Melbourne ~ Thursday July 28 2011
Blair's credibility crushed by the wheels of his gravy train
By Maher Mughrabi
The former British leader's words on Arab democracy ring hollow.
THE violent upheavals that have marked 2011 in the Arab world have led to some astonishing statements, from France's foreign minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, suggesting that French forces should help the Tunisian regime deal with protesters (she lost her job) to US Vice-President Joe Biden's assertion that Egypt's Hosni Mubarak was not a dictator (he kept his).
Some commentators have declared the end of a "holiday from history" in the Arab world. In truth, its citizens have for decades been in the same position as the Iraqi in the infamous photo from Abu Ghraib: standing on a wooden box, wires attached to their fingers and a sack over their heads, warned of dire consequences should they dare to move.
In 2011, brave people across the region have called the torturers' bluff. In some cases, that has shaken and even toppled regimes. In others, people are starting to feel a backlash from the many "wires" of the state.
It is against this backdrop that former British prime minister Tony Blair is this week visiting these shores, and for $1000 a ticket (recently slashed to $495 in Brisbane and Perth) you can receive his lessons in leadership and "values-based" foreign policy.
In the recent paperback edition of his autobiography, A Journey: My Political Life, Blair says leaving Libya's Muammar Gaddafi in place while Hosni Mubarak fell would have damaged the West's reputation and credibility, and that Libya-style intervention is not necessary in the Persian Gulf monarchies because they hold out "the possibility of evolutionary change".
In March 2004, Blair, who today talks about reputation and credibility, shook hands with Gaddafi to help British oil companies return to Libya. He is described as a "strong advocate of a values-based foreign policy", yet his government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Libyan regime in October 2005 that allowed Britain to deport terror suspects to a country known to torture and murder prisoners.
When it was pointed out to Blair in a 2002 interview that Saudi Arabia tortures people, his response was that "they have their culture, their way of life". In 1999, when he was trying to return four asylum seekers to Egypt, his own Home Office warned him that the Mubarak regime's assurances the four would not be tortured were worthless. When further efforts were made to ensure they might get a fair trial, Blair scribbled on a memo: "This is a bit much. Why do we need all these things?"
When Blair talks about "evolutionary change" in a place such as Bahrain - where show trials have convicted doctors and nurses of conspiring against the state, the Pearl Roundabout site of peaceful protests has been demolished and the equivalent of the 50¢ coin is no longer being minted because it carries the roundabout's image - I wonder about his own business interests, mention of which is conspicuously absent from invitations to hear him talk in Australia.
In 2002, Henry Kissinger was made chairman of an inquiry into intelligence failures before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It quickly became clear that his links with the Middle East through his consulting firm, Kissinger Associates, would present an insurmountable conflict of interests, forcing him to withdraw from the probe.
Blair's consultancy business, Tony Blair Associates, also caters to wealthy Arab clients, meaning that its founder pronounces upon prospects for democracy in the region while accepting millions in fees from the regimes of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
This should not come as a surprise. After all, Blair rubbished suggestions that oil companies lobbied the British government before the invasion of Iraq, only for it to emerge this year that his then trade minister, Baroness Symons, promised to approach the Bush administration on behalf of BP and Shell over post-Saddam contracts.
And in his eagerness to sell Saudi Arabia £40 billion worth of Eurofighter jets, Blair scrapped a Serious Fraud Office inquiry into alleged bribery of Saudi officials by defence giant BAE Systems.
Blair's own affairs since leaving office have proven so secretive that The Guardian newspaper's website set up a competition to work out where the money goes.
It may take another decade for this gravy train to come off the rails, or who knows? It may happen in the next 45 minutes. But time will surely tell - to paraphrase some fellow Britons - that not only is Tony Blair not the messiah, he is in fact a very naughty boy indeed.
Maher Mughrabi is an Age foreign news editor.