Obama Keeps UK at Arm’s Length – Except for His Favorite Englishman
President Barack Obama is not averse to embracing one particular element of the Bush legacy – the intimate relationship with Tony Blair. Like most other former British prime ministers, Blair at 57, should have accepted his status as a has-been. Instead, he has turned what should have been a token job as special envoy of the Middle East Quartet into a thriving diplomatic and financial jumping-off pad for the next stage of his globe-girdling career.
In the process, he has acquired a priceless asset: unrivaled influence in the White House, Washington.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington report: The US president has ordered his aides to treat Blair with the respectful consideration awarded him as British prime minister by President George W. Bush and sharply withdrawn from his successor George Brown whose circle of advisers was perceived as anti-American.
Obama was disappointed in the new British Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, whom he met on July 14 and his Foreign Secretary William Hague, who visited Washington on May 14. He regards Cameron's coalition partnership with the Liberal-Democrats as too weak to arrest the UK's plunging economic and financial standing and reverse the anti-American climate prevailing in London, mostly over British involvement in the Afghan war and US Middle East policies. The US President has filled the gap in the "special relationship" by giving Tony Blair an open door to the Oval Office as his unofficial British adviser on Washington's ties with London – and much more.
A strong, though unofficial US team-player
The arrangement works with a nod and a wink rather than formal trappings. Government, political or financial parties who want to be received by President Obama may find they must first go through Blair, who holds the key to the Oval Office by virtue of his informal but powerful standing as trusted presidential team-player. White House watchers believe that Barack Obama, who is short on executive background, has given the Brit a special place at his side because he is a politically non-threatening foreign leader and happy to share his wealth of experience in the practicalities of governance, the vagaries of international diplomacy and the limitations of power.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington note Blair was no doubt helped to his unique position by the excellent personal ties he and his wife Cherie cultivated to this day with President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary during their years in office. His presence behind the president's shoulder has stood Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in good stead. It has shifted the making of US foreign policy, especially on the Middle East and Iran, to a core threesome made up of the president, the secretary of state and special presidential adviser Dennis Ross, which is served by Blair's special insights in these two fields.
He has therefore played a key role in the shaping of US policies on Iran and the Palestinians. As for Obama's relations with the UK and other European governments, as untitled adviser, he persuaded the US administration to back former Foreign Secretary David Miliband's candidacy for chairmanship of the British Labor Party, opposition leader and future prime minister, whom he recommended as best able to improve London's relations with Washington.
On Europe, Blair has more to say in the White House than officiating continental leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose relationship with Obama is chilly; French President Nicolas Sarkozy whose relations with Obama are quite fraught; and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has as little as possible to do with the US president and his administration.
At home, persona non grata, an odd bird
Tony Blair's successful assault on Washington has not made him persona grata on home ground. On the other side of "the pond," memories of his eleven years as prime minister (1977-2008) are far from fond.
The Irish pelted him with eggs and shoes when he turned up in Dublin on Sept. 5, to sign copies of his new book, "A Journey." Fearing an even stormier disturbance, he called off his next book-signing on Sept. 8 at Waterstone's on Piccadilly, London.
Even The Economist, the most pro-American and up-market of British journals, ran an article on Sept. 2 under the caption "Lessons from 35,000 Feet" describing his book as "more than a reminder that the former prime minister is quite an odd man, and oddly un-British in manner for someone who seemed – in his early years at least – to have a telepathic feel for the instincts of his fellow countrymen.
"In his radical rejection of political tribalism," says The Economist, "he is a subversive figure still."
Tony Blair is thus branded as something of an odd bird that doesn't fit in with British society.
On Sept. 12, another UK newspaper, The Daily Mail, ran with an expose: "Special Investigation: How Blair Rescued Palestine Deal Worth $200m to his £2m-a-year Paymasters."
It homed in on Blair's highly profitable work as a consultant for the JP Morgan investment bank and claimed he enriched the family of Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the firm owned by his son Tarek through the private Tony Blair Associations, which counts the royal families of Abu Dhabi and Kuwait among its clientele.
Aren't we all playing the same game?
The British VIP is described as a frequent visitor to Libya who has used his personal friendship with the dictator Col. Muammar Qaddafi to explore business opportunities on behalf of JP Morgan.
The Daily Mail article aimed at cautioning Washington to ease its pressure on London over the highly contentious Megrahi affair. It coincided with the arrival in London of a US Senate team of investigators to question English and Scottish officials on the process which led to the premature release last year of the Libyan agent Abdelbaset Al Megrahi from life imprisonment on the pretext that he had no more than three months to live.
The only Lockerbie bomber in custody, he was convicted for the Dec, 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish village of Lockerbie, in which 259 passengers, including 189 Americans, and 11 villagers died.
Washington was incensed by his release on a false pretext (he is still very much alive) and accused London of engineering the bomber's release to promote BP's oil transactions with Libya. (DEBKA-Net-Weekly 455 of July 31covered the dispute in an article titled "The Battle of Interests between the US and Britain-Digitalized.")
By exposing Blair's financial dealings, the London paper was telling Washington that Obama's favorite Englishman was up to his ears in business dealings with Qaddafi on behalf of an American banking giant.
Both were therefore playing the same game.
Foreign Secretary Hague then denied the Senate staffers permission to question British civil servants about how Megrahi came to be freed.
He was trying to close the books on the affair.
Britain eases out of military cooperation with the US
But the reckoning with Tony Blair is not over, because the same article hinted at questionable business between him and Palestinian leaders. Without saying so explicitly, it implied that the Quartet envoy, who was instrumental in bringing the Israelis and Palestinians to face each other directly in Sharm el Sheikh and Jerusalem (Sept. 14-15), had pulled off his feat solely on the basis of his personal ties in Washington, Jerusalem and the oil emirates.
It was also suggested that without the payment of a substantial bribe negotiated through Blair, the talks would not have taken off at all and the Obama-Clinton team would have been deprived of a coveted Middle East diplomatic initiative.
For the British circles intent on blackening Blair – and getting through him at President Obama – the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are only incidental, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and Washington sources report.
The UK is stony broke and the Cameron government is struggling with massive cuts in defense spending on manpower, armored vehicles and weapons development that would be aggressive enough to jeopardize British armed forces' operations abroad and even at home.
Given the current climate in the once-vaunted "special relationship" between Britain and America and the economic woes afflicting the US, Cameron has no one to turn to for a bailout – especially with the UK beginning to ease out of military cooperation with the US and its troops poised to pull out of the Afghanistan War and leave the Americans to finish the job there.
Blair signals Obama shift toward military action against Iran
The last thing the British, who now accuse their former prime minister of dragging them into two wars, want to hear is the prospect of another war, accusing their former prime minister of dragging them into two.
The new British premier is certainly far from happy to hear Tony Blair sounding off and widely quoted as an outstanding British personage emboldened by his close ties with the US president to talk not only for the UK but for the West.
And this is exactly what happened on Sept. 1, when the ex-premier said to BBC2: "The international community has to be prepared to take military action against Iran if the regime develops a nuclear weapon."
Blair said it was "wholly unacceptable" for Tehran to seek a nuclear weapons capability and insisted there could be "no alternative" to military force "if they continue to develop nuclear weapons. They need to get that message loud and clear."
This comment set off alarm bells not only in Tehran but also in Washington and in many European and Mideast capitals.
Because of his powerful influence with the US president and secretary of state, Blair is considered by many to have put their plans into words. Others see his longtime ally, Hillary Clinton, whose prestige is riding on an Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic breakthrough within a year and who is seen as a hawk on Iran's nuclear program, as counting on a successful military operation against the Islamic Republic for making Israel amenable to concessions to the Palestinians.
Clinton sees Iran strike as key to progress on Palestinian track
She accepts that security is Netanyahu's overriding concern. Striking Iran's nuclear assets would shrink the Islamic Republic as a power capable of menacing Israel directly and through terrorist surrogates around its borders. The prime minister might then feel safe enough to give the Palestinians more than he is ready to offer at present.
With this consideration in mind, Clinton, assisted ably by Blair, spent the last two months trying to persuade President Obama to drop his objections to a military operation against Iran. Blair's remarks on BBC2 appear to have signaled the US president's change of heart. Various Washington think tanks, liberal and conservative alike, have in the last two weeks begun to share the view that Obama has shifted ground on an Israeli or an American attack on Iran and come to believe that it is the only remaining option.
Awareness of Blair's role in this change of heart has made him more unpopular in Europe and in Britain. To counter his critics, the close associates of Obama and Clinton decided to honor the British politician. He was awarded the Liberty Medal Tuesday, Sept. 14 by Bill Clinton's National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for his commitment to conflict resolution.
In contrast to the scene in Dublin, where Tony Blair was depicted as a war criminal in large signs on which the name BLAIR was draw with large red drops depicting blood, he was praised at the US National Constitution Center for his efforts in the service of peace in Northern Ireland and Kosovo, and for his work as Middle East envoy since leaving 10 Downing Street.
Our Washington sources report more American honors are on the way for the former UK premier. On October 5, it will be announced in New York that the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has decided to present Blair with its 2010 Statesman Award.