Friday, 2 May 2014

Blair on Putin.

Every now and then Tony Blair pops up out of nowhere and reminds us all he’s still out there on his private jet. It’s almost routine now. This time Blair tells us the West needs to focus on radical Islam. No surprise there. It’s an old message now. We’ve heard it all before. He ranked it alongside the environment in importance. Of course, it should go without saying that the politicians like Blair have never been as interested in combating climate change as they have been in waging wars in West Asia. For years all we’ve heard about has been radical Islamism and the threat it poses to liberal democracies. Yet in Blair’s mind it’s as if the West suddenly stopped focusing on radical Islam.

All of this is to be expected from Tony Blair given his record. What stands out is one of the suggestions Blair makes to this end. The former Prime Minister asks that the West put aside their differences with Russia over Ukraine. Of course, by Russia we know that the former statesman means Putin, as all statesmen see governments and countries as one in the same, just as when he refers to ‘the West’ he doesn’t mean the populations of America, Britain, and Europe. Usually ‘the West’ would only refer to North America and North-Western Europe, but since he has defined ‘the West’ in relation to Russia we can include Eastern Europe in this category as well. Like everything about Blair’s world we can only see it in its proper context.

In the ‘War on Terror’ the Russian Federation was a notable member of the coalition forged by the US with countries around the world. Back in 2001 Putin was fighting to put down an insurgency in Chechnya having flattened most of the country since the conflict first started. It was vital to the consolidation of his power in Moscow that the regions remain as Russian provinces. To some it was clear what this meant at the time. As Chomsky said in 2001 “We should look very carefully at this anti-terrorism coalition and who is joining it and why. Russia is happily joining the international coalition because it is delighted to have U.S. support for the horrendous atrocities it is carrying out in its war against Chechnya. It describes that as an anti-terrorist war. In fact it is a murderous terrorist war itself.”[1] Certainly, Blair and Putin understood this then just as they understand it today.

The tussle over Ukraine is a non-issue for Blair in his private jet. He has more pressing issues to concern himself with, such as advising the Nazarbayev regime in Kazakhstan, the al-Sabah family of Kuwait, and King Abdullah II of Jordan. For Blair the personal is political and we should never take him as a neutral agent. He stands as the Middle East Peace Envoy for the Quartet formed by the backing of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and the Russian Federation. Blair works closely alongside John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov. The Quartet was set up in 2002 in the still warm aftermath of the Second Intifada and the Israel’s war with Lebanon. The point of the Quartet has been to back ceasefire arrangements and try to bring about a peace settlement. But it’s long been clear what the arrangement is really about.

In his capacity as peace envoy Blair spends a week out of every month in Jerusalem and maintains warm relations with the Netanyahu government. He was conspicuously absent during Operation Cast Lead and chose to extend his holiday rather than comment on the unfolding bloodbath. Just as Putin has worked to build strong relations between Russia and Israel and continues to hold together the relationship in spite of the Ukrainian crisis. If there were any doubts that the Israeli government would fall in line with its American patrons those doubts were swiftly put to rest last month. On March 27th Netanyahu abstained from the vote at the UN General Assembly on a resolution on Crimea. No doubt, Netanyahu has the old refusenik voters to consider as his coalition with Avigdor Lieberman bids to hoover up as many of them as possible.

It doesn’t stop there. Israel looks forward to a free-trade deal with Russia. The Israeli government held a moratorium on arms sales to Georgia and turns a blind eye to Putin’s rampaging in the Caucasus; and in return Medvedev cancelled a delivery of missiles to Iran in 2009.[2] In its own aggressive expansionist designs Israel cannot help but find common cause with states which have traditionally sought to expand their boundaries. Of course, this is a relationship not uncomplicated given Russia’s support in weapons of Assad and, by extension, the Hezbollah. The main objective for the Israelis is to prolong negotiations in order to give them more time to expand even further. The Russians have no objection provided they can rely on Israeli and Western support for its operations to thwart the Chechen bid for independence.

Like everything about Middle East policy in the West it all comes down to Israel. So when Ariel Sharon finally died it wasn’t too surprising to see Tony Blair at the funeral service. There the peace envoy spewed forth about how the Bulldozer brought ‘iron determination’ to diplomacy as he had to the camps of Sabra and Shatila.[3] The Israeli government were more than displeased by the last minute change in policy towards Mubarak in the US. Netanyahu wanted total support even after it had become impossible to prevent Mubarak from being removed by his own goons. The reasoning was obvious. Israel does not need a rejuvenated Arab powerhouse on its border with the reins of government in the hands of its populace. Blair and Putin couldn’t agree more. This is what realists mean when they talk about ‘regional stability’.

Not many commentators seem to recall, or perhaps they don’t want to, Blair’s remark that Hosni Mubarak is “a force for good”.[4] As the military were displaced from power and democratic elections were held in Egypt the crusader was clear. He told the readers of the Evening Standard “democracy is not just a way of voting but a way of thinking”.[5] He emphasised the need for proper institutions and pluralism and individual freedoms and a modern economy. When the Muslim Brotherhood were dumped by military putsch last summer Blair reiterated these same words as a justification for the coup. The Arab masses weren’t ready for the democracy and, as always, need a strong leader, in his mind, the kind of man General al-Sisi looks for in his mirror every morning.

If the Quartet is a roadshow for the negotiations then we should know how to frame the importance of Russian support for it. All the states involved in the ‘peace process’ declare solemn support for the two-state settlement, the matters of when, where and how remain conveniently mysterious. As part of the Quartet, only the UN has been a serious forum for international opposition to Israeli aggression and support for a two-state settlement. The UN routinely votes through resolutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict and it votes unanimously in favour of a two-state settlement. The US uses it privilege on the UN Security Council to veto all resolutions and has done consistently for over thirty years now. Meanwhile the EU has been striking in its timidity to the US until recently when the Europeans passed a modicum of sanctions against Israeli settlements. It’s clear that the Russian Federation stands with the US to counterbalance any opposition which might creep out of the UN and the EU.

This article was originally written for Souciant on May 2nd 2014.

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