According to his biographer Sir Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill viewed himself as a failure because he did not succeed in arousing his countrymen to the danger of Hitler when he might still have been stopped short of war. If so, Churchill's successor Tony Blair must have left office with a similar sense of failure over his inability over to arouse the Englishmen of his day to an appreciation of the threat of global jihad.
And that is too bad, for Blair had a clear vision and eminently sensible things to say on the subject. Last August, in the midst of the second Lebanon War, Blair gave a major address in Los Angeles to the World Affairs Council. He made it clear that the West is under attack from a "specifically Muslim version" of religious extremism. That religious extremism constitutes a world movement that "resembles in many ways early revolutionary Communism" in that it "doesn't always need structures and command centers or even explicit communication. It knows what it thinks."
With that insight, Blair could have solved the question that much exercised Britain last week: Were the terrorist car bombs planted in London and the attack on Glasgow airport homegrown terrorism or part of an international movement? Answer: Likely both. The terrorists were in the main homegrown, and may not even have received direction or training from any international terrorist group, like Al Qaeda. Yet their goals and tactics are very much those of a decentralized international jihadist movement.)
In the Los Angeles speech, Blair showed no patience for the familiar blame the West whining on the Left. He noted sarcastically that many proponents of that view are blissfully unaware that 9/11 preceded the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and was not a response to those wars. The existence of jihadist terror groups in virtually every major nation in the world, including those who cannot conceivably be said to be allies of the West, he argued, gives lie to the claim that the United States and its allies are to blame.
He further dismissed as "rubbish" the argument that global terrorism is the product of poverty, for its champions are hardly the avatars of economic development. Its goal in Iraq and Afghanistan is to prevent the spread of democracy and freedom, at any cost. "The purpose of the terrorism in Iraq is absolutely simple: carnage, causing sectarian hatred, leading to civil war," said Blair.
On Israel too, Blair eschewed the familiar cant. At a time when he was under tremendous pressure at home to demand an immediate halt to Israel's military actions in Lebanon, Blair acknowledged the tragedy of the deaths of Lebanese civilians. But he continued: "[J]ust for a moment, put yourself in Israel's place. It has a crisis in Gaza, sparked by the kidnap of a soldier by Hamas. Suddenly, without warning, Hizbollah, who have been continuing to operate in Southern Lebanon for two years in defiance of UN Resolution 1559, cross the UN blue line, kill eight Israeli soldiers and kidnap two more. They then fire rockets indiscriminately at the civilian population of Northern Israel. Hizbollah gets their weapons from Iran, [whose] president has called for Israel to be wiped off the map."
And he legitimated Israelis' feelings of injustice that it is "only on their shoulders that the weight of the troubles of the region should always fall" and their fears "that in our anxiety for wider reasons to secure a settlement, we will sacrifice the vital interests of Israel."
RATHER THAN EMBARK on a lucrative international speaking career, in the manner of former president Bill Clinton, or seek to turn his vast array of connections into big bucks, like former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder or Israel's own Ehud Barak, Blair has now accepted an appointment engineered by President Bush as special envoy of the Quartet to the Palestinian Authority.
If such a position can serve any purpose at all, then Israel has reason to be well-pleased with the appointment of Blair: He is a friend of Israel, possessed of a clear vision of the threat of radical Islam, and blessedly free of the tendency to view the Palestinians only as victims with no responsibility for their plight. In short, he is a far cry from the EU's Mideast envoy Javier Solana.
At the same time, Blair has given signs on more than one occasion (even in the otherwise admirable Los Angeles speech) of subscribing to the dangerous fallacy that resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the Rosetta stone that will provide the solution to all the other ills of the Middle East. That tendency can only be exacerbated by the fact that resolving that conflict is his best hope of restoring his badly tarnished image both at home and abroad.
Britain's longest-serving modern prime minister, and the one-time wunderkind of British politics, it surely rankles with Blair that he left office so deeply unpopular – albeit for all the wrong reasons. His natural human desire to repair his legacy can be dangerous in peacemaking. The desire to secure a place in history led Bill Clinton to dramatically overreach at Camp David, and also helps explain the about face of Ariel Sharon prior to the Gaza withdrawal and Yitzchak Rabin's growing identification with the Oslo process.
Fortunately, Blair was not appointed as a mediator between the Palestinians and Israel, but rather as a special envoy to help prepare the Palestinians for statehood – a tacit recognition that they are far from ready for statehood today. As a mediator, there is, in any event, little that he could achieve in the current climate, as Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is about to find out, if she has not already. Israelis watched the recent goings-on in Gaza closely, and have no desire to have yet a third terrorist enclave on their borders. Even the architect of the New Middle East, Shimon Peres wrote in Yediot Acharonot last week, "Even if we were ready to pull out [of Judea and Samaria] we have no one to hand them over to at this stage, because of the Palestinian inability to establish a single army, and a single state that will assert their control over the territories."
Even some Palestinians have begun to show a bit more realism about their future. Salam Fayyad, the newly appointed prime minister (at least as far as the West Bank goes) described the recent savagery in Gaza, and the split of the Palestinian Authority into two as having "destroyed" the vision of a Palestinian state. Disgust with the current leadership runs very deep. In one recent Palestinian poll, 41% said they would like to see the Palestinian Authority dismantled, and 42% supported some kind of confederation with Jordan, a subject about which no Palestinian would have dared to speak, even a few months ago. Another poll showed that Palestinians now place attaining an independent state way down on their list of concerns – way behind ending the current anarchy and violence and restoring some minimal economic viability.
Fayyad told CNN, that he is eager to work with Israel , and that the seven years since Arafat lit the fires of the Al Aksa intifada have witnessed the deterioration of the Palestinian situation in every respect to the point of catastrophe. He vowed that "no longer will guns out of the purview of the national authority . . . be tolerated." (In response, the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade, which is nominally affiliated with Fatah, vowed that they would not allow themselves to be disarmed.) Fayyad even issued a directive to West Bank preachers that incitement to violence would no longer be tolerated in the mosques.
Does this glimmer of realism among the West Bank Palestinians offer Blair an opportunity to achieve something in his new role? Certainly he can repeat a message that any viable Palestinian government must exercise a monopoly over the armed forces in its territory. But he has no power to go out and take away the guns from all the various armed groups, nor even the ability to give President Mahmoud Abbas the courage to do so.
And he can emphasize the necessity of economic transparency with respect to foreign aid. Fatah is deeply despised, even on the West Bank, for its notorious corruption. Clips of Hamas fighters ransacking the Gaza mansions built by various Fatah chieftains with money that was supposed to go to the Palestinian people left an impression on the West Bank as well.
The need for transparency is a message the new prime minister Fayyad, a former World Bank official, certainly understands. Even the Fatah Old Guard knows that the days of its kleptocracy are limited. The best thing that Blair could do for the Palestinians is to make them understand that they cannot go on depending on the beneficence of the international community without taking any responsibility for their future.
Blair once described the biggest obstacle to peace not as the Palestinian desire to bring into being a Palestinian state, but the desire for the going out of being of the state of Israel. Now the Palestinians must show that they are truly committed to a better life for themselves more than they are committed to making life miserable for Israelis. That would entail, inter alia, tearing down the refugee camps, and directing international aid to building up an economic infrastructure not to buying off armed men. And it would mean a complete revamping of the state educational system and media away from incitement against Israel.
Should the new Palestinian government on the West Bank implement any changes in the directions indicated, then Blair will no doubt prove effective in obtaining new international funding. But his first task is to make the Palestinians understand that with aid goes accountability and benchmarks. For decades, Fouad Ajami observes, the Palestinians have lived on "a sense of historical entitlement [and the feeling] the world owed them a state come what may. . . . Now they know better."
Ajami's first statement is certainly true; whether the second one is also remains to be seen. A sense of entitlement dies hard. Blair's success in delivering the tough love message of Palestinian responsibility will also depend, in large part, on the willingness of the Europeans and other international donors, like UNRWA going along. (At least with respect to the entrenched UNRWA bureaucracy that's probably a non-starter.) If the international community keep pouring in money to keep the Palestinians barely afloat, regardless of what they do, as happened after the election of a Hamas government in 2006, then Blair can have no impact.
And even if the Europeans do play their role, the final decision will lie with the Palestinians themselves. The deep deformations in Palestinian society revealed by the recent bloodletting in Gaza – the result of a cult of violence unleashed by Arafat – are not of the type that can be cured overnight. Whether they can be cured at all is the question.