x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Blair calls for engagement, but should the world listen?

Alan Philps writes about the former British prime minister's surprising speech on Islamist extremism

There is no law that says that a former British prime minister has to keep his or her mouth shut on leaving office. But there is a tradition of staying out of the limelight.

Tony Blair, still energetic at 60, does not fit this tradition. Internationally, he is enjoying something of a renaissance, with two European prime ministers – Manuel Valls of France and Matteo Renzi of Italy – coming to power as avowed Blairites, seeking to copy his ability to refashion a political party. The same does not go for Britain, where the label Blairite is a term of abuse. Mr Blair cannot stand up at home without being excoriated by his old party as a war criminal for invading Iraq with George W Bush.

So it is all the more surprising that Mr Blair took to the podium at Bloomberg in London on Wednesday to set out his views on the role of Islam in the politics of the Middle East. This was no philosophical musing by an elder statesman but a forceful re-entry into the foreign policy debate. He set out to upbraid western leaders for failing to recognise militant Islamism as he sees it: the biggest threat to global security, which is undermining the prospect of peaceful co-existence in a globalised world.

Mr Blair set off from a solid starting point. In Syria, he said, the western powers had initially encouraged the opposition to the Assad regime, and then failed to provide the necessary support to counter the regime’s backing by Iran and the entry of Hizbollah forces as the spearhead of the regime’s fightback. Standing aside was just as much a policy option as intervening, and had led to the current stalemate.

The former prime minister came out fighting as an unrepentant activist, the man who intervened in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. “We have to commit. We have to engage.” For Mr Blair, the key issue is to acknowledge the threat of radical Islam and to tackle it.

It is here that the message is confused. When Mr Blair talks of “we” it is not clear on whose behalf he is speaking. It seems he wants the US and the European Union to join forces with Russia and China to tackle radical Islam, leaving aside such issues as resurgent Russia’s ambitions to control Ukraine.

But how would Russia joining in this struggle add moral or political clarity? Its actions are wholly selfish and opportunistic. When a Muslim minority, the Chechens, wanted to leave the Russian Federation, Moscow’s response was a reign of terror that flattened the capital, Grozny. Now that Russian-speaking Orthodox Christians are unhappy in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s response is to try to carve up the neighbouring country.

Mr Blair is continuing his role as a global interpreter of Islam. Political Islam, he said, is an “ideology that distorts and warps Islam’s true message” and a “perversion”. That is certainly a view held by many in the Islamic world, but such views strike a dissonant note when they come from the mouth of a man whose participation in the US invasion of Iraq helped to shape the modern Middle East.

The original justification was the removal of weapons of mass destruction, and when these turned out to be a phantom, it was to spread democracy. The net effect has been to expand the area in the Middle East contested between Iranian-style militant Shi’ism and Sunni jihadism, and to raise the terrorist threat.

Mr Blair still holds out the hope that the impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will one day be more positively assessed. That day has not come. The London military think tank, the Royal United Service Institute, concludes in a new report that far from reducing the threat of terrorism, the invasion of Iraq had the effect of promoting it.

Mr Blair believes he represents a silent majority of Muslims who just want to live in peace. But after a decade of western intervention, and generations of colonial-era land-grabs, it is surely time for this silent majority to find its own voice.

When Mr Blair comes to discuss policy options for Syria, he offers what he describes as the “repugnant” solution of Bashar Al Assad staying on as an interim president. If this is not acceptable to Mr Assad, then he should face “active measures to help the opposition”, including no-fly zones. At the same time, “extremist groups should receive no support from any of the surrounding nations”.

But who is to decide which are the extremist groups? And what if the extremists – with years of combat experience in jihadist ranks – are the only force capable of engaging the regime? The call to commit and engage looks rather simplistic when confronted with the realities on the ground. And if the priority is for western leaders to make up their minds, how is Mr Blair leading from the front with this hedged proposal for Syria?

As the Iraq experience showed, no-fly zones must eventually be turned into boots on the ground, particularly if the target country has a modern air defence capability supplied by Moscow.

Mr Blair accuses western leaders and commentators of taking refuge in the political, economic and ethnic complexity of the various conflicts in the Middle East so they do not have to engage with what he sees as the unifying factor – religion.

If there is one lesson from the past decade it is that one-stop solutions do not solve international issues – they cause them to morph into more complex problems. Removing Saddam Hussein from Iraq was said to be the key to rebuilding a new Middle East. Perhaps it was, but not in the way that Washington had hoped.

It is indeed strange that Europe and America are paralysed in the face of the Syrian catastrophe, and the slow-motion disasters from Iraq to Libya. But this paralysis stems from a rejection by electorates of the tools used in the past decade. Mr Blair may start a debate, but it is up to a new generation of politicians to find the answers.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter: @aphilps