Former Prime Minister Tony Blair recently held a keynote speech at the Bloomberg Headquarters in London. While the speech was titled “Why the Middle East Matters”, it was, in fact, about the global threat of Islamism and how the West should tackle it.
Unsurprisingly (as anything Tony Blair does nowadays), the speech sparked widespread criticism. While a shocking number of commentators trashed the speech altogether and resorted to blatant ad hominem against the speaker, there have been a few more subtle voices, who dealt with the concrete policy recommendations Tony Blair laid out in his speech.
To be fair, there are many truths in Tony Blair’s speech and it should be discussed seriously, because the topic is of a serious nature. However, to my disappointment, the speech also lacked significant depth of analysis and contained overgeneralizations as well as half-baked policy recommendations, which I will to take on in this article.
The Threat of Islamism
First things first – We have to look at what Tony Blair actually tried to say. The message he tried to deliver is as simple as it is true:
“At the root of the crisis lies a radicalised and politicised view of Islam, an ideology that distorts and warps Islam’s true message. The threat of this radical Islam is not abating. It is growing. It is spreading across the world. It is de-stabilising communities and even nations. It is undermining the possibility of peaceful co-existence in an era of globalisation. And in the face of this threat we seem curiously reluctant to acknowledge it and powerless to counter it effectively.”
As I have discussed elsewhere, there is a problem within Islam and it is called Islamism. The term refers to the politization of a radical version of Islam with the desire to impose it over the rest of society. Indeed, the political ideology of Islamism has to be distinguished from the faith of Islam, as Tony Blair highlighted at length in his speech:
“It is crucially important in this description not to confuse the issue of religion and politics, with the question of religiosity. Many of those totally opposed to the Islamist ideology are absolutely devout Muslims. In fact it is often the most devout who take most exception to what they regard as the distortion of their faith by those who claim to be ardent Muslims whilst acting in a manner wholly in contradiction to the proper teaching of the Koran.”
Despite this evidence, he has been accused of “waging a war against Islam” and of “fuelling hatred and violence” against Muslims. None of this is true of course. Tony Blair makes a clear distinction between the political ideology of Islamism, which deserves to be criticized, and the adherents of the faith of Islam, which deserve respect and protection.
If this is not enough, one should be aware that he runs a Faith Foundation, which promotes inter-religious dialogue and works with Muslims, Christians, Jews and Atheists alike. It is frankly bizarre to accuse a man, who puts a lot of his wealth and time into promoting inter-religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence, of – religious intolerance and even bigotry. These are nothing but unsubstantiated accusations that have more to do with the hatred that many on the far-left still feel towards Tony Blair because of their opposition to the Iraq war, than with anything that the former Prime Minister said about Islam and Islamism on this or any other occasion.
As this Guardian article notes correctly, the commentators seemed to focus more on the person Tony Blair than on the subject itself. Others, like Huffington Post commentator Mehdi Hasan, have completely lost the plot and called Tony Blair “the Violent Islamist’s Best Friend” but such shameless lies are hardly worth mentioning, let alone discussing.
However, apart from Blair’s central warning of the growing threat of Islamism – which is accurate – he also delivered a few geo-strategic analyses and policy recommendations in his speech, which are more worthy of criticism. As Kyle Orton noted in his excellent blog post “The Tragedy of Tony Blair”, the former Prime Minister seems to get the macro-level analysis right, but the micro-level policy recommendations wrong. Chris Doyle, the director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding agrees that Blair was right to underline the importance of the threat of Islamism, but he was just as critical of the former Prime Minister’s proposals to tackle the problem:
“Blair is largely right to highlight the issue. Islamic extremism is not on the wane. It is flourishing in many areas of the world. Nobody should be complacent. […] It is his solutions that are very problematic”
I will discuss why Blair’s solutions to the growing threat of Islamism are misguided, point by point.
Reaching out to Russia and China
In his speech, Tony Blair called for cooperation with Russia and China, for instance through a body such as the G20, in order to tackle the threat of Islamism jointly and to everyone’s benefit:
“In this speech I will set out how we should do this, including the recognition that on this issue, whatever our other differences, we should be prepared to reach out and cooperate with the East, and in particular, Russia and China.”
“On this issue also, there is a complete identity of interest between East and West. China and Russia have exactly the same desire to defeat this ideology as do the USA and Europe. Here is a subject upon which all the principal nations of the G20 could come together, could agree to act, and could find common ground to common benefit.”
While a united front of all G20 nations against a common threat is a pretty ideal, it is currently hardly attainable, taking into consideration the unbridgeable differences between the West and Russia over the issue of Ukraine. East-West relations are at an all-time low since the end of the Cold War with the most extensive sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and her allies at the beginning of this week. US UN Ambassador Samantha Power correctly pointed out on Twitter this week that Russia’s behaviour towards the West is – despite the Geneva Agreement – uncooperative and that they continue to destabilize Eastern Ukraine through the back-door. Even more worryingly, Russia completely fails to honour its commitments or stand up for the OSCE employees that have been taken hostage by pro-Russian paramilitary in Eastern Ukraine.
Thus Russia’s low regard for commitments made in international fora becomes painfully clear. Moreover, we have to remember that Russia and China have barely worked with us in international bodies in the past. Indeed, in the United Nations Security Council they have formed a political bloc in opposition to Western interests and they have often vetoed Western proposals for UNSC resolutions, not least when it came to stopping mass slaughter and war crimes by humanitarian intervention, such as in Syria or the former Yugoslavia. In addition, Russia and China have both hosted the defected US intelligence officer Edward Snowden, of course not unselfishly, in order to extract crucial security information about the US and its allies that they could exploit.
Despite all this negative track record of Russia and China to work with the West and honour their international commitments and despite the current tensions and political deadlock in Ukraine, Blair believes that there is scope for cooperation “whatever our other differences”. Now, we shouldn’t let Blair so easily off the hook when it comes to the question of cooperating closely on security-sensitive issues, such as Islamist terrorism, with nations that have defied us in the past and that exhibit hostile intentions towards us on the majority of other issues in international relations.
To name a few security issues, where China and Russia display hostile intentions towards us, one can point to the Chinese cyber-attacks, which breached US Weapons Systems or the destructive – and more or less open – support of the Russians for the Syrian as well as Iranian regime. At least Russia, under Putin, has clearly demonstrated that they will go to extreme lengths and accept considerable costs to the nation’s interest just to antagonize the West and contain Western power and influence across the globe. Putin is happy to prop up the Shia/ Alawite regimes in Iran and Syria and their terrorist proxies, Hezbollah. This represents a serious threat to the West and Israel, which Blair identifies as crucial ally in the ME, who we can’t abandon. Thus it is paradox that we should work with Putin, the very man, who is an ally of the regimes and terrorist groups that try to destroy Israel.
As Blair correctly noted, Putin’s vision of Russia is a “resurgent, nationalist” one. It is a Russia that returns to the borders and “greatness” of the Former Soviet Union or even the times of the last Russian tsar. The former US Foreign Secretary Madeleine Albright noted:
“Those of us that have dealt with Putin know how he thinks, and he really is nostalgic and believes that he’s some kind of a new czar”
Adrej Illiaronov, one of Vladimir Putins closest former advisers on economic issues between 2000 and 2005 explained Putin’s world view and that he wants to regain parts of Finland for Russia:
“When asked if Putin wishes to return to the Russia of the last tsar, Nicholas II, Illiaronov said: “Yes, if it becomes possible.”
“Putin said several times that the Bolsheviks and Communists made big mistakes. He could well say that the Bolsheviks in 1917 committed treason against Russian national interests by providing Finland’s independence”
So how are we supposed to work with an authoritarian, expansionist and corrupt regime like Putin’s on “one issue but not all others” when it is Putin who is defying and deceiving us where he can and when it is his regime that is propping up our opponents?
Any cooperation on security-sensitive issues requires trust and trust is the last word I would use to describe Western relations with Russia at the moment. Even if there were such basic trust, one has to understand Putin’s realist worldview, explained above, to predict how far such cooperation on countering Islamist terrorism would go: Putin’s collaboration with us would only go as far as his interest or that of his “sphere of influence” are concerned. That means that he will fight Islamism in “his territory”: “Putin’s view is that he protects what belongs to him and his predecessors,” as Illiaronov put it. Putin sees Islamic terrorism as a specific threat to Russian unity and nationalism, such as in Chechnya and not as a global “battle” in which friendship and cooperation is required. Putin believes very much in every nation’s own strength and he is not a philantroph, thus every other help from him on terrorist threats, which only concern the West, would come at a price – and probably a heavy one as Putin is known to be good at bargaining. Most probably Putin would want the sanctions to be lifted as they’re crippling the Russian economy and prolonging the recession in the country.
The question then is, whether we would be prepared to sacrifice our interests in the Russian “sphere of influence” and abandon Ukraine in order to get Putin’s “buy-in” on counter-terrorism. I argue that this is a dangerous strategy doomed to end in a zero-sum game, in which Putin gains the upper hand. Blair probably envisioned a win-win situation, but he committed the fallacy that typically the far left is committing, when siding with dictators: to believe that our “enemy’s enemy” is our friend. But a Cold-War trained former KGB agent like Putin will never be the West’s “friend” and he is unlikely to forget the bigger picture despite the niceties. He has already demonstrated openly that he is ruthless enough to exploit one issue over another, such as when he threatened to sabotage the Iran nuclear agreement talks over the conflict in Ukraine.
For the reasons explained in this section, I believe it would be a great mistake to reach out to Russia or China in order to cooperate more closely than absolutely necessary on security-sensitive issues, such as counter-terrorism. We don’t want to compromise our own interests, especially our security-interests by sharing technology and information that could be exploited against us.
Supporting El-Sisi in Egypt
Blair also asks us in his speech to “support and help” the new government and President in Egypt:
“We should support the new Government and help. None of this means that where there are things we disagree strongly with – such as the death sentence on the 500 – that we do not speak out. Plenty of Egyptians have. But it does mean that we show some sensitivity to the fact that over 400 police officers have suffered violent deaths and several hundred soldiers been killed. The next President will face extraordinary challenges. It is massively in our interests that he succeeds. We should mobilise the international community in giving Egypt and its new President as much assistance as we can so that the country gets a chance not to return to the past but to cross over to a better future.”
I was opposed to the military’s intervention in Egyptian politics and violent overthrow of President Morsi last summer because of the disastrous effects on the trust in democracy and social cohesion in Egypt. Indeed, as I predicted, social polarization between the supporters of the military on the one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other hand could hardly be greater. Egyptian politics has turned out to be a dangerous zero-sum game, in which whoever is at power tries to violently oppress and even kill the opponent. Since the military’s take-over more than 3.000 Muslim Brotherhood members have been killed and more than 1.000 have been sentenced to death in recent mass-court rulings.
Blair “strongly disagrees” with the mass-killings of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, though only in a half sentence, thus showing a lack of tact and concern for these people, which are Islamists, but not all necessarily violent ones (it’s a fallacy to believe all Islamists are violent, e.g. Turkey’s ruling party AKP). Therefore it is irritating that Blair asks us to “show some sensitivity” for the deaths among the Egyptian police and security forces. If we begin to show sensitivity for the deaths in Egypt, then for those on either side or none, because el-Sisi’s military junta seems to be just as intolerant, brutal and merciless as Morsi’s. I wouldn’t go as far as others, who say that if we show compassion for el-Sisi’s losses among security forces, then we should also pity Assad’s henchmen, but it certainly shows that Blair’s “sensitivity” towards a mass-killing, journalist-incarcerating (perhaps even Islamist, if virginity tests and el-Sisi’s US dissertation are anything to judge by) military regime, is somewhat alienating.
But then again, we shouldn’t be so surprised Blair has decided to work with an authoritarian regime (rather than oppose it from afar) as he is doing in Kazakhstan, where he works with the human-rights abusing, oppressive regime of Nazarbayev. Some will say in Blair’s defence that he has a better chance of protecting human lives by working with dictators, but as Joanna Lillis notes the human rights “situation has deteriorated since former prime minister began advising on good governance, according to Kazakh opposition leader”. This and other dubious entanglements with dictators have earned Blair the title of “George Galloway with a Learjet at his disposal” by the journalist Nick Cohen, who also correctly notes that “Tony Blair was an admirable man” but as Kyle Orton remarks “in the years since being in office, however, things had begun to go wrong”. Indeed, it seems like Blair has lost his moral compass, the instinct for right and wrong or who to ally with, since leaving office. Sadly, I can only agree with Kyle Orton’s conclusion:
“Blair was completely wrong that the military represented a hope for stability or progress in Egypt and the merciless conduct of the military, killing more than 1,000 people in six weeks, should have been the clue that these were not people to ally with.”
Interestingly, however, Blair does seem to grasp that there is a better way to do things than the military rule in Egypt. He points to Tunisia, which is politically inclusive and where Islamists played a crucial part in the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, as role model for the region.
“Tunisia. Here there have been genuine and positive attempts by the new Government to escape from the dilemmas of the region and to shape a new Constitution. Supporting the new Government should be an absolute priority. As the new President has rightly said for a fraction of what we’re offering Ukraine – which of course is the correct thing to do – we could put Tunisia on its feet. We should do so. This would be a very sensible investment.”
If Tunisia is indeed a success story in comparison to other outcomes of the Arab Spring, then what we should learn is that a transition to democracy has to be politically inclusive to prevent social polarization as can be seen in Egypt. Ironically, Blair arrives at this wisdom himself, but nevertheless chooses the “closed-minded” side of el-Sisi, who sustains and promotes conflict in Egyptian society:
“This struggle between what we may call the open-minded and the closed-minded is at the heart of whether the 21st C turns in the direction of peaceful co-existence or conflict between people of different cultures.”
Maybe Blair’s failure to promote “open-minded, peaceful co-existence” in Egypt stems from the incompatibility of Blair’s general wisdom to “take a side and stick with it” with the simple truth that there is no “honourable” political side to pick and stick with in Egypt. Politics in Egypt have to be taken with some sobriety, which means to accept that the military is just as deeply flawed and intolerant on people who think differently, as the Muslim Brotherhood, but that the only way is to work with both in an inclusive approach to achieve the long-term goal of raising a new generation of – hopefully – true democrats or at least “open-minded” people that live in peaceful co-existence.
Allowing Assad to Stay – in the Interim
As a liberal interventionist and a victim of the West’s long inaction in response to Milosevic’s genocidal war against the Bosnian Muslims, I take opposition to Blair’s third and final policy recommendation that we should accept a political solution to the crisis in Syria, in which Assad is allowed to stay in the interim:
“Syria. This is an unmitigated disaster. We are now in a position where both Assad staying and the Opposition taking over seem bad options. The former is responsible for creating this situation. But the truth is that there are so many fissures and problems around elements within the Opposition that people are rightly wary now of any solution that is an outright victory for either side. Repugnant though it may seem, the only way forward is to conclude the best agreement possible even if it means in the interim President Assad stays for a period. Should even this not be acceptable to him, we should consider active measures to help the Opposition and force him to the negotiating table, including no fly zones whilst making it clear that the extremist groups should receive no support from any of the surrounding nations.”
First of all, it is remarkable that the man, who until last year called for humanitarian intervention in Syria , and who in his Chicago Speech 1999 laid out the “doctrine of the international community” (a firm set of values based on human rights and national interest with success of intervention as the only exit strategy we should consider) considers an “exit strategy” for this “unmitigated disaster” that involves keeping a dictator – in the interim – , who has waged a war for 3 years and who has killed more than 150.000 of his own people by shooting, bombing and gassing them indiscriminately (the young, the old and the disabled) and who made about half of his country’s citizens refugees.
Blair correctly calls the idea “repugnant” but concludes that it is “the only way forward”. It seems that, on the one hand, Blair has (half-) resigned into the failures by the international community (“half” because he qualifies his argument by saying Assad can “only” stay in the interim and that we should consider intervention, if he refuses to leave) and on the other hand he believes that Assad is “the lesser evil” compared to the threat of the rule of hand-chopping, heart-eating and people-crucifying al-Qaeda or ISIS in Syria.
Syria has become a lawless place, leaving a vacuum that is filled by Sharia law in some places, but it is indeed our own inaction that has made Syria into a “breeding ground for extremism”. Unfortunately, Blair fails to mention that Assad is no bulwark against extremism and there are terrorists on his side, too, (Shia terrorists, but terrorists nonetheless): Assad is instrumentalizing the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah and Iranian jihadist in the battle against the Syrian opposition. Just because the West is more concerned with Sunni extremists such as al-Qaeda, doesn’t mean Hezbollah doesn’t pose a threat to the region, especially to Israel. As with Blair’s idea to reach out to Russia, tolerance for Assad results into tolerance for Hezbollah and Iran, which is inconsistent with Blair’s other remarks on our relationship to Israel and Iran for that matter.
I can understand that it is difficult to develop a coherent policy with regards to Syria as both sides seem equally extreme and equally repulsive, but as I have explained above, sometimes there is no “side to pick and stick with”, at least if we don’t want to compromise our own credibility. When there’s no “fair” party to side with, then we have to fight on our own. But then again, Blair was never one to fight on his own, he has always sought powerful allies and he likes to be on the winning side. Thus, given the fact that Assad has the upper hand and is making quick gains, it is unsurprising that Blair has chosen to “stick with him” – at least in the interim.
The problem is that “in the interim” is a slippery slope that can easily end in “permanently” once the rebels have laid down their weapons and agreed on a political transition with Assad as “interim President”. Peace agreements are only worth as much as the blood that the signatory parties are willing to spill to defend it.
In international relations, might is often right, as we have seen by Russia’s blatant disregard for the Budapest memorandum and their unlawful annexation of the Crimea. Ukraine made the fatal mistake to believe that the other signatories or the memorandum, the US and the UK, would protect the terms of the agreement (Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty) but as they have bitterly learned, paper is just paper with no military might. Now, what that means for the Syrian rebels is simple: If they accept Assad as interim President, he will stay permanently, as there is nothing and no-one (certainly not the intervention-wary US administration under Obama) that will force Assad out of office after the rebels have been disarmed and demobilized.
What this results into, is sadly not a “way forward” as Blair noted, but in fact a “way backward” to the times of the Assad family’s unquestionable rule; every dissent once again brutally silenced, as in the 1982 Hama massacre, committed by Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar Al-Assad’s despotic father.
Many commentators have called the Syria a “war of survival” and it is indeed a struggle of survival for the Assad family, as well as for the resistance to their rule. If this revolution fails, however flawed it is, it will probably take another hundred years until the resistance to the Assad family’s despotic rule will rise from their ashes. After such a long and bitter civil war between the Alawite minority and the Sunni majority, I have no doubt that Assad will continue, if not increase, his efforts to crush the Sunni opposition in Syria, even after a political agreement has been made, by treating the Sunni population as second-class citizens and cutting their civil and political rights, persecuting dissidents and spreading overall terror and fear.
Last, but not least, it is hardly imaginable what it must be like for the families of the deceased to continue to live under the rule of the man, who killed their loved ones in the most inhumane and brutal ways. As a Bosniak, who lost relatives in the Srebrenica genocide, I imagine it would be as abhorrent as a scenario in which the West hadn’t intervened in Bosnia, and in which my family would be either dead or forced to live as second-class citizens under the rule of fanatic demagogue Milosevic in a version of “Greater Serbia”. Or perhaps, living under Assad after he killed 150.000 Syrians, would be something like it was for the Kurds to live under Saddam Hussein for many years (until he was removed by – exactly – Blair and Bush) after Saddam killed up to 100.000 Kurds in the genocidal al-Anfal campaign between 1983 and 1988.
Therefore, I believe that we cannot allow Assad to stay in the interim. The consequences are too politically hazardous and morally abhorrent to take the risk of more decades of despotic rule, oppression and massacres under the Assad family.
Moreover, as mentioned above, Syria will stay a “breeding ground for extremism” as long as Assad rules, because he is a magnet for Sunni jihadists from all over the world, who stream into Syria to fight the Shia branch of Islam. If we really want to solve the Syria problem, we have to get rid of terrorists on both sides, Shia and Sunni jihadists alike, and strengthen and prepare the secular forces in the opposition for a role in an interim government.
Tony Blair’s point that the threat of Islamism is growing is a valid and important one, yet the message is buried under a number of misguided policy recommendations, as explained point by point above, which divert attention from the core statement. The former Prime Minister would have fared much better if he had focused on the threat of Islamism instead of trying to solve all the problems of the Middle East in one single speech. This way, however, I’m afraid that the main message got lost.