(photo credit: Bloomberg)
There is an arc of extremism now stretching across the Middle East and touching, with increasing definition, countries far outside that region. To defeat it will need an alliance of moderation that paints a different future, one in which Muslim, Jew and Christian; Arab and Western; wealthy and developing nations can make progress in peace and harmony with each other.
My argument to you today is this: We will not win the battle against this global extremism unless we win it at the level of values as much as force, unless we show we are even-handed, fair and just in our application of those values to the world. The point is this. This is war, but of a completely unconventional kind...
That's the opening of an address given by Tony Blair at a meeting of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on August 1, 2006. To my mind, it's the most important speech given by any international political figure in the past decade, the clearest and most eloquent expression by any leader in the West as to why the fight against radical Islam is the major ideological struggle of this generation, and how to go about winning it.
Blair's eloquence on the key issue of our age is reason enough alone for me to consider him a great leader, and I urge everyone to read the full text, found at http://www.pm.gov.uk/output/Page9948.asp.
THERE ARE certainly those in his own country who don't share my opinion. Admittedly, it's not for me to judge his performance as prime minister of the United Kingdom, especially relating to domestic issues, even though I generally share the centrist "Third Way" social-democratic outlook which enabled him to reform the British Labor Party and revitalize the UK economy.
The real damage to Blair with his own constituency, though, has been his support for the Iraq war. While there's no denying that he's had the bad luck to tie with the Bush administration's incompetent handling of the postwar situation there, he deserves credit both for understanding the true value of Britain's strategic relationship with the US and for his genuine desire to better the lives of the Iraqi people by removing a reckless tyrant who, WMDs or not, posed a real threat to both his regional neighbors and global stability.
Unfortunately, while nations often don't get the leaders they deserve, sometimes the opposite is also true. Blair wanted to lead his countrymen on a mission that many in Britain, especially an influential intellectual elite that's lost confidence in classic European-liberal ideals and has replaced them with discredited neo-Marxist shibboleths, either don't believe in or don't feel up to carrying out even if they did.
Perhaps that attitude will start changing in the wake of this week's latest Islamic extremist terror acts in the UK - and then again, maybe not.
At any rate, even taking into account his shortcomings, I'm willing to bet that Blair will fare far better in the historical record than most of his detractors, and I welcome his appointment as the new Middle East special envoy for the Quartet (the US, EU, UN and Russia).
THAT'S NOT because I see Blair as being especially "pro-Israel," despite his being described so by Arab sources and many media commentators ready to place that label on anyone who doesn't accept their premise that the founding of the Jewish state and its subsequent behavior over the decades is the root cause of every hardship in this region since then.
The truth is, rhetoric aside, Blair's fundamental positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are really not all that much different from those of most other European leaders - Jacques Chirac, for example - deemed far more sympathetic to the Arab position. The former UK prime minister has made clear - such as in the speech cited above - that he sees solving the Palestinian issue as a key to defeating Islamic extremism, lending it an emphasis that many in Israel (including myself) would regard as unrealistic wishful thinking.
What really distinguishes Blair from most of his Continental peers is not his view of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but the degree to which early on he understood the nature and dimensions of the Islamic-terrorist threat.
His reluctance to join the European bandwagon criticizing Israel during last summer's Second Lebanon War surely had less to do with any special feelings for this country than it did with his correct perception of Hizbullah as a spearhead for that "arc of extremism" that spreads eastward to the mullahs of Iran.
It also spreads southward to the stronghold of Hamas, and I've little doubt that Blair has played no small role in maintaining the EU's boycott of Gaza's radical-terrorist masters. If indeed a main mission of the Quartet's new envoy is to strengthen the "moderate" Palestinian camp by helping build its civil institutions and society, he will have to maintain that firm stance in the face of pressure to accept Hamas without preconditions as an acceptable partner in Palestinian nation-building.
To that end, his experience in overseeing the Northern Ireland peace process will serve Blair well. His government's insistence over the years that IRA "cease-fires" were not enough, that Sinn Fein's armed wing would first have to disarm itself and cooperate with the Northern Ireland police in establishing real law and order before being allowed to take part in any power-sharing, set an example that one can only wish was followed before the last Palestinian elections, and will be in any subsequent ones.
Perhaps my expectations for Tony Blair are too high, influenced by an attraction for a political figure whose appeal for me over the past decade has been far greater than that of any political personality in Israel or the US over the same period. Perhaps I give too much credit to the slick "spin master" depicted in The Queen whose substance falls short of his undeniable style.
I THINK not. Blair sacrificed much of his popularity in recent years trying to rally his people for a fight many of them have little stomach for, proving himself a man of far deeper principle than even some of his admirers gave him credit for. Whether he succeeds in his new mission here or fails as so many other "peace envoys" have before him, one has to give him credit for taking on this near-mission-impossible with barely a break after leaving 10 Downing Street.
Why so quick? Perhaps in part personal ego, a belief that it's too soon for him to leave the global stage no matter what his countrymen think. But surely also because he truly believes the words he spoke last summer: "This struggle is one about values. Our values are worth struggling for. They represent humanity's progress throughout the ages, and at each point we have had to fight for them and defend them. As a new age beckons, it is time to fight for them again."
The writer is director of communications for The Israel Project.