Can Tony Blair end the age of ventriloquism?

Sturdy institutions of legitimate statehood will uproot the reign of terror in today's Middle East.

Blair 298.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
Blair 298.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Why do ventriloquists hide behind puppets? Because they get to say through puppets things they cannot bring themselves to say directly. They get to fashion themselves as refined and reasonable in contrast to their puppets, whom they endow with unruly, atavistic personalities. They get to pose as disapproving superiors to their mischievous sidekicks, while enjoying what really are the voices of their own wilder, darker alter-egos; and they get to feel powerful by controlling and seeming to imbue their inanimate dolls with life. For half a century, Europe has been ventriloquist to the Middle East, and the Arab strongman rulers have been its puppets. When France and England ended their colonial rule they withdrew their consuls and neglected to address the problem they left behind - that the indigenous institutional infrastructure could not support legitimate statehood. Instead Europe declared as independent and legitimate a set of faux states it had concocted by first redrawing the paper map of the Middle East, and then arranging for the UN to ratify the unearned legitimacy of those states. Meanwhile, in the real deserts of Arabia, Europe got to preserve its colonial voice by proxy. Hard colonialism gave way to a softer colonial ventriloquism. Europe could feign shock and dismay at the bloodcurdling atavism of the Arabian strongmen it had engineered into power, and simultaneously, without missing a beat, flap the jaws, bat the eyelids and swivel the heads of those very same strongmen, sucking out Arabian oil to rebuild its own ostensibly refined and reasonable postwar European community. European hard-colonialism morphed into a European ventriloquism, which, in turn, gave rise to Islamic terrorism. How? Arabs, still looking for their dignity, began to challenge their post-colonial puppetmasters, and used the lingua franca their strongman rulers had taught them - arbitrary violence - to deliver their message. The Arab strongmen, being puppets themselves, complied with the terrorists as easily as they had with the ventriloquists, siphoning off portions of their oil wealth to appease them and, over time, to sponsor terrorist networks worldwide. The ventriloquist's conceit of control was trumped by terror. STURDY INSTITUTIONS of legitimate statehood, not compliant "moderate" Arab puppets, will uproot the reign of terror in today's Middle East. Those who prematurely invoke the processes of self-governance - elections, non-state membership in the UN, negotiations for statehood by corrupt leaders who flagrantly renounce the basic rules of state conduct - are merely perpetuating the ventriloquists' dangerous game. When France and England divested themselves of their colonies, they equated the naming of states on paper with the building of states on the ground. Now the advocates of mediation and negotiation are doing the same under the guise of the Bush Doctrine and the road map. They insist sovereignty can either be imposed, or declared through intense engagement of the former imperial powers; that one sovereign state can properly dictate the terms of residency of another sovereign state's citizenry or, like James Wolfensohn, that negotiation alone can establish political autonomy. The former Quartet envoy is a fine public servant, but his experience is instructive. Wolfensohn insisted on "expanding" his mandate to broker - prematurely, it turned out - an as yet unsupportable peace, which failed all parties except those who preferred the Palestinian status quo: the Arab strongman puppets and their European and Islamo-terrorist overlords. Following the soft-colonial ventriloquist's script, he believed it was enough to create a Palestinian state by drawing lines on a map, holding an election, sending money to the strongmen who delivered the votes and having the UN ratify, with pomp and ceremony, the terms of those hoped-for negotiations. ENTER TONY Blair. As a European, he brings from the history of his own region's miraculous postwar recovery an appreciation of precisely how much work it takes to pull a nation out of devastation. No ventriloquism was tolerated on European soil. When the Europeans rebuilt West Germany, it was institutions first, politics and elections and the trappings of sovereign statehood later. Furthermore, as an Englishman, Blair brings the remarkable British record of enabling so many of its former colonies to become legitimate and effective states: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, South Africa, Israel, Grenada, St. Lucia and, of course, that most successful former colony of them all, the United States of America. The secret cure for the Middle East's terror states lies in this particularly English genius for nation-building: a subtle combination of discipline and generosity that writes the elements of self-governance not only into the legal constitutions of its former protectorates but also onto the hearts, minds and spirits of its former colonists. The Blair team cannot, of course, in a matter of months and years put in place in the West Bank what it took the British Empire decades and centuries to accomplish in its former dominions. Nonetheless, the Palestinians could have no better advocate for building an infrastructure of self-governance than the authentic and energetic and delightfully well-spoken Blair. FINALLY, as Quartet envoy, Blair has the additional advantage of having been granted exactly the right mandate to do no more and no less than assist the Palestinians in building effective state institutions. He comes with his sleeves rolled up, extending the steady hand of an experienced nation-builder, reluctant to follow his predecessor's ventriloquism with its hollow rhetoric and easy money. If, as we believe, Blair is brave enough to resist the pressure to "expand" his mandate, he might well succeed in beginning to clean up the colonial mess the Europeans left behind. He may finally get Europe to stop throwing its voice into the region and, instead, start the painstaking work of helping the Palestinians build on the ground a national foundation for legitimate statehood. With the Quartet's support, Blair and his British team could: (1) help dismantle the easy-money arrangements that stimulate Fatah's corruption and undermine its credibility and legitimacy; (2) help establish effective social and economic institutions to win back the loyalty the Palestinians have given to Hamas's networks of social service and terror; (3) affirm a plausible road to statehood which avoids the absurd ventriloquist notion that self-determination comes with a Palestinian "right to return" to a neighboring sovereign state; and (4) teach the Palestinians the first principle of legitimate statehood: the absolute renunciation of their own evil export - the suicide murder of civilians. BUILDING legitimate institutions on the West Bank would start to undo the damage of European occupation, debunk the mirage of Israeli occupation as the chief impediment to Palestinian self-rule, begin to stand down the encroaching Iranian occupation and signal the dawning of a new Euro-Arabian alliance that could some day usher in a green Middle East, with states powered by the imagination and sweat of their own citizens rather than by the accident of oil and the unbroken influx of petro-euros. Blair could pull this off. He could give the Palestinians their voice back and, in so doing, allow Europe to begin to speak more clearly and directly in its own voice, too. The writer is the director of strategy and evaluation at the AVI CHAI Foundation.