A family in Kosovo has just named their new born son Tonibler, after – I kid you not – the United Kingdom s outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair, whom the family credit for saving them from Serbian tyranny and violence. Somehow I doubt that Blair, who formerly, not to mention finally, announced he will leave office on 27 June, will receive too many similar accolades from families in Iraq, Lebanon or elsewhere in the Middle East . But as the removal van rolls up towards Downing Street for the first time in ten years, what can the Middle East expect from his likely successor, the UK s Chancellor of the Exchequer, or finance minister, Gordon Brown? Brown does not face a credible challenge to prevent him succeeding Blair. He does not have to win a general election; merely get enough votes from the ruling Labour Party members and Members of Parliament. But just to be on the safe side, Brown was busy over the weekend running between television studios to make a series of announcements outlining – rather vaguely it must be said – his vision for a post Blair Britain. Bizarrely, in a very cozy half an hour interview on BBC Television on Sunday morning, Brown wasn t asked about Iraq until seconds before the end of the program. After the formal interview was over and just before the credits rolled, the interviewer casually mentioned the subject in much the same manner as you might ask someone about the weather. Brown just as casually replied he was planning to visit the country soon. End of conversation. Brown s silence on Iraq is nothing new. A former Cabinet colleague claimed he only supported the invasion in 2003 because he feared Tony Blair would sack him if he did not. But Brown rarely makes a public pronouncement on anything until he has taken an inordinate amount of time to weigh up all the implications and how it will play with the UK electorate, who has yet to warm to this incredibly dour Scotsman. Brown s allies have tried to pass off his prevarication on important issues as a virtue. They insist he thinks long and hard about things and that his elevation to prime minister will herald a move away from the style over substance politics that critics insist has dominated the Blair era. The problem here is that Brown is not above a little style over substance himself. Last September, just after Britain and the US had stood by while Israel attempted to bomb Lebanon back to the stone age, Brown announced his backing for a Middle East Economic Plan. In the wake of the government s refusal to join international calls for Israel to stop its bombing of innocent civilians the idea struck a chord with many as a way of perhaps making up for the government s previous inertia and help bring stability to the whole region. Unfortunately, eight months later no one at the Treasury, Brown s ministry and the section of government that would have to find the money for the plan, knows anything about it. When I spoke to the Treasury yesterday I was vaguely referred to an interim report the Treasury made in January 2006 called Economic Aspects of Peace in the Middle East. A Treasury spokesman told me: It is expected that the final report will be published when conditions allow. Unfortunately, more than a year and half later no one at the Treasury could tell me when exactly that would be, beyond hypothesizing when the peace road map gets back on track . In short, the plan has disappeared off the radar of policies, having served its purpose to deflect criticism of the government s inaction during the Israeli onslaught. It sounded good at the time, but it was simply a bone thrown to an angry public which had no meat on it, and has amounted to nothing. There is a raft of other examples of the same thing in Brown s domestic dealings and soon the wider world will see how it works. In one of his few pronouncements on Iraq last week Brown indicated he wanted to put more emphasis on Iraq s economic recovery. He said: There are too many people in Iraq who don t have a stake in the economic future of the country, too many people unemployed, too many people who are not seeing services developed and therefore too many people who don t feel loyalty to the regime. Again he failed to provide any detail, but based on the fate of the Middle East Economic Plan perhaps he is waiting for peace to break out first. I wouldn t hold my breath waiting.
In the short term, Brown is unlikely to be pushed into any radical change in policy on Iraq. America remains Britain s most important ally and Brown, like Blair, is a firm Atlanticist. He enjoys holidays in the US with former Democratic official Bob Shrum and is a friend of former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.
But changes will be made. Iraq, and perception that Blair was George W Bush s poodle , sounded the death knell for his relationship with the electorate and Brown knows Iraq offers him his best opportunity to draw a line under the Blair era. Again it is likely to be more about the style than the substance.
While there will be no dramatic change to Britain s exit – or as the government prefers to call it, drawdown – from Iraq, the speed of it is likely to accelerate. The British army would prefer a faster pull than the one announced earlier this year, when the timetable was geared towards soothing fears of abandonment in Washington and Brown is likely to accede to their wishes. British forces are due to hand over control of Basra to Iraqi forces by the end of the year, when troop levels will be reduced from about 7,000 to 2,000. But Brown is as aware as the rest of us that Bush is increasingly isolated at home over Iraq. Brown can look to a new administration next year keen to extricate America from the debacle. Consequently, the current timetable may well be brought forward by a few months in what would be a signal, albeit a pretty meaningless one, to the UK electorate of Brown s determination to put some distance between himself and the policy of his predecessor while he awaits a new White House regime that will finish the job for him.
Brown is also likely to replace current foreign secretary Margaret Beckett- not that anyone will notice – following her ill conceived, but in all probability highly accurate comment that Iraq could in future split in separate states, along ethnic lines. Among those tipped for the job is Hilary Benn, son of the famous left wing Labour minister of the sixties and seventies Tony Benn.
Brown will also receive a raft of fresh policy ideas for Iraq within days of taking over from Blair. Last month, the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC), an influential think tank founded under the patronage of Blair, announced the launch of an independent, cross-party Commission tasked with producing a blueprint for Britain s future involvement in Iraq. Billed as the UK s equivalent of Washington s Iraq Study Group, the report will be presented to Brown once he has succeeded Blair. Among those likely to be called to provide testimony to the commission will be former British envoy to Baghdad Sir Jeremy Greenstock. Greenstock, who was also Britain s UN ambassador in the run up to the invasion, has already criticized Blair for taking his eye off the ball immediately after the liberation of Iraq. He is also an advocate of involving Iraq s neighbors, most notably Iran, in stabilizing Iraq, believing the coalition alone is no longer capable of ending the violence in Iraq.
One shouldn t overestimate the influence of the FPC, but combined with the current mood in the US, it could well provide Brown with a reasonable straw to clutch at to pull further away from the Bush administration and the problem Britain and America have created in Iraq.
A recent opinion poll revealed seven in 10 people think the bloody debacle in Iraq is how Blair will be remembered. Blair s legacy, it seems, is set. Come the next election here, sometime in 2009 at the latest, Brown will not want to see a poll saying the same thing about him.
Michael Glackinis a writer living in London and former managing editor of The Daily Star, for which this commentary was written.