Only when Tony Blair popped up on the airwaves did it become clear just how different it is this time. Israel is again at war — yet, unlike 2006 there are no MPs clamouring for Parliament to be recalled. There is no Prime Minister who regards himself as a peacemaker offering his opinion to the world. Nor is there even an opposition seeking to outflank the government by using loaded phrases like ‘disproportionate response’. There is a recession on — and strong opinions on the Middle East seem to have fallen victim to the credit crunch.
When asked, Gordon Brown says he is alarmed by Israel sending troops into Gaza. But he’d rather not be asked. Such is his level of contact with Mr Blair — supposedly an international Middle East peace envoy — that he told newspapers that his predecessor was on holiday. In fact Mr Blair was heading for Jerusalem, unable to resist the vacuum created by a confused Europe, leaderless America and disinterested Britain. Blair duly said what Mr Brown should have: a ceasefire is achievable by closing down the tunnels used to smuggle weapons into Gaza underneath the supposed buffer-zone with Egypt.
Yet even Mr Blair has been keeping his distance from the Middle East, perhaps because most of his time is spent with the Faith Foundation, run by his attractive aide Ruth Turner. The road map to peace he is supposed to promote in the Middle East lies in shreds with Gaza now run by Hamas, a group devoted to Israel’s annihilation. And for those with an eye to see it, this conflict has mutated into the first act of a war that may come to define David Cameron and Barack Obama as much as Iraq does Blair and Bush.
If the Conservatives were in a more assertive mood, they could spell out why this conflict has such implications for British foreign policy. It can be seen as the latest stage in Israel’s proxy war with Iran, which, although a Shiite power, has long been funding and arming Hamas, through which it seeks influence in the Sunni world. Israel is sending a message that it will not tolerate an armed, existential threat growing on its doorstep. And this is precisely what a nuclear Iran would be.
Iran takes an ecumenical approach in its determination to eliminate Israel — hence the alliance with Hamas. And last month a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency showed that Iran is making enriched uranium so quickly that it will have enough for a nuclear bomb by the end of this year. This opens the prospect of nuclear blackmail entering the Islamic fundamentalist equation. But, of course, Israel is likely to act before Iran gets to this stage and is unlikely to wait for a United Nations resolution allowing it to do so.
Little wonder Mr Obama has been so quiet, pleading that he doesn’t take over until 20 January. His campaign was haunted by the prospect of his being tested early in his presidency — and a Middle East conflagration induced by Iran will have been just the scenario he will have wanted least. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, America was joined by Nato in entering Afghanistan. In Iraq two years later, it was a coalition of the willing. But if President Obama is sucked into war, which allies will he be able to count on?
The European Union is in the process of unwittingly disqualifying itself, its attempts at a co-ordinated diplomatic mission descending into predictable farce. The Czechs supposedly leading the EU presidency are sympathetic, and defended Israel’s ground attack as a ‘defensive, not offensive move’. This infuriated the French, who saw it as a ‘dangerous military escalation’ and forced a retraction of the Czech statement. It was a typical EU pantomime, demonstrating the futility of pretending 27 nation states can have the same opinion about Israel, or any other thorny foreign policy question.
And where would Britain stand? It is a question neither Mr Brown nor Mr Cameron wish to contemplate. The Prime Minister talks about a yes-we-can ‘progressive’ alliance with Mr Obama, which he hopes to consummate at the coming G20 summit in London. He badly needs a nod, a wink or a word of praise from the Obama White House. Yet as history repeatedly shows, American presidents have little interest in notions of political fraternity and decide allies on one factor alone: what military support can be given, should it be needed.
Gordon Brown has already failed the test. Last month, Mr Obama let it be known that he would like 2,000 more British troops in Afghanistan, which he has defined as his top international priority. The Prime Minister sent just 300. Thus Mr Brown eliminated himself from the race to be the first world leader to visit the Obama White House. If things heat up in the Middle East, there will be no Tony Blair figure talking about standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
And what about the Conservatives? Mr Cameron has been quiet on Israel, and no policy is discernible from what William Hague has had to say. Last week Cameron promised to protect defence spending from the cuts he will have to make in government. But this still leaves him far from an answer to the question Mr Blair posed before leaving Number 10: is Britain to have a war-fighting or a peace-keeping military? It must decide, he said, and adjust its defence budget accordingly.
That Mr Blair raised this prospect in the first place can be seen as tacit admission of guilt. He had fought five wars on a peace-keeping budget, stretching the military to breaking point. The legacy was chaos in Basra and retrenchment in Afghanistan. This is why Britain is starting to be regarded in the Pentagon as an undependable ally, with military ambitions it is not prepared to fund. As with so much in the Labour years, it is now clear that the money was never really there.
Next week, Mr Blair will arrive in the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a short ceremony that could serve as a requiem for an era. If Mr Blair was unwilling to fund the role he carved out for the British military during a boom, the Tories are unlikely to do so during a financial crisis. Whatever Cameron’s sympathies, they may be eclipsed by financial realpolitik. He may be left with no other strategy than to keep his head down, try to repay the debt and hope Mr Obama can deal with whatever the Middle East may throw at him.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 10, 2009