By Marina Hyde (THE GUARDIAN, 30/06/07):
Be of good cheer. Just weeks from today, former British prime minister Tony Blair will emerge from the where-are-they-now files to take his first trip as Super Middle East Peace Envoy Man (warning: may not actually possess superpowers).In a joint announcement on Wednesday, the US, UN, EU and Russia confirmed that Mr Blair would be adopting this role with immediate effect, and it emerged that his first trip would be to Ramallah next month. Ladies and gentlemen, the Quartet just acquired a fifth horseman.
Inevitably, the news saw him having to run the gauntlet of the sneerers who have occasionally dogged his initiatives and – perhaps because he has what might be referred to delicately as «baggage» in the region – there were those who were quick to imply that he was in fact the least appropriate candidate for the job in the known universe. This is patently not the case. The least appropriate candidate for the job is the chap in whose gift it seemingly was, though Mr Blair admittedly runs a close enough second. It was ever thus: only this February his Texan friend pipped him to the post in an Arab opinion poll to establish the most disliked world leader.
The view that there are Spice Girls with a better shot at engaging key Arab factions appears to be one endorsed by a remarkably broad church of analysts, given the region’s fabled inability to concur on anything. Almost the single notable exception thus far has been Fatah negotiator Saeb Erekat, who made the vaguely unsubstantial claim that «the Palestinians wholeheartedly support Mr Blair’s appointment».
Clearly, George Bush so loved the idea of Middle East peace that he sent his only lapdog to have a crack at it, despite the fact that messiahs have a history of running aground in the region. But then, the US president does have form with jobs-for-the-boys appointments that seem so preposterous that they must be presumed to be satirical. Do recall the time he put Henry Kissinger in charge of the 9/11 investigation, in which among other tasks the erstwhile secretary of state was required to divine why some foreigners disliked America so much.
On another occasion, Mr Bush bowed to overwhelming popular demand and brought John Poindexter back into public service, establishing under him an agency charged with achieving «total information awareness» for the purposes of counter-terrorism. You’d like to think Poindexter began by saying: «Well, I certainly have information on what kind of weapons any Iranian evildoers could use. Unfortunately, I don’t have the receipts for them any more on account of the fact we, uh, mislaid quite a lot of documents around that time.» Incidentally, those fond of trivia or irony or both may care to know that John Poindexter now sits on the board of a firm which claims to develop «the most powerful search, harvest and document federation technology in the world», so there’s every chance that the evidence trails in any future US government scandals will not be so maddeningly riddled with lacunae.
Yet even by President Bush’s own exacting personnel standards, the Blair appointment seems to indicate either a lack of seriousness or a lack of understanding over how to proceed in the region. It was uniquely disheartening to watch White House spokesman Tony Snow appearing to openly talk down Mr Blair’s chances this week, implying that every single ball was in a Palestinian court. «He’s not Superman,» he said dismissively. «He doesn’t have a cape.»
Consider this statement alongside one made by the Fatah negotiator, and you begin to get a sense of the former PM’s fitness for this purpose. «Palestinians and Israelis do not need any more words or fanfare,» he said this week. «We need action.» To say this description doesn’t fit Mr Blair’s skillset is something of an understatement. He is one of the modern age’s great show-offs, and it is quite typical of the manner in which he has brought this tendency to bear on international affairs that the Foreign Office, whom he seemed to regard as surplus to requirements during his premiership, was kept in the dark about the envoy job until last Thursday, and is consequently in an «institutional sulk». Indeed, one FO source I spoke to yesterday described Mr Blair in the earthiest of Chaucerian terms for this behaviour – a tellingly unusual deviation from mandarin argot.
People often complain that the media do not serve politics by filtering it through the personal, but it is difficult to see this appointment as anything other than supremely personal. Indeed, Blair’s new mission is already being cast as «a chance to prove his critics wrong», raising the spectre that the Palestinian situation is little more than a plot device in an attempt to exorcise his demons.
There are tasks for which only a superstar force of nature will do, but the one in Palestine is widely held to require a self-effacing kind of diplomacy, and we can only hope the great actor’s second act is wildly different from his first. If not, only nihilists could relish the poetic justice of Mr Blair having to run up against elements of his true legacy, as opposed to the splashy initiatives with which he might prefer to be associated.