By Abid Mustafa
Special to PalestineChronicle.com
Much has been said about Tony Blair stepping down as the Prime Minster of Britain. Most political commentators and media pundits have summed up Blair’s legacy in one word– Iraq. They describe his decision to invade Iraq as a monumental failure of British foreign policy in the Middle East and a setback to Anglo-Muslim relations world-wide. Others have gone much further in their condemnation of Blair’s neo- colonial policies, and attribute Blair’s servitude to American interests behind Britain’s flagging popularity around the world. However, away from the critics both at home and abroad, the astute observer cannot help but notice that Blair– far from the discredited leader– may go down as the most influential British Prime Minister of modern times.
On May 10 2007, Blair delivered a telling speech at Trimdon Labour Club in his Sedgefield constituency. Apart from the obvious announcement of his resignation, Blair unashamedly justified his decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, and gave a buoyant assessment of Britain’s position in the world. Blair said, "Britain is not a follower, it is a leader. It gets the essential characteristic of today’s world: its interdependence. This is a country today that, for all its faults, for all the myriad of unresolved problems and fresh challenges, is comfortable in the 21st Century, at home in its own skin, able not just to be proud of its past but confident of its future… But believe one thing if nothing else – I did what I thought was right for our country. I came into office with high hopes for Britain’s future. I leave it with even higher hopes for Britain’s future." …This is the greatest nation on Earth. It has been an honour to serve it."
Ten years ago, under the shadow of America’s ever expanding empire, Britain faced an uncertain future. Her influence in Africa was openly challenged, her Raj in the sub-continent, especially India was in decline, and her surrogates in the Middle East suffocated under immense American pressure. A decade on, the fortunes of Britain and the US appear to have reversed. America is slowly bleeding to death from two open wound in Iraq and Afghanistan that show no signs of abating. This has prompted Richard Hass the head of the most powerful US think tank to comment:” the age of U.S. dominance in the Middle East has ended and a new era in the modern history of the region has begun. It will be shaped by new actors and new forces competing for influence, and to master it, Washington will have to rely more on diplomacy than on military might.”
Whilst influential US policy makers spell out the numerous challenges to US primacy in various parts of the world, Blair is among the few in Britain who foresee a golden opportunity for Britain to take maximum advantage of America’s predicament. Blair’s recent tour of Africa bears testimony to this newfound optimism. During his tenure in office, Blair thwarted America’s bid to oust President Kabbah of Sierra Leone and worked diligently to rescue Gaddafi’s government from clutches of American neoconservatives who after September 11 wanted regime change in Libya. In South Africa Blair competed tirelessly with the US to protect British influence there and made the country the mainstay of anti-government activities in neighbouring African countries. Mbeki the loyal servant of the Crown paid tribute to Blair. He said, “Now there isn’t anybody in the world who wouldn’t want to put the Africa issue on the agenda. And I say it’s thanks a lot, Prime Minister, to the position that you took.”
It was during Blair’s period in office that Britain reasserted its influence over India through the ascendancy of the Congress Party to power in May 2004. The defeat of the pro-American Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was a severe blow to American interest. With India under British control, Britain felt confident enough to foment opposition to American governance in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh. In both countries the opposition was engineered and led by pro-British personalities like Benazir Bhutto and Shiekh Hasina.
Apparently, the greatest shift in the political landscape is materialising in the Middle East. For the first time in many years, British agents find themselves with more room to breathe and operate in. In Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries British assets have been mobilised to foil American projects under the guise of partnership and co-operation. Graham Fuller former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council described America’s predicament correctly when he wrote in the issue of the National Interest, "diverse countries have deployed a multiplicity of strategies and tactics designed to weaken, divert, alter, complicate, limit delay or block the Bush agenda through death by a thousand cuts."
Many people in Britain and around the world still hope that Blair’s replacement Gordon Brown will lessen Britain’s involvement in foreign affairs, and guide Britain to tread a foreign policy path independent of US interests. They are gravely mistaken. Britain cannot afford to squander the gains it has made by re-recalibrating its relationship with the US. In this respect, Blair’s recent visit to the US, closely followed by Brown’s meeting with President Bush is confirmation that Britain will continue to support the Bush administration. Like Blair, Brown is expected to fully extend Britain’s cooperation to America and at the same time search for opportunities to frustrate American plans and strengthen British assets. This duplicity in policy should not be misconstrued as Britain possessing the ability to confront America. On the contrary, Britain’s ability is far removed from replacing America as the leading state. Nonetheless, Britain is very slowly navigating that the direction and actively participates in ventures that threatens to dislodge America from its perch.
On the domestic front there are no significant changes in policies of the Labour Party. The Brown government intends to further rollback civil liberties, introduce more draconian laws, and make life difficult for its Muslim populace. The recent amateur attacks in London and Glasgow will be exploited to establish new anti terror measures, consolidate Brown’s popularity and send an unequivocal message to its counterparts in the US that Britain is fully committed to America’s Global War on Terror (GWOT). The only noticeable difference between Blair and Brown is in the manner of ruling. Brown wants to reach members of the Labour Party and British society disgruntled by Blair’s authoritive style of ruling. To accomplish this, Brown has sought to broaden his parliamentary base and public appeal. He has appointed ministers of different political persuasions, as well as Muslims MPs to his cabinet. He also unveiled plans to formulate a written constitution and a bill of rights. The aim is to engender trust in the British political system, reduce political alienation and convey a sense of pride in the British identity.
There is a modicum difference between Labour and Conservative– the leaders of both parties i.e. Brown and Cameron endeavour to emulate the policies left behind Blair but each faces a different set of problems. The Labour Party is replete with internal schisms between the supporters of Blair and Brown. On the other hand the Conservative Party is struggling to define policies that differ from Labour and are attractive to the electorate. Brown’s success in the 2009 general election largely depends on how well he manages his party rather than concentrate on how to marginalize the opposition.
-A regular contributor to PalestineChronicle.com, Abid Mustafa is based in the UK and specialises in Muslim affairs.