Should Tony Blair leave the Middle East alone?


Former British prime minister and member of the Middle East Quartet Tony Blair meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on  June 17. (Haim Zach/Israeli press office via EPA)

Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, can't seem to get enough of the Middle East. He was a leading proponent of a war in Iraq that many now consider an unnecessary and ill-fated adventure. He spent the seven years since he left office as envoy of the Quartet, the geopolitical bloc that's trying to steer the lurching Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He has both celebrated and condemned the Arab uprisings of 2011, all the while collaborating with myriad regional actors and governments through his lucrative Lond0n-based consultancy Tony Blair Associates.

In short, Blair has nailed his legacy (and his purse strings) to the region's fragile, tattered mast. But to what end?

Blair has been back in the news this past month, largely as the subject of criticism in his home country over comments made in the wake of the current crisis in Iraq. In a statement posted on his personal Web site in mid-June, he insisted the 2003 invasion wasn't to blame for the alarming gains made in Iraq by ISIS, a militant group whose origins can be traced back to the aftermath of the collapse of Saddam Hussein's dictatorial regime. "We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused [the current crisis]. We haven't," Blair wrote. He added: "The fundamental cause of the crisis lies within the region not outside it."

I explained in an earlier post the ways in which 2003 directly created the dilemmas now vexing Iraq. Blair himself appeared to backtrack  this week, acknowledging in an op-ed in this weekend's Financial Times that "Iraq of 2014 bears, in part, the imprint of the removal of Saddam Hussein 11 years ago." But he went on in the piece to stress that doing nothing has its "own consequences" and suggested, hypothetically, that an Iraq with Hussein still in power could still experience the sort of upheavals and violence that we've seen in recent years.

This has been met with scorn by Blair's detractors. Some, including former British ambassadors, signed a joint letter that was published this week, lambasting the former prime minister's record in the Middle East. Here are some excerpts:

In order to justify the invasion, Tony Blair misled the British people by claiming that Saddam had links to al-Qaida. In the wake of recent events it is a cruel irony for the people of Iraq that perhaps the invasion's most enduring legacy has been the rise of fundamentalist terrorism in a land where none existed previously. We believe that Mr Blair, as a vociferous advocate of the invasion, must accept a degree of responsibility for its consequences

They went on to harp on Blair's ineffectual record shepherding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process:

Seven years on there are still over 500 checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank. The Gaza Strip, severely damaged by Israel's 2009 bombing, remains in a humanitarian crisis, with 80% of its population reliant on foreign aid for survival. Israel continues to build settlements that are illegal under international law.

A Blair aide told the Guardian that the letter's authors comprised politicians and others from the "hard-left and hard-right" who were "viscerally opposed" to Blair.

But his questionable legacy extends beyond Iraq and the stalled peace process. Blair has sent mixed signals about the progress of the "Arab Spring" uprisings of 2011. Days after pro-democracy protests unseated entrenched Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, Blair saw the moment as a "huge opportunity" and said that groups long suppressed by Mubarak, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, were "not terrorists or extremists."

Fast forward three years, and he's singing from a slightly different song sheet. In January, Blair gave his backing to Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the military officer who overthrew the country's only democratically elected president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, last year. "The army have intervened, at the will of the people, but in order to take the country to the next stage of its development, which should be democratic. We should be supporting the new government in doing that," Blair said in an interview on Egyptian TV in January.

Sissi has since officially become president. Under his watch, the Egyptian government has rounded up hundreds of activists and dissidents as well as journalists. This week, a Cairo judge sentenced three Al Jazeera English journalists to prison terms in a case that has quickened outrage around the world. Sissi has elected not to challenge that decision. The relative silence of Blair -- and many Western leaders in office -- regarding the trial and its verdict is glaring.

Blair's interests are elsewhere. On Monday, it emerged that Blair is set to expand his Middle East portfolio as an adviser to the U.A.E. government. According to the FT, Blair has already commissioned a report looking into the "dangers" of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned once more under Sissi. The newspaper explains why the sheikhs in Abu Dhabi may be seeking Blair's outside voice:

Mr Blair has become an increasingly important contact for Abu Dhabi as tensions between the emirate and the UK have heightened. Abu Dhabi was rattled by the rise to power of Islamist parties after Arab uprisings in 2011 and officials accuse the Brotherhood of trying to sow trouble in the UAE. The UK, on the other hand, has been willing to deal with elected governments in the Middle East, regardless of their political orientation.

There's nothing wrong with Blair playing consigliere to oil-rich autocrats. But when set against his righteousness about moral action and democracy-building in the Middle East, it leaves quite a bit of room for discussion.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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