An individual might be forgiven for thinking the outpouring of criticism, condemnation and, in some cases, outright abuse of Tony Blair, had they been left to interpret his Bloomberg speech through the prism of incendiary commentators. If that same individual had listened to his address or read his actual words, they would have arrived at a different conclusion; a clear-eyed though disheartening analysis of regional conflict, sectarian violence, and human rights abuse demanding the attention of the international community. For all the attention to detail these writers claimed to have shown the former Prime Minister, not only did they manage to twist and inverse the meaning behind his words, but lead the public on an invective journalistic crusade of misinformation that only compounds the great challenges of our time.
Commentators appear to be clamouring to lay different and conflicting accusations at his feet: some say he still does not get what the problem is in the Middle East, others accuse him of misrepresenting Islam and conflating it with “Islamism”. One particularly grotesque distortion authored by Mehdi Hasan, never been known for his attachment to reality, had the complete absence of intellectual integrity to paint the former Prime Minister as “the violent Islamist’s best friend”.
For these commentators, however, Blair presciently issued a retort within the speech. He identified “the absolutely rooted desire on the part of Western commentators” to avoid engaging with the issue of radical Islam that unites many of the world’s conflicts. He goes further to add “there is a wish to eliminate the obvious common factor in a way that is almost wilful”. This is exactly what we are witnessing, Western analysts obfuscating the issues and shooting the messenger rather than accepting harsh political realities that demand tough decisions and strong leadership.
This article will seek to address a number of these distortions, one by one, starting with what Blair stated on the subject of Russia, and additional commentary on issues left unsaid. On Russia, Blair argued: “on this issue [of combating Islamism], whatever our other differences, we should be prepared to reach out and cooperate with the East, and in particular, Russia and China”. He also specifically said that the support being offered to Ukraine was “of course the correct thing to do”. Now why would someone who wanted to side with Russia give his approval of supporting Ukraine, in direct opposition to Russian strategic interests? Why would he single out “this issue” for cooperation if he wanted more wide-ranging cooperation with Russia across the board? The simple answer to that is, he is not, and those who say that he demanded us to put aside differences with Russia over Ukraine are spinning a cynical yarn. Blair said no such thing.
On Syria, there are pundits coming out with two very contradictory indictments of Blair: on one hand he has betrayed liberal interventionism and supports Assad, whilst on the other hand he is calling for yet another war in the Middle East. Now what he actually did was to criticise the West for being all mouth and no trousers in the early stages of the Syrian conflict when we still had an opportunity for meaningful intervention. In fact, some might remember that Blair was one of the first to call for active engagement in Syria one and a half years ago and on many subsequent occasions (for instance here and here). Though his own position has gradually shifted from a rather hawkish stance to a more cautious approach, in accordance with the shifting alliances on the ground, the bottom line of his policy remains the same: eventually Assad has to go. But unlike at the time when the opposition was not completely extremist-ridden, Blair acknowledges that a political settlement that keeps radical Islamists from power is necessary, even if the price is that Assad stays “in the interim…for a period”, with the very specific condition that we should consider “active measures” against Assad if this is not amenable. This would include a no fly zone to force Assad to reconsider his position.
On Iran, Blair reiterated his belief that under no circumstances can Iran be permitted to proliferate nuclear weapons and that we should take steps to roll the regime back from the threshold of proliferation. Whilst regime change in Tehran is a desirable outcome, it is neither necessary nor sufficient to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weaponry. The mullah regime cannot proliferate without its nuclear programme and a new regime could still proliferate if it has the nuclear infrastructure. The only way to prevent this is to force the dismantlement of the programme altogether. Many criticised him for ruling out regime change at this stage and going soft on Iran, but his speech was perfectly in line with what he said on the subject of Iran in the past (for instance here, here and here). Although Blair dealt with Iran only briefly, he made it clear that the regime “play[s] a deliberately de-stabilising role across the region” and that we must do whatever possible to keep its malicious influence at bay.
On Egypt, Blair emphasised the importance of securing Cairo from the corrupting effect of radical Islamist groups, noting that the fate of the region would hang on the outcome there. With more than half the entire Arab world’s population, Egypt’s fate will be a blueprint for the region just by the weight of demography alone. Blair refused to back down from his oft condemned position that the counter-revolution, which removed the regime of President Morsi from power, was the “absolutely necessary rescue of a nation”. However, he also condemned the death penalty passed on over 500 Muslim Brotherhood activists and the brutal crackdown that ensued following Morsi’s ouster. Whilst his position on Egypt was arguably the most controversial passage of his speech, those who accuse him of moral relativism have broadly failed to outline a convincing counter-narrative. It is all well and good to accuse Blair of being too soft on the al-Sisi regime and painting an oversimplistic black and white picture, but it is equally bizarre to present al-Sisi as the “bad guy” and the Muslim Brotherhood as “victims” of his vicious campaign for they are mostly responsible for their current position. The Muslim Brotherhood’s betrayal of the revolution and the Egyptian people displayed undisguised contempt for democracy, turning away from a genuine chance to leave the culture of dictatorship and embracing the crushing yolk of extremist ideology. Under these dire circumstances, the counter-revolution was the least bad option among a series of worse ideas that would have only deepened the plight of the Egyptian people in the long-term.
Finally, there are some who are criticising Blair’s “obsession” with Islamism at the expense of everything else. This is not an honest interpretation but rather a selectively incomplete analysis of his remarks. He recognised that all conflicts will have a local context and that there will be a multitude of factors at work in each one. Blair’s speech was never meant to be a defence of liberal intervention but a brutally honest illustration of the global threat posed by radical Islam, as well as an equally bleak illustration of the costs of dis-engagement and non-intervention in the Middle East. Many have accused Blair of siding with the wrong factions, but the truth is that if it were up to people like Blair, we would have never ended up in a situation where only bad alternatives are open to us, at least not without trying and playing an active and positive part in the process. That is particularly true for Syria, where we have missed our window of opportunity to dispose of Assad without empowering the Islamists that now dominate the Syrian opposition. Blair has not betrayed his legacy of liberal interventionism and is smart enough to understand it not as a rigid code of principles but a flexible tool of different layers. Blair remains an idealist, but a pragmatic idealist with a good sense of realism. He spends far too much time in the Middle East not to appreciate the fact that idealism on its own gets people killed.