Oh to be a fly on the wall at Labour’s National Executive Committee meeting, when Tony Blair greets the arrival of it’s n newest member, Walter Wolfgang. The octogenarian left-winger was roughly ejected from last year’s Labour Party conference for heckling the Foreign Secretary, and was detained by police under one of the PM’s Prevention of Terrorism Acts. His election last week by Labour’s constituency parties is an eloquent snub to the authority of Tony Blair.
That these two figures are expected to coexist on what is supposedly Labour’s ruling body tells us a lot about the current state of the Labour Party. Walter Wolfgang is the very model of unreconstructed old Labour – as principled as he is uncompromising; as tenacious as he is sometimes tedious. Blair loathes everything he stands for, and the feeling is mutual.
I moderated a debate on Iraq during one of Wolfgang’s recent speaking tours – but you don’t moderate Walter, he doesn’t really attempt to engage with different points of view. In Walter’s World everything done in the name of Israel, America or Britain is evil and to be condemned, while the actions of its enemies are invariably excusable and more often than not the result of past infamy by the West.
Okay – he’s probably right on most counts. And as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, he can neither be accused of being anti-semitic in his hostility to Israeli “imperialism”, nor naive about the nature of dictatorship in his opposition to the toppling of Saddam. But while Walter Wolfgang is an independent spirit, and represents signs of life in Labour, there also is a troubling naiveté his brand of anti-American conviction politics. It is the Manichean mirror image of Tony Blair’s. In a strange way, they were made for each other.
The Prime Minister dismisses complexity and misrepresents the reality of politics in the Middle East. He wants a clear cut case of good versus bad, and wants very clearly to be seen in the former camp. The bad guys are clearly those Islamic extremists, with bombs and beards, their penchant for martyrdom and their “lack of concern for human life”. Simplistic analysis invites simplistic solutions – of which the most simple-minded is to place an unjustified faith in military action. The Prime Minister’s apparently uncritical support of Israeli foreign policy has alienated much of the world and most of the Labour cabinet.
I say “apparent” because, of course, Tony Blair is not wholly uncritical of Israel’s attitude to the dispossessed Palestinians. He said again, last week, that Anglo-American objectives in the Middle East would be lost if there wasn’t movement on the creation of a Palestinian homeland. Unfortunately, this did not stop him endorsing the Israeli military action in southern Lebanon, which in its indiscriminate ferocity amounted to state-sanctioned terrorism if not actual war crime. Indeed, Israel’s apparent determination to clear hundreds of thousands of Shia Muslims from their homes in Southern Lebanon could be seen as a kind of ethnic cleansing.
It emerged last week, that Tony Blair knew in advance of Israel’s plans to bomb Lebanon back to the stone age, and that he did little if anything to try to stop it. He clearly believes – despite all evidence to the contrary – that massive military retaliation is a legitimate and effective way of winning the hearts and minds of the Middle East to those Western values he is so enthusiastic about. Lebanon may have to be destroyed so that it can be liberated from “extremism”. And if they don’t want to be liberated, well, they’ll just be destroyed.
But military supremacy is not enough, it is never enough, otherwise he Arab-Israeli dispute would have ended after the Six Day War in 1967. It may well be that the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrullah, is an anti-semitic ogre. But killing 900 Lebanese and destroying the country’s infrastructure is hardly going to endear us to the people on the ground.
In Iraq, the Lebanon and the West Bank, we have blundered around, supposedly spreading democracy and freedom, but actually killing tens of thousands of civilians and destroying the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands more. Hard to appreciate the moral superiority of the liberal democratic West when bunker busting bombs and fragmentation grenades are being lobbed at you by your liberators.
In Iraq. as the leaked memo from the former British Ambassador to Baghdad, William Patey confirmed last week, the country is fragmenting and falling into civil war – just as critics forecast. The invasions of Iraq and Lebanon have immeasurably strengthened the very terrorist and fundamentalist groups which the invasion was supposed to eradicate. We have destroyed what unity the nation of Iraq possessed by a vainglorious display of military firepower and botched nation-building.
As for security – well, British soldiers are dying once more in Afghanistan, four years after the dispatch of the Taleban. Hezbollah rockets are killing civilians deep into northern Israel. Pro-Western Arab states are speechless with fear, while demagogues like Iran’s Ahmedinijad and Hezbollah’s Nasurrah (?) are becoming popular heroes of Muslims across the region. The terrorist threat has receded for now from Europe and America, for the time being. But the bombers will be back – many home grown. The Muslim communities in Britain are alienated as never before – as was made clear by condemnation of British policy by the moderate Muslim Labour MP Mohammed Sarwar.
Rarely in history has a foreign policy proved to be such a comprehensive failure as the Bush/Blair doctrine on the Middle East. We have allowed ourselves to be portrayed as the aggressors by being, well, the aggressors. We invaded Iraq on a false pretext about weapons of mass destruction, then claimed that it was Saddams’ infamy, and now belatedly rationalise the exercise on the grounds it was necessary to to spread Western values. We have indeed “changed reality” in the Middle East, but it is the reverse of what was intended. Instead of creating a democratic domino effect, spreading liberal values across the Arab world, we have united much of the Arab world against democracy.
We have given credence to the fundamentalist claim that the West is on a religious crusade against Islam. Well, that’s what it looks like on the ground. The worrying thing is that Mr Blair seems positively to relish the fight against what he now calls the “arc of extremism”. He sees a dark conspiracy of Islamic fundamentalists, a kind of Muslim Mafia, behind ever suicide bomber every insurgent, be they Ba’athist, Hezbollah, Palestinian, Taleban, Chechen. Forget the aching religious and communal differences in the Muslim worlds. Forget that Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden loathed each other; that the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect was born in pro-American Saudi Arabia.
Forget also that Hezbollah and Hamas have been playing the very democratic game in Lebanon and Gaza which we are supposed to be fighting for. Hezbollah is part of the elected government in Lebanon and Hamas was freely elected by Palestinians. What clearer testimony to failure than that the people we say we are fighting for should vote for the terrorists?
You would think that this might raise some question in the back of the PM’s mind about the wisdom of pursuing Israeli-American military adventures. But this is one Prime Minister whose conviction in his own correctness is an of article fo faith. He never asks questions, and when they are put to him, he invariably responds that the wisdom of whatever he has embarked upon is self-evident. It is simply “the right thing to do”.
This is Messianic nonsense, and deeply worrying. It’s often said that Tony Blair, too long in office, has succumbed to Thatcher disease – an inability to see past your own rhetoric. However, Margaret Thatcher was never as bad as this. At her best, the former Tory Prime Minister was an intelligent woman who confronted a very real nuclear threat to civilisation posed by a decadent Soviet Imperialism. No need to invent weapons of mass destruction then.
Now, I don’t want to indulge in Thatcher romanticism – she was in many ways a blinkered class warrior. However, Thatcher didn’t go around starting wars for the sake of it and she had the wisdom to realise that the emergence of the reforming Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachov represented a real opportunity to achieve international reconciliation. Would Tony Blair have seen half as astute?
There was indeed a clash of civilisations during the Cold War, a nuclear threat to democracy by the Soviet Union, and many on the British Left have failed to come fully to terms with the extent to which they ignored or diminished that threat. I suspect Walter Wolfgang would find little to applaud in Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy, even with the passage of time. But Tony Blair has gone to the other extreme – he has gone out of his way to seek a generalised clash with the Muslim world. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and he is the prophet.
“We are fighting a war, not just against terrorism”, the PM said in Los Angeles last week, “but about how the world should govern itself in the 21st Century”. It is all about “values”. At the court of Sun proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, in San Francisco, the PM insisted that it was a battle between “modernity and tradition”.
So, what would the MP regard as victory in this battle of values? Presumably, a pro-Western Christian Lebanon with a subordinated Shia minority. Acceptance by the Palestinians of a Gaza ghetto. Pro-American governments in Iraq and Iran and a commitment to liberal capitalism throughout the Middle East? He is getting precisely the reverse – a headlong flight by moderate Arab opinion into the arms of militants. Even a majority of Christians in Lebanon are now supporting Hezbollah. As in the London Blitz, the Israeli bombs have united Lebanon – against Western values.
Back home, the Labour Party is preparing for what will be its most difficult party conference since the dark and divisive days of the 1970s, when the party was split between Bennite socialists and moderate social democrats. In many ways the situation is worse today. The membership has dwindled, the trades unions are a shadow of their former selves, and Labour is bankrupt. The police are investigating charges of corruption over the sale of honours. Labour MPs openly condemn their leader over a range of issues from health service reforms to detention without trial.
The party is not so much divided amongst itself , as united against its leadership – at least as far as the Middle East is concerned. The fact that opportunists like Jack Straw have stood out against Blair, by calling for the ceasefire which their leader didn’t, are a sign of the PM’s collapsing prestige and authority in Labour. So is the election of Walter Wolfgang to the NEC.
Labour people are no longer afraid of Tony Blair, and even the most supine and biddable cabinet in post war British history seems belatedly to be getting off its knees. All it needs is a leader. Unfortunately, Gordon Brown has retreated, as so often over Iraq, into one of his deafening silences. The Chancellor has given formal backing to the Prime Minister’s war on terror, even remarking during the election campaign that he would have acted exactly same over Iraq as his leader.
It’s one of those intriguing “what ifs” of modern political history. Should Gordon Brown have seized the moment and delivered the coup de grace to stricken Blair? A broader question: could Brown, by acting earlier, have prevented this disaster in the Middle East? And will he have stored up trouble for himself when he takes over?
What we do know is that whatever Gordon Brown thinks of the Bush/Blair approach, he has never lifted a finger actively to oppose it. Even now, when the party is crying out for leadership against the Chancellor remains in the shadows, hoping still for that “orderly transition of power”, which Tony Blair is hinting might now be delayed for another year. I don’t think the Labour Party can wait that long.
If Tony Blair delivers his usual “I’m-going-on-and-I’ve-only-one-gear” speech in Manchester next month, the party could be plunged into turmoil. The divisions may become so deep, they simply cannot be healed. By his own inaction, Gordon Brown risks inheriting, not just ruins in the Middle East, but the ruin of his own party.