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Blair changes strategy in Iraq and beyond.

Blair’s Guildhall Speech of the 13 November 2006 outlines a new diplomatic initiative with respect to Iraq. What are the changes? Are they of any significance?

The Guildhall Banquet Speech is traditionally an occasion for a British Prime Minister to make a key statement on the development of foreign policy. This year, as in previous years, the focus was on Iraq and Afghanistan. In the speech, Blair outlined how he sees the situation in Iraq and in the Middle East as a whole and set out the changes in policy that are required. He welcomed the economic development of China. He also re-affirmed his believe in the significance and strength of the alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom.

Blair, whilst mentioning the fact that there were particular ‘national factors at play’, outlined the ways in which the problems in the two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, were linked. The source of the problems, according to the Prime Minster, is the ‘same ideology, the same methods that have seen thousands die in acts of terrorism across the world’. In Iraq the aim of the ‘terrorists’ is to 'provoke civil war’ (many believe that they have in fact succeeded in this respect). From his point of view it is ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ extremists rather than ‘faulty planning’ that has given rise to the problem. Al Qaida cooperates with the Sunni and Iran backs the Shia. Iraqis as a whole voted for a ‘non-sectarian government’.

He described the situation in Iraq as ‘evolving’. As the Iraqi scene changes so must ‘strategy’. In this respect the Iraqi Government needs to be strengthened through the development of a ‘strong political compact in Iraq’ together with further investment in administrative and economic capacity. In addition gaps in the training of the Army and police need to be filled.

A key strategic change must be to address the external influences that he saw as the major causes of the disruption. He called for a ‘whole Middle East strategy’. In this he saw the core problem as that of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians though Blair’s speech did not specify what was required or how it would be achieved other than through uniting moderate opinion. Iran needs to be tackled. The country has a ‘genuine’ though mistaken fear that the United States will take military action against it. Iran is assisting ‘extreme elements’ in order to thwart western aims. Iran’s strategy ‘is perfectly straightforward and clear’ and needs to be answered by an equally clear strategy on the part of the west. It must either be drawn into the discussion of the Middle East Peace Process and other aspects of working toward wider peace or face complete isolation. He held to the view that all of the events are related to the global terrorism and call for a global response.

How is such a speech to be evaluated? It is clear that there is much that is familiar. Iraq is surely not heading for civil war but firmly in the grips of one. Stengthening the capacity of the Iraqi Government is an established theme. That particular problems are manifestations of global terrorism, for example, is also very familiar. That particular problems are manifestations of global terrorism, for example, is also very familiar. It is this sort of thinking that makes it difficult to evaluate particular problems in particular places. Iran was declared part of the ‘axis of evil’ and so, with a received threat of military action against it, set about to find ways of defending itself, and thus confirming the very behavior that the west had intended to prevent. Diplomats should know better than to fall into such traps.

But there is always more to such speeches than meets the innocent eye. Placing Israel/Palestinian problems at the centre of the ‘whole’ approach to the Middle East is a suggestion that is long overdue. Blair will talk to these issues when he contacts the Iraq Study Group today. This will call for some tough questions in Washington. Offering the possibility of a ‘new partnership’ to Iran is also significant and suggests a return to normal kinds of diplomacy and engagement. London and Washington would seem to be in agreement: engage or isolate. Isolation is a dangerous option so we must suppose that engagement is, for the British at least, the preferred diplomatic option.

However a bigger set of changes is on its way. The British have in fact been talking directly to Syria. The unstated aim of the talks in Damascus appears to have been attempting to engage the Syrians in sorting out the situation in Iraq. Attempts are being made to draw Iran and Syria into discussions and involvement in sorting out Iraq. Both are frustrated by Israel’s approach to the Palestinians. The ‘whole Middle East’ strategy means that we can expect if the two countries agree to cooperate that any trade-off will put pressure on Israel in some form or another.