Wednesday, November 15, 2006

BLAIR'S DIPLOMATIC GAMBIT: WHAT DOES IT MEAN?




"My Lord Mayor, My Late Lord Mayor, Your Grace, My Lord High Chancellor, Your Excellencies, My Lords, Aldermen, Sheriffs, Chief Commoner, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Remembrance weekend took on a special poignancy this year. No longer do we only look back, nostalgia mixed with emotion and pride, on the supreme sacrifices of two World Wars. In this century, a new and unconventional enemy has appeared: a global terrorism, based on a thoroughly warped misinterpretation of Islam, which is fanatical and deadly. It was present for years but little noticed by us, before 9/11. Since 9/11, it has cast its shadow over the Western world.Just as the situation is evolving, so our strategy should evolve to meet it.

Inside Iraq we should empower the Iraqi leadership that wants to take responsibility - that knows that they, not us, must lead and win the fight against terrorism. To do this, effectively, they need our support, politically, in their economy and for their armed forces.

First, we need a strong political compact in Iraq led by the Iraqi Government to bring all parties together, with clear commitments to non-sectarian government and to democracy; Second, we need to build Iraqi governing capability, especially in the disbursement of money for reconstruction and rebuilding of the economy;
Third, we must plug any gaps in training, equipment and command and control in the Iraqi Army and help the new Interior Minister root out sectarianism in the police, which in turn will allow us, within the timeframe set down by General Casey, to transition to Iraqi control.

However, most crucial is this. Just as it is, in significant part, forces outside Iraq that are trying to create mayhem inside Iraq, so we have to have a strategy that pins them back, not only in Iraq but outside it too.

In other words, a major part of the answer to Iraq lies not in Iraq itself but outside it, in the whole of the region where the same forces are at work, where the roots of this global terrorism are to be found, where the extremism flourishes, with a propaganda that may be, indeed is, totally false; but is, nonetheless, attractive to much of the Arab street.

That is what I call a "whole Middle East" strategy.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding that this is about changing policy on Syria and Iran. First, those two countries do not at all share identical interests. But in any event that is not where we start.

On the contrary, we should start with Israel/Palestine. That is the core. We should then make progress on Lebanon. We should unite all moderate Arab and Moslem voices behind a push for peace in those countries but also in Iraq. We should be standing up for, empowering, respecting those with a moderate and modern view of the faith of Islam everywhere.

What is happening in the Middle East today is not complex. It is simple. Iran is being confronted over its nuclear weapons ambitions. Its stock market has lost a third of its value in the last year and foreign credit is increasingly hard to come by. The statements of its President - such as wiping Israel from the face of the earth - are causing alarm, even in Iran.

To be fair, they have a genuine, if entirely misplaced fear, that the US seeks a military solution in Iran. They don't. But we all want Iran to suspend its enrichment process which if allowed to continue, will give them a nuclear weapon. Under the agreement we brokered in June, the US has said they will talk to Iran direct for the first time in 30 years, if they abide by the UN demand to suspend enrichment. But Iran is refusing to do it.

Instead they are using the pressure points in the region to thwart us. So they help the most extreme elements of Hamas in Palestine; Hizbollah in the Lebanon; Shia militia in Iraq. That way, they put obstacles in the path to peace, paint us, as they did over the Israel/Lebanon conflict, as the aggressors, inflame the Arab street and create political turmoil in our democratic politics.

It is a perfectly straightforward and clear strategy. It will only be defeated by an equally clear one: to relieve these pressure points one by one and then, from a position of strength to talk, in a way I described in July in my speech in Los Angeles: offer Iran a clear strategic choice: they help the MEPP not hinder it; they stop supporting terrorism in Lebanon or Iraq; and they abide by, not flout, their international obligations. In that case, a new partnership is possible. Or alternatively they face the consequences of not doing so: isolation.

The basic point I come back to, again and again and which I have made many times here - is that whether in Iraq, or Afghanistan or indeed combating terrorism here, these battles are inextricably bound together. It is a global issue. It needs a global response"
('PM's world affairs speech to Lord Mayor's Banquet' in www.number-10.gov.uk)


In his annual speech foreign policy speech made by the British Prime Minister, at the Lord Mayor’s banquet on Monday the 13th of November, Tony Blair, made a speech which garnered an extraordinary amount of attention from the media (sic) and commentator’s on both sides of the Atlantic. A typical reading of it could be found in the New York Time’s, the next day, which headlined the story as: “Blair urges Strategy Change in Mideast” (see: www.nytimes.com). As per the article, Blair, ‘confronted by likely changes in American policy on the war in Iraq’…called for a new ‘Western Strategy in the Middle East’…including the possibility of ‘a new partnership with Iran [Persia]’. This reading of the speech was given some currency by the inevitable leaks preceding it, which stated that Blair was actively in the process of trying to urge the American administration to:

“open talks with its great adversaries Syria and Iran (Persia), as a way to break the impasse in Iraq and the wider middle east” (the Sunday Guardian quoted in www.syriacomment.com)".


As per this reading, the trip taken to the region by Blair’s foreign policy advisor, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, in recent weeks, with trips to both Damascus and Teheran, was to prepare the groundwork for possible overtures by the UK, in conjunction with the its EU partners, and, hopefully the USA. Blair’s speech being the opening prelude to such pour parler talks (see especially for this line of thought: www.syriacomment.com & the Council on Foreign Relations ‘Daily Brief’ for 13th of November in: www.cfr.org).

On the face of it, this reading of Blair’s speech has a logic and a consistency which makes absolute sense, and, it is in keeping with the British PM’s concern to open up avenues of communication and dialogue, as well as pose as a peacemaker in his remaining time in office. Unfortunately, this analysis of Blair’s speech is quite incorrect! A close reading of the speech clearly shows that while Blair with one hand does offer Teheran and Damascus a dialogue of sorts, it is as Blair himself says one which requires that Teheran:
“to suspend its enrichment process which if allowed to continue, will give them a nuclear weapon….help the MEPP [Middle East Peace Process] not hinder it; they stop supporting terrorism in Lebanon or Iraq; and they abide by, not flout, their international obligations. In that case, a new partnership is possible”. Or alternatively they face the consequences of not doing so: isolation”.

With diplomatic and financial ‘isolation’ the inevitable result of Teheran’s (and one presumes Syria as well) failure to abide by the Anglo-American desiderata. Perhaps not so oddly enough, Blair’s confrere across the Atlantic, Mr. Bush, reiterated the same line of thinking, stating on the same day as the Blair speech that:
“We expect the Syrians to be, one, out of Lebanon so that the Lebanese democracy can exist; two, not harbouring extremists that create – that empower these radicals to stop the advance of democracies; three to help this young democracy in Iraq succeed. And the Syrian president knows my position….If the Iranians want to have a dialogue with us, we have shown them a way forward, and that is for them to verify – verifiably suspend their enrichment activities” (see: www.news.bbc.co.uk).

As the BBC’s Paul Reynold’s characterized it, both speeches very much represent a case of “talking tough from a weak position”. So, while the allegedly ‘new’ atmospherics inspired by the Congressional elections, and the upcoming retirement of Mr. Rumsfeld, may incline some to think that Bush, Blair, et al., are ready to open up negotiations with their opponents in Damascus and Teheran, this is far from the case. Indeed, recent days has seen renewed American complaints about Syrian behavior in Lebanon, and an agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Omert and Bush, that there was no point resuming any type of peace discussion with Syria. Either over the Israeli held Golan Heights or anything else (see: www.ft.com & www.syriacomment.com ). Indeed, notwithstanding the political drubbing that his party took last week, and, the failure of Anglo-American forces to stabilize Iraq, there does not appear to be at this juncture any signs that the Bush regime is prepared, much less ready yet, to face the prospects of offering meaningful concessions to Syria and Persia. Rightly or wrongly, any such maneuver by Washington, would be seen as a diplomatic defeat, by the USA. Something which I will predict for my readership, is never, I repeat never going to happen on Mr. Bush’s watch. He would much prefer to see, Iraq, fall into complete and utter chaos, rather than to admit, de jure, that he needs to assistance of parties he regards as being his opponents. The concept, that the USA, is in a weaken condition, and must act as such is not one that Bush and Blair seem willing to recognize, much less act upon. As Royal Institute of International Affairs specialist Rosemary Hollis comments:

“The US and UK have no idea that the shoe is on the other foot. It is they who are weak. Yet they still expect Iran [and Syria too] to make all the concessions” (see: www.Chathamhouse.org.uk).

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