Friday, November 14, 2008

Blair urges Obama to take the lead on world stage.

One of the things which most excited me about the thought of a Barack Obama presidency was the notion that he might be an American president who understood the need to sort out the Israeli/Palestinian problem as a matter of urgency.

His subsequent visits to AIPAC have given me pause, but I have never stopped believing that this guy gets it and that he will devote the correct amount of time and energy to sorting out the one issue that fuels terrorism more than any other.

Now Tony Blair, the Quartet's man in the Middle East, is calling on Obama to make sorting this dispute central to his presidency.

"I think he can say to Europe, look I'm going to champion a global deal on climate change, I'm going to take the Middle East peace process seriously, I'm going to make sure that poverty in Africa is right at the top of the agenda, I'm going to listen to your concerns and get a shared agenda with you."

Blair, a man whose premiership will always be tied to Bush's legacy because of the Iraq war, was careful to avoid criticising the outgoing president.

"I'm not going to get into comparing presidents, because I think that would be, er, not very fruitful. But there's a tremendous possibility for Obama to reach out and create a unifying agenda," Blair said.

Blair, a man who was schooled on the Israel/Palestine dispute by Lord Levy - which was hardly going to lead to a fair understanding of the situation - now admits that he understands the dispute better now than he did when he was in office.

He said his experience in Jerusalem and the occupied territories since he left Downing Street had made him aware of the constraints of political intervention by foreign leaders. "I do think what's very interesting about these international situations — and I found this quite shocking in a way — is how much more comprehensive my understanding of the Israel-Palestine situation is now than when I was in office," he said.

But, of course, Blair now thinks that Obama would be better served by putting more power in the hands on international envoys like himself.

"The interesting thing is how the international community delegates authority to make up for the limited knowledge that these leaders can have nowadays when they're dealing with a multiplicity of problems in their own domestic situation," he said.

"I think, for example, there's no way the Middle East is going to be resolved unless there are empowered senior people from the international community able to do it. Because, as I say, I now have a far better understanding of what needs to happen than I did when I was British prime minister. And yet in one sense when I was British prime minister I obviously had greater power over the situation."

I personally don't think the man who sat on his hands whilst Beirut burned is the person best suited to win over Arab confidence when it comes to this dispute and I hope that Obama has better plans to sort this than handing things over to Tony, but I agree with Blair that Israel/Palestine is an area that Obama should make, as he promised, central to his presidency.

Interestingly, one of the gravest mistakes which Blair made when taking office was that he was far too cautious considering the huge amount of goodwill which flowed towards him after eighteen years of Tory rule.

If anything, the goodwill towards Obama exceeds anything which was offered to Blair, and Obama could do worse than to learn from Blair's mistake. Open boldly and aim high.

The sheen will come off his presidency eventually as it comes off of all presidencies, but Obama would do well to start off with the grandest of ambitions rather than concentrating merely on what is achievable.

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