Tony Blair, Britain’s former prime minister, took a scalpel to a neuralgic issue last week. In a major speech on Wednesday, he declared that the West needed to swallow its differences with Russia and China and make common cause with them to counter the threat of radical Islam, the biggest threat to global security today.
Blair has understood that, with the world facing this lethal threat, there is an even more dangerous reluctance in the West to engage with it – even to the point of understanding exactly what it is.
His remarks provoked scorn and fury in equal measure. He was accused of being “the tyrants’ friend,” “embarrassingly simple-minded” and posing a “threat to world peace.”
Blair, the Middle East envoy for the Quartet of the UN, the EU, the United States and Russia, has long been a lightning-rod for widespread fury in the UK over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics claimed that, as prime minister, he was in the pocket of Israel and US president George W Bush.
Excoriated by both Left and Right as a Neo-con warmonger who took the UK to war in Iraq “on a lie” about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, he is hounded by demonstrators calling him a “war criminal” and “Bliar” whenever he appears in public.
In his London speech, Blair poked directly at these wounds – even though, in a number of respects, he himself flinched from the full implications of a situation he rightly criticizes the West for refusing to acknowledge.
He suggested that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan failed merely because of sectarian fighting in those countries. That provoked unbridled rage amongst those who believe that the carnage in Iraq, in particular, was the result of an “illegal” war that was his fault and pointless from the start.
The second issue on which Blair provoked fury was Israel. Despite his pro-Israel views – for which he paid a heavy price in British politics – he used to maintain that solving Israel/Palestine would solve the region’s problems. Now he understands, correctly, that solving the region’s problems is critical to solving Israel/Palestine.
This is incomprehensible to those for whom Palestinian “victimization” by Israel is the defining issue of the times. But Mr. Blair wants people to understand that the real issue is the global threat from radical Islam.
As he said, “There is not a region of the world not adversely affected by Islamism” – including Europe, where the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda of Islamizing the West has been allowed to proceed unchecked. Yet the West goes to extraordinary lengths to deny this common factor. For saying we need to take sides, to “engage” and “intervene” against radical Islam, Blair stands accused of supporting tyrants. But in strategically crucial Egypt, it is only rational that Blair should say of General Sisi, the autocrat who stands against rule by the Muslim Brotherhood, that “it is massively in our interests that he succeeds.”
Nevertheless, aspects of this speech suggested Blair remains in a bit of a muddle. The turmoil in the Middle East, he said, was fundamentally due to the “titanic struggle” between Muslim reformers and Islamic radicals within both the Sunni and Shia worlds. That undoubted struggle, however, is by no means the whole story.
The unpalatable truth which he failed to acknowledge is that, invariably, the choice in the Middle East is not between a nasty strong man and nice reformers, but between a nasty strong man and Islamic radicals who threaten the West.
That, of course, is precisely the complaint thrown at him for deposing Saddam Hussein. But it was necessary to get rid of Saddam because he was too dangerous to the West to continue in office. It was similarly necessary to go to war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But it was disingenuous of Mr. Blair to blame the subsequent chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan on the “distorting feature” of religious extremism. The murderous battles there took place only because the strategic failures of both the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns had removed the restraints which had previously kept those sectarian divisions under control but then signally failed to help install new restraints in their place.
His deepest mistake, however, was to say that the “radicalized and politicized” view of Islam was “an ideology that distorts and warps Islam’s true message.”
This is the argument that Islam is really a religion of peace and so the extremists don’t represent “true” Islam. But this is not correct. While millions of Muslims around the world do shun the violent or extreme tenets of the religion, these are endorsed by all the Islamic authorities who matter.
It is more correct to say Islamic radicalism is a valid interpretation of Islam, no less “true” just because it is not universally endorsed. Yet Blair elides “interpretation” with “perversion” – thus undermining his own message that the West doesn’t understand the nature and severity of the threat from the Islamic world.
He also omitted to mention the most devastating blow of all to the security of the West: that President Obama’s America has stopped defending its allies and is instead empowering its enemies. The Arab and Muslim world perceives the US throwing in the towel in Afghanistan, breaking its own red lines over Syria and displaying impotence over Ukraine.
Above all, it recognizes from the farcical negotiations in Geneva that the US will not stop Iran from getting the bomb, and that it has actually strengthened Iran’s stranglehold on the region.
Arab rulers will always align themselves with whatever “strong horse” they perceive to be dominating the pack. Accordingly, Arab states previously helpful or essential to the West such as Egypt are cozying up instead to Russia, China or even Iran itself.
The one beacon of stability and freedom in the entire region is the nation that is directly threatened with annihilation: Israel. America and Europe should therefore stop beating it up and rewarding or appeasing those who want it destroyed, from the Palestinian Authority to Iran. They should instead start defending their one true ally against the enemies who threaten them all. Western interests, commercial as well as security and political, lie in supporting Israel. Only when the West finally understands that will it have any hope of defeating the radical Islamist enemy. That’s what Blair should have said.