Blair Avoids a Grilling

Don’t be fooled by what you read in the British press. Tony Blair is still popular – in a small section of Washington, D.C., that is.

This week, Blair spoke via video conference to the panel of the Iraq Study Group (ISG). His contribution follows an invitation to share his views with the high-profile commission of "wise men" established by the outgoing Congress to rethink U.S. policy on Iraq.

It’s fortunate timing for the prime minister. Never has he been more despised at home. With the noose of a cash-for-peerages scandal tightening around his neck and the hope of influencing the choice of his successor evaporating, Blair has been struggling for political survival. The ISG provides a shot at clemency.

But why would a commission designed ostensibly to promote fresh thinking bother to canvass Blair’s opinions? One rarely turns to an arsonist for advice on rebuilding a house.

Perhaps the ISG naively thinks that its conclusions and recommendations will carry more weight if they reflect the views of the "international community," that contemptible and transparent euphemism for the Anglo-American alliance.

The arrangement, however, is mutually beneficial. An embattled Blair finds reason for hope in the predispositions of a commission snug in its bipartisan straitjacket. A passive ISG provides the ideal platform for his newly trumpeted "leadership" in tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a myth cultivated to prolong Blair’s grip on power within his own Labor Party.

Blair’s eagerness to talk to the ISG comes against the background of the recently defeated Commons motion to set up a British inquiry into the government’s handling of the war in Iraq. Although the progress of the war (or lack thereof) has not been subject to parliamentary scrutiny since the invasion, disgruntled Labor backbenchers failed to defect in sufficient numbers to carry the motion, some preferring simply to abstain. This was welcome news for a cornered prime minister who, in political terms, faced being strung from a lamppost. A different outcome is unfolding, however, on the other side of the Atlantic.

Exploiting the highly favorable terms of participation (i.e., no grilling, à la Galloway), Blair hopes to substitute the ISG commission for the domestic examination he so strenuously opposes and fears. Why is it necessary, he will argue with some justification, to rake over the same coals as the ISG? The opposition will be thrown on the defensive yet again as Blair delivers the "change in course" demanded by the British public. When added to the Hutton and Butler whitewashes, Blair will have scored an impressive hat trick.

One indisputable change is the tandem rhetoric emanating from the White House and its Downing St. branch office. "Getting Iran and Syria involved" is the latest buzz phrase exciting credulous observers, evidence, we are told, of a new conciliatory approach. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The precise translation of this ISG nonstarter is "Do not interfere in Iraq, or face the consequences," a cornerstone of U.S./UK policy since the invasion.

Spin trumps substance, however. Adept at staying one step ahead of his plodding critics in Westminster (opposition Conservative MPs obsessed with body armor, etc.), Blair is positioning himself to steal credit for what is shaping up as the boldest confidence trick yet – a Potemkin shift in U.S. foreign policy.

Blair’s cameo role in an American production will come in handy. Aside from a small number of politicians, few people in America honestly give a damn what the prime minister of Great Britain thinks. He could demand the liberation of Mars for all Americans care. Despite all the talk of punching above Britain’s weight, he has always been a sideshow in the American debate on Iraq. Even reaction to the potentially disastrous Downing Street memorandum was muted, leaving Blair resembling chewed gum stuck to Bush’s shoe.

With minds distracted by the recent congressional elections, his appearance before the ISG bears the hallmarks of a tour de force in a teacup. Blair’s coterie of transatlantic sycophants will rush to fill the news vacuum. Influential allies in the mainstream media (e.g., the Murdoch empire) will weave flattering tales of political daring and swoon over his efforts to push the U.S. along its “new course” (that is, the repackaged old course), proof that Britain’s prime minister is nobody’s poodle. His posturing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will also be hailed as something audacious and visionary, an impression reinforced periodically by nodding bien-pensants. The slightest lessening of tension in the Middle East will be traced back to his far-sightedness. A renewed Nobel Peace prize nomination campaign cannot be far off.

And so we arrive at the new legend of Tony Blair – an unshakable moral force and indispensable world statesman, guiding us out of a wider Middle Eastern morass in spite of Iraq, and star of a revamped"war on terror" (spearheaded by NATO with Blair at the helm?).

He may just pull it off. It wouldn’t be the first time his colossal incompetence was handsomely rewarded.