How strange it is that a president or prime minister should try to restore his muddied reputation in the waning days of his rule by turning to the mire of the Middle East. Richard Nixon, shortly before he was forced to resign in disgrace, made a trip to Egypt that was almost as reckless as it was pointless. ("You can't protect a president who wants to kill himself," his security chief told his physician after Nixon took needless risks while soaking up adulation from the assembled peasantry.) Bill Clinton, his rep badly stained by his performance in the Oval Office (as it were), opted for dramatic peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians at Camp David. They were make or break—and they broke. The violence that followed opened the way for a succession of continuing disasters: suicide bombings, needless wars, rising walls and crumbling polities.
Now it's the turn of former prime minister Tony Blair. According to various European officials, he spent the final days of his decade at 10 Downing Street lobbying for the role he assumed in Lisbon this morning as a special envoy for the Middle East. No longer representing a government, his mandate comes from what's known as the Quartet, a group pulled together informally after September 11, 2001, looking for ways forward in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The four members are the secretary-general of the United Nations, the foreign policy chief of the European Union, the foreign minister of Russia and the American secretary of state, all of whom were in attendance in the Portuguese capital for what one European diplomat referred to as Blair's "enthronement."
In truth, Blair's new assignment is a lousy job. The Quartet's biggest success these last six years was the 2003 roadmap that nobody has followed yet, so Blair doesn't have much to build on. And neither does he have much authority. He's not really a negotiator. According to the "terms of reference" laid out by the Quartet, he's more of an ombudsman for the Palestinians, helping the shards of their divided nonstate to get money and advice from foreign governments and cut deals with the private sector so that some day they can be "a peaceful and prosperous neighbor to Israel."
President George W. Bush welcomed the appointment of this "friend" and "visionary." But Bush's statement, while a great deal more formal than his famous off-mike summons—"Yo, Blair"—was almost as dismissive. Today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made it a point to call Blair's role, such as it is, "complementary" to other initiatives, such as they are.
Of course, if you care about the region and its people, you have to hope that Blair can work some miracles. There's no doubt he's "a great communicator, a great persuader," as a senior European diplomat described him in a private conversation earlier this week. He's a moral man, by his own lights, and a religious one. But it really is hard to imagine any face worse, at a semiotic level, to put on this largely symbolic mission.
Let's forget Blair's image as Bush's poodle, which is not only a cliché, it's misleading. Blair the Persuader was in fact the frontman who gave the ferociously feckless Bush international credibility at those critical moments when the White House made its worst decisions. It was the smooth-talking Blair, always so charming and so reasonable, who kept saying that the best way to avoid war with Saddam Hussein was to show that the United States and its allies were ready to fight—even though he knew perfectly well Bush's intention all along was to invade and occupy.
Blair held out hope that he could persuade Bush to take a much more active and balanced role in the Middle East peace process, even as Bush was throwing away the few carefully horded diplomatic bargaining chips the Palestinians ever had by dismissing their "right of return" and erasing the 1967 borders.
A year ago, in that infamous "Yo, Blair" chat at the G8, Bush had summoned the prime minister to talk about Lebanon, which was being punished by Israeli bombs even as Hizbullah's reputation for bravery and resistance continued to grow. The world was looking for Washington to force a stop to the carnage. Certainly the people dying on the ground were. Instead, Bush stalled, foolishly following the lead of a conspicuously incompetent Israeli government that thought it could win big. Blair volunteered to visit the region so he could keep the clock running and, in effect, the bombs falling: "I can go out and just talk." You've got to wonder if he's going to do the same thing now.
Blair's policies helped make Britain the No. 1 target for terrorists in Europe—including some who were born and grew up in England. And for good measure, as one of his last acts in office, the prime minister signed off on the knighthood that Queen Elizabeth gave Salman Rushdie, a figure that just about the whole Muslim world loves to hate.
Perfect. How could Blair imagine that he is the right man for this job? You almost have to feel sorry for him, so desperate is he to salvage his legacy after a record like that. You want to warn him off for his own good, and also for the Palestinians and Israelis. But I guess you can't protect a prime minister, or a region, that wants to destroy itself.