It was a sunny day in London, and newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair was sharing a press conference with his American friend and mentor President Bill Clinton. The future of progressivism was the topic of the day, and the two leaders bathed each other in compliments. “This is the generation that prefers reason to doctrine,” explained the Brit. It is a generation “strong in ideals but indifferent to ideology, whose instinct is to judge government not on grand designs but by practical results.”
With all the end-of-era commentary about Blair’s relationship with President George W. Bush—”It was the last time they played Christopher Robin and Pooh,” joked Conan O’Brien after their final Rose Garden press conference—it’s easy to forget the Clinton-esque air of Blair’s first years in office. But now, with the so-called international quartet—the United States, Russia, European Union, and United Nations—making Blair its special peace envoy to the Middle East, it seems that Blair is about to wrap up his tenure as he started it: the Clinton way. That is, by failing to achieve the “practical results” he praised on that sunny day at 10 Downing Street.
Like Clinton, who also dedicated his last days in office to the momentous task of bringing peace to the Holy Land, Blair was not shy about the goals he would like to achieve: “The only way of bringing stability and peace to the Middle East is a two-state solution, which means a state of Israel that is secure and confident in its security and a Palestinian state that is not merely viable in terms of its territory, but in terms of its institutions and government,” he said. “I believe it is possible to do that, but it will require a huge intensity of focus and work.”
We can argue about whether he is correct that a two-state solution would bring stability to the Middle East—and whether his understanding of the nature of the problem is sufficient. In accepting the job and setting the bar so high, Blair acted like Clinton in more than one way. He seems to believe that by bringing his skills and dedicating “intensity of focus and work,” he can unravel the problems that many talented leaders before him were able to solve.
It’s the hubris of Clinton and the Clinton era. The idea that all the Israelis and Arabs need to solve their problem is a good-enough lawyer. Asking yesterday why Blair would accept the job, the Economist came up with this quirky answer: “Mr Blair has huge confidence in his powers of persuasion.” But so did Clinton before the Camp David summit in 2000. He was probably right about his persuasive powers but wrong in thinking that they would make the Palestinians—or the Israelis—make concessions that neither was ready to make.
And Blair will assume the job in less favorable conditions. The Palestinian territories are under the control of two separate entities—Fatah and Hamas—and mired in a low-scale civil war. The Palestinian people have a weak leader whose intentions are definitely good but whose ability to deliver is limited. Concessions that Yasser Arafat, the father of all things Palestinian, was not ready to make will be impossible for Mahmoud Abbas to make—if he wants to survive.
On the Israeli side, the leadership is also weak and unpopular. It has also been burned by grand promises, and it is worried about the Iranian nuclear threat looming over its head. Iran—stronger, bolder, more determined—will attempt to turn Blair’s efforts into mockery whenever he seems to achieve even minor successes.
Being the wise man that he is, Blair probably knows all that, but he still chose to take the job. He wants to “leave a legacy of peace rather than misery,” speculated the Economist. That’s a noble cause, worthy of Blair. The rational man he once claimed to be was just an illusion. When it comes to the Middle East, he has a Messianic streak (as do both Clinton and George W. Bush). And that is why he is the wrong man for the job.
Building institutions for the Palestinians and bringing the two sides closer to an agreement demands a long-term commitment to move forward in baby steps. Keep dreams in a vault and focus on the day-to-day “management of the conflict” to save lives and ease the pressure—and wait for a better opportunity. The appointment of Blair—a world celebrity with an ego to match—to mediate the conflict is meant to bring more attention, more money, and a higher profile to heal the bleeding wound. But the higher the profile, the higher the expectations, and as was proved at Camp David, the higher the expectations, the more painful the failure to fulfill them.