy, have themselves been weakened because Mr Bush and Mr Cheney have always been able to point to Britain’s support which has, of course, led to other people supporting a policy which has been a terrible disaster.


RM: Looking forward to after Tony Blair’s departure, one reader from the United States, Andrew Evans in Maine, asks “what will Gordon Brown’s likely stance be regarding the US/British position?” He’s obviously assuming that Gordon Brown will become the UK’s Prime Minister. “Do you believe he will adopt a more European approach and do you think, a united European approach coupled with the growing international influence of China, that the US political global influence to the world will decline?”

CP: I’m not sure whether the choice is between an European approach and an American approach. I think the choice is between uncritically going along with President Bush and taking a rather more independent position. I don’t think anybody really knows what Mr Brown believes about foreign policy but my guess is that he won’t be as unequivocal a supporter of Bush’s foreign policy as Mr Blair has been and, of course, he’ll be a help to keeping a bit of a distance by the fact that we’re almost into the last 18 months of Mr Bush’s presidency.

So, Gordon Brown will soon be dealing with a different president and a different administration. I don’t necessarily think that we are seeing the end of America’s predominant global influence. I certainly hope not because America has been on the whole an extremely constructive superpower and leader of world opinion but there’s no question that America is going to have to recognise, as will Europe, that we’re now dealing with a different world in which there’s hardly a single global problem that we can solve without the involvement of China and India.


RM: John Rhys from the UK asks “the UK’s been reluctant to oppose the US foreign policy issues to any significant degree since the 1950s. Has this reflected fear over the consequences of any significant departure from the prevailing Washington line and do these concerns still apply?”

CP: I think that there has been a tendency in British foreign policy to believe that we should play a role, to borrow the old metaphor, of Greece to America’s Rome, that we should behave like a sort of Edwardian retainer in the American household.

It’s not very flattering to be American since it’s suggested they’re muscle-bound and not very smart which is, I don’t believe, true. I think the Americans were extremely smart in the years after the war in helping to create the institutions of global governance which on the whole have worked for the last 50 years.

I do think that the United Kingdom has overestimated its influence in Washington and that we have not recognised that our major influence on America and globally in other respects today should be as an enthusiastic member of the European Union. The European Union is far from perfect and faces some real tests of its credibility at the moment on eastern Afghanistan but a middle-ranking country like the UK, say, will not count for as much outside the European Union as it does inside.


RM: One question from Germany, and touching on the subject of Syria, from Osamu Kawana from Frankfurt. He asks “Syria will be able to play a constructive role only if the return of Golan Heights is assured in a concrete schedule. What can Mr. Blair do about that?”

CP: I think that, just as we have to engage with Iran, so we have to engage with Syria. Once again it looks as though American foreign policy is directed towards regime change in Syria.

I think that it is important for us to press Israel to begin negotiations with Syria over Golan. I suspect that they Syrians would be more enthusiastic about those negotiations, as it is sometimes suggested, and sooner or later, of course, a negotiation on Golan has to be part of an overall Middle East settlement.


RM: One question from Jim Wilkinson in the United States ask why Blair has supported President Bush. The Bush/Blair friendship has been seen as a big factor in a lot of Britain’s support for the war in Iraq. He asks “why Mr. Blair has supported a Conservative Republican as strongly as he has. Could you explain and why has there been so little opposition to Blair from the Labour Party over Iraq?”

CP: I think the motivation of Mr Blair is extremely difficult to fathom and it can’t really be the case that he held the same world view as Dick Cheney, though I do think he sometimes sounds as though he has slightly too much in common with the neoconservatives.

While I’m in favour of the promotion of democracy and freedom around the world, I think there is an unfortunate gap between the Gladstone rhetoric Mr Blair uses about it and what we’re actually able to do as the United Kingdom to accomplish it. Why has he been such an uncritical supporter of President Bush? It’s a considerable puzzle but it’s certainly managed to secure him the enthusiastic endorsement of Rupert Murdoch and his newspapers and so maybe that’s the payoff. Maybe we will one day see Mr Blair as the non-executive director of News International.


RM: Following the announcement from President Bush that he’s sending more than 20,000 troops to Iraq, Dafydd Taylor of Hull asks, “regardless of which exit strategy we seek, surely the first thing to do is admit the inevitable? Iraq is as much a defeat for American allies as was Vietnam. There’s no possibility of leaving a unified stable and democratic Iraq behind. At what point do you think Britain and American will be able to do that?”

CP: I think that one of the strong arguments for us trying to engage other members of the Security Council and Iraq’s six neighbours in the politics of the crisis is to avoid it becoming simply a calamitous defeat of the United States, which would be not only bad for America but bad for the rest of us.

I think that trying to engage the Iraq neighbourhood in finding a political way out of this terrible bloody mess is not a sign of weakness - it’s likely to be the best way of securing as near to a satisfactory outcome in Iraq as is now possible and would stand the best chance of avoiding the poisonous divisions in Iraq infecting the whole region, not least through floods of refugees into surrounding countries.


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