Byline by M.J. Akbar : The Long Goodbye
One must not be harsh: it is not true that liars do not have a conscience. Why else would Tony Blair edge, at the cautious pace that public life demands, towards the Roman Catholic Church? He dropped in on Pope Benedict XVI in Rome on his farewell free ride around the world, and British media is full of stories about his proposed conversion to Catholicism.
Why would Blair want to become a Catholic except to confess? This Catholic practice has a unique advantage. Its details can never reach the front pages of the "feral" British newspapers. The Father Confessor shares details of the guilt only with God. Such a privilege is not available in the many schools and sects of the Protestant dispensation, a revolutionary theological movement inspired by a German reformer in the early 16th century, Martin Luther, because, in his view (with much evidence to back him) the Papacy had become dissolute. There were many venal sins that individual Popes were prey to, but Luther was angered most by the degeneration in the system of "indulgences" by which a sinner could, literally, pay his way out of sin. Money to the Church purchased forgiveness. The key to heaven lay in the treasury of the Vatican.
Protestants seek a solution. Catholics can get an absolution. True, matters are not quite so simple, for the Roman Church has long ended such deviations. Blair can’t sell the mortgage of his homes in London, and send a cheque to the Vatican appropriate to the dimensions of his lies on Iraq. But he is not turning into a Catholic to find out how many angels can dance on the head of a needle.
Somewhere in his conscience there must be a thirst for redemption. The guilt of young lives sentenced to war must be heavy.
It is entirely in character therefore that he is trying to relaunch himself as a missionary, with Palestine as his mission.
There is some confusion about the precise profile of the mission. His few remaining friends are suggesting that Blair has been appointed some sort of High Plenipotentiary who will bring peace to the Middle East with the same skills that he displayed to bring amity in Ireland. But Blair’s Boss, George Bush, has just put in a corrective. State Department officials clarified on Wednesday 27 June that his only responsibility is "shoring up" Palestinian institutions, and not trying to negotiate a peace deal, or "final status", between Israel and the Palestinians. This
latter job is for the Big Boys. And for a Big Girl. The State Department said that Condoleezza Rice would handle the serious bit herself, because, as she and Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have said, the United States is the only country Israel trusts as broker. Blair is a "true friend of Israel" agrees Olmert, but Britain is not the United States.
Blair’s mandate is really not much more than to ensure there is enough money for the Ramallah municipality to clear the garbage, and wheedle out all the Palestinian cash that Israel has withheld on one excuse or the other.
Blair’s parish is not even the whole of Palestine. He deals only with the part under the control of Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas and Gaza are out of his bounds. As presently defined, Blair has even less responsibility than once entrusted to the former World Bank President, Jim Wolfensohn, by the Quartet (America, European Union, Russia and the United Nations). Wolfensohn was told to get on with the economics of Palestine but to keep out of politics.
Blair, to state it simply, is no longer one of the Big Boys. He may or may not get a salary in his new mission, although he will certainly get a plane. I do hope, however, they don’t send the bill for the costs of the plane to Mahmoud Abbas. Nothing is impossible in the worldview of accountants.
Wolfensohn, whose sincerity and stature were beyond question, failed because the economics of Palestine is inextricably linked to its internal and external politics. Assuming Blair can manage more elbow room than a World Bank official, can he do any better at a moment of severe crisis?
What can Blair do as part-time envoy over the next one year that he could not do during ten years as full-time Prime Minister?
What can anyone do during an American election year, when balance is held hostage to election sensitivities? This process used to last less than a year. It has now extended to almost two years. New ideas do not get an airing during the missile wars of election debates. The risk of a missile becoming a boomerang is too high.
Blair’s mandate is limited to the patch controlled by Mahmoud Abbas. But the difficult part of the story is Hamas and the support it commands, not Abbas. Or is it the new strategy that Blair can mollycoddle Abbas while Israel goes to war with Hamas? It would be an easier war for Israel than Lebanon last year. Unlike hilly Lebanon, Gaza is flat, and Hamas is not Hezbollah.
Can Blair, perceived by most Muslims as part of the problem, reinvent himself as part of the solution? Blair represents a past that must be swept out of the way if a new route map is to be found. His successor, the new Prime Minister of Britain Gordon Brown, understands this. He has appointed David Miliband, a critic of the Iraq war and of Blair’s foreign policy, as his foreign secretary. Jack Straw led the campaign to make Brown Prime Minister but did not get his old job back because Straw was too closely identified with the war. Even before being sworn in, Brown said, "I would like to see all security and intelligence analysis independent of the
political process and I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to do that." This was as sharp a slap across the Blair face as it was possible for a colleague to deliver. It was candid admission that Blair had manipulated intelligence (a charge Blair has assiduously denied) to build his case for the Iraq war.
A last question: was giving Salman Rushdie a title the best career launch for a job as middleman in the Middle East? Or even for a role as do-gooder for Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine?
But there is some good news for Blair. His famed and accomplished ability to lie with smouldering conviction should stand him in very good stead in his new mission. Who wants the truth in the Middle East? No one. The truth would upset too many governments. It might even uproot some of them.
Blair now accepts that Iraq is a "disaster". In his farewell remarks, he expressed his sympathy for the British troops who had sacrificed so much in his cause. He wished both his friends and his foes well as he said goodbye, but could not hide his long-suppressed hatred for the "feral" media (in a category beyond either friendship or enmity) which had been instrumental in aborting his term to a mere ten years. But at no point during his long goodbye did Blair apologise for Iraq.
Being Blair means never having to say sorry. Except, possibly, in the solitude of a confession in a Roman Catholic church some time soon.