Blair’s brave new world is falling to pieces

Published in The Times (December 24th, 2010)

The adrenalin, the adulation, the buzz are still there for Tony Blair as he flits around the globe in his mission to make the world a better place. The past few days were typical, with one of Larry King’s last interviews on CNN squeezed in between a keynote speech on the future of Africa and a meeting with the President of the Palestinian National Authority.

As ever, the message from the former Prime Minister turned international peacemaker is one of hope and change, the language a familiar mixture of evangelical fervour and homespun realism. But as the decade ends, a decade that promised so much for the man who remade the Labour Party, his brave new world appears to be falling apart.

Put aside Iraq, the festering wound that continues to scar his reputation and which will be reopened early in the new year when he is summoned back to the Chilcot inquiry. Put aside too the sniping over the huge sums he is earning from Kuwait. Look instead at the three pillars upon which he has built his political afterlife.

From Africa to the Balkans to the Middle East, events have turned against him. Even as he continues to jet around the world, speaking at high-powered forums and holding private discussions with world leaders, Mr Blair’s rhetoric, reasoning and righteousness are looking increasingly threadbare when confronted with the realities of world disorder.

First there is the Middle East, where the peace process died another death this month. Its passing was marked by a statement from the United States abandoning efforts to persuade Israel to stop building on occupied land as a prerequisite to direct talks with the Palestinians. All those hopes raised by the election of Barack Obama, helped by the energetic efforts of Mr Blair as the international community’s special envoy, have been dashed upon the rocks of Israeli intransigence.

Even Mr Blair, for all his bright-eyed optimism, admits there is an impasse. Yes, the shuttle diplomacy will continue. And after three years’ work in the region, he can point to some successes, such as a slight easing of the embargo in Gaza and the lifting of a few checkpoints. But prospects for a diplomatic triumph that would seal his place in history and salve the painful legacy of the Iraq war remain depressingly elusive.

Then there is Africa. Last week Mr Blair went to Washington to set out his latest vision for the continent. There was much to admire in what he said. Mr Blair accepts the limitations of aid, understands why the Chinese have won such influence and, above all, argues for good governance and the rule of law.

The problem lies not with his words, but his deeds. For he is guilty of shameful hypocrisy through his close relationship with Paul Kagame, the charismatic President of Rwanda. Mr Blair, an adviser to this despot, even sent him a toe-curling message of congratulation after an election this year that was marked by the jailing of rivals, closure of newspapers and shooting of dissidents. The clampdown has since intensified.

Mr Kagame has created what one leading observer calls “a very well-managed ethnic, social and economic dictatorship”. Even worse is his involvement in the Congo conflict, where more than five million people have been killed. Rwanda has invaded twice with its own army, fought proxy wars using vicious militias and benefited from the proceeds of stolen minerals. A recent UN report documented 104 incidents of murder of Hutu refugees by Mr Kagame’s forces and allies; its authors said the worst incidents could, if proven, be classified as crimes of genocide. This is the man that Mr Blair still defends while arguing for good governance in Africa.

Finally there is Kosovo. Mr Blair was midwife to the nation’s birth after the meltdown of Yugoslavia when he backed Nato military intervention in 1999. Even now, 11 years later, he remains so revered there that just five months ago his friend, the Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi, gave him a gold medal of freedom.

But the shine has suddenly come off Kosovan independence in startling fashion. Mr Thaçi, a former leader of the brutal Kosovo Liberation Army, was accused of “industrial-scale” electoral fraud this month. Then a Council of Europe report unleashed a barrage of allegations, saying that he was a mafia boss whose gang murdered opponents, dealt drugs and killed prisoners to sell their organs even as Mr Blair was risking British lives to free his people. If proven, Balkan history will have to be rewritten once again — and to Mr Blair’s detriment.

Mr Blair was the prime minister who prided himself on an ethical foreign policy and still proclaims the need for a moral dimension in diplomacy. So it is deeply unfortunate that, as he prepares to face questioning over the Iraq war once again, he finds himself supporting an African despot accused of war crimes in the continent’s bloodiest conflict and a European leader accused of barbarism. That’s quite some journey, even for Mr Blair.

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