Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Whose dime is Blair travelling on?

Whose dime is Blair travelling on?

The former PM's new role raises questions of mandate and accountability, not to mention who's footing the bill for his Middle East adventure.
Ian Williams

August 2,

When Tony Blair was appointed as the Quartet representative, it was at the behest of the Bush administration. And for once, the White House seems to be putting its money where its mouth was.

British and UN sources confrimed to Al-Jazeera International last week that the US state department is picking up Tony Blair's tab while they work with their reluctant partners in the Quartet to set up a trust fund. Russian sources, who were not that keen on his appointment anyway, have said that they would be prepared to see Blair get international civil servant (tax free status) but would be reluctant to go further in the way of contributing.

The subject has upset even senior British Foreign Office officials, concerned not only at Blair's lack of a substantial enough role for an ex-prime minister, but also with the contradictions inherent in his in effect being on the American payroll immediately after his retirement, which was after all accelerated by public displeasure at his being so close to the Bush administration while in office.

The question of who pays for him and his office, and on what basis he is employed, had been getting the runaround. There is the soapy smell of money laundering here, with frantic attempts to disguise the source.

By Friday, the state department was declaring that "neither the US government nor the Quartet pays a salary to Quartet representative Tony Blair. We are working out the details of funding and support with our Quartet partners for Blair's staff as well as the costs associated with their mission. We expect staff will be seconded by other governments of the Quartet, including the US".

The UN spokeswoman said "there are discussions still taking place", and in remarkable harmony, his own office said on Thursday that "these issues are still being discussed. Our focus has been on Tony Blair's trips and getting the office up and running September". So is Blair paying for his office, his staff and his travel costs to the region on his own credit card while waiting for cash? One doubts it.

His spokesman's email address is @tonyblair.org, which is not as surprising as it may seem. The Quartet is an ad hoc partnership between Europe, the UN, Russia and the US, which has no institutional existence, no office, no rules of procedure and no organisation. There is a lot of mystery about what the Quartet does, and even more about what Tony Blair's part in it is.

Condoleezza Rice and the Americans have been very explicit about what his part is not. He cannot engage in any serious attempts at peacemaking between the Israelis and the Palestinians. His job is to help build Palestinian Institutions, but he is not to talk to Hamas, which actually won the elections and controls the Gaza Strip. That may be just as well since between Iraq and his refusal to call for a ceasefire in Lebanon last year, there is no guarantee that Hamas would talk to him.

Indeed, the presence of Blair as an official Quartet representative, refusing to talk to Hamas, reinforces the recent conclusion, leaked to the Guardian from Alavaro de Soto, the UN's previous special representative, that the Quartet is simply a means of binding the other parties to an American, and hence Israeli, agenda.

It is not Russian policy and certainly has not been voted upon by any UN decision-making body, to boycott the victors of the last Palestinian Authority elections. But here we have a former British prime minister, on the American payroll, doing just that in the name of the Quartet. It is not surprising that there is a degree of caginess on the part of the various parties. It is surprising that Tony Blair could not wait to start until some more acceptable and transparent payment had been worked out - and perhaps even more so that he would take the job without a more substantial role allotted to him.

And to highlight his peripheral status, Gordon Brown has approached former Robin Cook aide Michael Williams, freshly appointed to be Middle East rep at the UN to represent Britain in the peace process. Which reinforces the question. Who does Blair represent?

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