Washington Willful optimism is Tony Blair's strong suit. He hurls himself at hard cases with ironclad confidence in his ability to make history see reason. Take the liberation of Kosovo, which he spearheaded, or Northern Ireland's peace accord, which he coaxed into being. For less happy results, take the war in Iraq.
The former British prime minister journeys this month into the diplomatic wastelands of the Middle East - with one hand seemingly tied behind him. This time, Blair confronts a challenge that may shred even his hardy historical optimism.
Some who commissioned him to represent the diplomatic artifice known as the Middle East Quartet - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - have come to fear that Blair will try to do too much, not too little, as special envoy to Israel and the Palestinians. They know their man.
History would seem to favor the immovable object (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) over the irresistible force (Blair's dynamism and determination). Peacemakers are blessed in the Bible, but in the Holy Land they are usually assassinated, betrayed, made to look foolish or simply ignored as they sink into ever deepening irrelevance and gloom.
That latter unhappy fate seems to have befallen James Wolfensohn, Blair's immediate predecessor as Quartet special envoy. "The current situation in the Middle East leaves him in despair," Shahar Smooha wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in late July.
Smooha's source was impeccable: Wolfensohn. The former World Bank president took the occasion of Blair's appointment to break a public silence on his policy conflicts with the White House and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during Wolfensohn's 11-month effort to help broker understandings between Palestinians and Israelis.
Wolfensohn's version says he had to fight his way into key meetings over the opposition of Rice and National Security Council staff member Elliot Abrams. That led to Wolfensohn's staff of 18 being fired without his being consulted and in apparent retaliation. "I was stupid for not reading the small print," Wolfensohn said. "I was never given the mandate to negotiate the peace." He assumed - wrongly - that contributions toward that end would be welcomed.
Don't mistake Wolfensohn's complaint as just one more insider account of dysfunction, rivalry, treachery and bad feelings in the battered Bush administration, which is denounced almost daily by former appointees for having not listened to them, to reason or to the law. Wolfensohn also gave the interview to sketch out a seriously original approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"There has to be a moment when Israelis and Palestinians understand that they are a sideshow," Wolfensohn told Haaretz. "The real global politics is the politics of war and the politics of nuclear weaponry and the weight of the population."
He also noted: "Both sides have to recognize that they are 11 million people in a sea of 350 million Arabs. Over the last four years, the war in Israel and Palestine has cost the international community - including military expenditure - somewhere between $10 (billion) and $20 billion. The Iraq War has cost $600 billion. The Afghanistan War has cost between $50 billion and $100 billion. You have a nuclear threat in Iran, you have the issue of Syria and which way it goes, and you have a doubling of the Arab population in something like between 10 and 15 years."
Wolfensohn's experience does cast a long shadow over the mission taken on by Blair, whose formal mandate is similarly restricted to improving the economic situation of the Palestinians while staying out of peace negotiations. The political role is reserved for Rice, who hopes to convene a Middle East peace conference in Washington in November.
Two things are essential for that conference to succeed, involved diplomats say: One is for Saudi Arabia to attend and to offer formally to Israel a peace plan that has been discussed in the media by King Abdullah. The other is for Bush to engage his own prestige and influence in a negotiating effort that has been left entirely to Rice. It is not yet clear that Bush is as committed to pressing Israel to make difficult compromises as is his secretary of state.
The need for Bush to engage eventually may partly explain why Blair has not been deterred by the Middle East's long abuse of would-be peacemakers. It would be foolish to sideline or constrain his enormous political skills, his close ties to Bush and that irrepressible optimism if a serious effort for peace is to be mounted. Rice should come to see that as well.