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Wednesday, April 23, 2014 

A dangerous Melanie Phillips.

If there's one thing you can rely on when a new pronouncement emerges from the Office of Tony Blair, it's that it will be taken very seriously by both devotees and critics of our dear former prime minister alike. The responses might not be correspondingly dry, but they amount to the same thing. It's therefore not true to say that Blair's sermons don't have influence, especially when there are still those within government who share his increasingly worrying world view.

For Blair has at last dropped any real moderating factors from his black and white vision of the Middle East (and much of Africa for that matter) and what we should be doing to encourage "change". The odd thing is that Blair's idea of reform post-Arab spring seems remarkably close to the world prior to 9/11. Tony has you see clearly been revisiting Iraq and where it all went wrong, probably in anticipation of the Chilcot inquiry passing judgement on him. The problem wasn't the intervention itself or the lies leading up to it, rather the fact that both Sunni and Shia extremists immediately rose up against their supposed liberators.  Where al-Qaida previously had barely existed, within a year the most powerful franchise yet was established and on its way to controlling vast swathes of the north of the country.

Apart from Blair not admitting it was his very intervention that played exactly into al-Qaida's hands and prompted the biggest surge in jihadi recruitment since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as numerous commentators have pointed out, and ignoring all the mistakes made by the occupying forces in the first few years, his analysis is reasonably sound. Where he then gets it spectacularly wrong is in taking this view of Islamist extremism being the main factor holding the region back and applies it across the board. Yes, he is at pains to say there are other forces at work and that Islamism is not Islam, but frankly it's becoming more and more difficult to take his protestations seriously.

Blair's solution is remarkably simple. The threat is so serious and affects both ally and ostensible rival alike that differences should be set aside to challenge it. We should work with both Russia and China as they have their own problems with Islamists. Even more dramatically, such is the danger posed by the extremists in the Syrian opposition that we should aim for a negotiated settlement where Assad stays in power, at least for the time being.  Only if he rejects such a generous offer would we then look to help the same opposition through imposing a no fly zone.  This would obviously mean something approaching war, although we would demand at the same time that the extremist groups get no help from the surrounding states.  You know, just like we have for the last couple of years now, and what an overwhelming success it's been.

This new thesis from the man who previously gave us the Chicago speech is riddled with contradictions, and Blair must realise know it.  To be sure, he had no objection to dealing with authoritarian states when in office so long as they either supported or didn't interfere with the West's wider foreign policy aims, hence why he brought Gaddafi's Libya in from the cold and had no qualms whatsoever about shutting down the Serious Fraud Office investigation into fraud in the al-Yamamah deal with Saudi Arabia.  This new emphasis on realpolitik though suggests that despite continuing to support the Iraq war, given the chance to do things differently he most likely would.  Considering the more barmy neo-cons have insisted in the past that the Iraq intervention was one of the catalysts of the Arab spring, this is quite the Damascene conversion.

Then again, Blair clearly has no love for the Arab spring or for the values those who initially rose up had.  He says our ultimate principle should be support for religious freedom and open, rule based economies.  Note that he doesn't mention democracy, a word he only uses three times throughout his entire screed, one of those in reference to Israel.  Like so much of the speech, the reason is simple: democracy, as seen in Egypt and in Palestine, can lead to the people voting for the very Islamists he is so opposed to.  As Blair sets out, whether they be Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood, and regardless of whether they eschew violence, "their overall ideology is one which inevitably creates the soil in which such extremism can take root".  He goes on to say Islamism's very implementation is incompatible with the modern world, yet apparently this is its very danger.  One would suspect that if this were the case Iran's theocracy would have long since departed the scene, yet still it remains with us, in spite also of the sanctions bearing down on it.  Perhaps its survival can be put down to its managed democracy, but again, doesn't this rather undermine Blair's case?

Well yes, but it sure doesn't stop him.  Egypt then, rather than Syria, is where the future of the region hangs.  Despite coming to power in what were widely regarded as fair elections, the Brotherhood simply had to be overthrown, as it was "taking over the traditions and institutions of the country".  It wasn't just an ordinary protest that led to the ousting of Morsi, it was "an absolutely necessary rescue of the nation".  Any concerns we have about the over a thousand Morsi supporters who were massacred in the aftermath, or the 500+ protesters sentenced to death we should put aside, as we help the country "cross over to a better future".  Blair in other words supports wholeheartedly the restoration of the Mubarak era, just with a different general in charge.  Nor it seems should we worry that supporting the coup might encourage the very belief change can't be achieved through the ballot box, leading to the exact violence Blair so abhors, or about the journalists imprisoned on false charges, the kind of actions we so condemn of other authoritarian states, or indeed the very people who demanded true democracy and who want neither the army or the Brotherhood; all these are by the by when defeating the true threat posed by the Islamists is vastly more important.

The countries that go unmentioned ought to speak just as loudly as those he goes through in turn.  Strangely absent is Turkey, again perhaps because it would otherwise undermine his case.  On the face of it Erodgan's AKP would fit the bill: a party that bit by bit seems to be undermining democracy, which supports Islamists in Syria and describes children killed by its forces as "terrorists".  It remains however as popular if not more popular than ever, and has also established precisely the open, rule based economy Blair favours, to the point where the Gezi Park protests started because of the proposed development of yet another shopping mall.  For all Blair's radicalism, he also still can't bring himself to criticise Saudi Arabia by name, instead only remarking on the absurdity of spending billions
 

of $ on security arrangements and on defence to protect ourselves against the consequences of an ideology that is being advocated in the formal and informal school systems and in civic institutions of the very countries with whom we have intimate security and defence relationships.

It's this cowardice, along with his rejection of what he calls the "absolutely rooted desire on the part of Western commentators" to "eliminate the obvious common factor in a way that is almost wilful" that gives the game away.  Just as he spoke after 9/11 of "re-ordering this world around us", his ultimate desire remains the same even if his methods are now different.  Regardless of how just the grievances of those who have turned to violence and/or Islamism are, they have to be defeated whatever the cost.  It doesn't matter if those doing the smiting are as tyrannical as those they are fighting against, like the Russians in Chechnya, or the Chinese against the Uighurs, both of whom Blair wants onside for his battle, such is the danger of the ideology that we must if necessary make uncomfortable bedfellows.  We shall go on pussyfooting around Saudi Arabia's sponsorship of the very people Blair proselytises against, while keeping the pressure up on the potential ally we could have in Iran.  We must hug Israel ever closer, as the real problem is with the divisions among the Palestinians, again caused by Islamism.  


This, remember, is the Quartet's peace envoy.  He is also a man who regardless of the criticism, retains influence.  He ought to be thought of after this as Melanie Phillips with a hotline to the world's leaders.  And if that isn't scary, I'm not sure what is.

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