By Julie Lenarz and Simon Schofield
23rd April 2014
On Wednesday, 23 April, 2014, the HIC was invited to attend Tony Blair’s keynote speech on the Middle East and North Africa at Bloomberg HQ, London. Read our exclusive report.
In his bold, honest and timely intervention at the Bloomberg event today, former Prime Minister Tony Blair laid paved the way forward to solve the myriad interlinked and incredibly complicated conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
The ever growing threat of radical Islam
The central argument Blair made, which underpinned his later analysis, was the assertion that religious extremism – specifically radical Islam – is the single greatest threat to global security today and one which is not abating, but growing in reach, power and willingness to commit acts of incredible violence. There is a conflict raging between those Muslims who want to embrace the rest of the world and engage with it, and those who wish to impose their radical ideas on others and kill those who disagree. This battle is taking place regardless of Western foreign policy and is certainly not the product of it. Precisely because this battle will continue, whether or not the West involves itself, is why Blair calls for us to take interest and not shy away from risks. One side is striving, and will continue to strive, to dismantle every secular government, every democratic institution and every liberal ideal within its rapidly expanding reach. This theocratic, teleological and totalitarian ideology will simply never fit peacefully with the rest of the world, for it will not accept the existence of any opposing worldview or interpretation.
On a slightly controversial note in light of the on-going crisis in Ukraine, he also called for Russia and China to engage with the West and cooperate in pursuit of the absolute defeat of radical Islam worldwide, a goal that Blair believes must be shared by all. He emphasised that there was scope for cooperation with Russia on this one issue, and despite framing this particular argument poorly, at no point excused Russia’s appalling acts of aggression in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, as some want to make us believe.
On the importance of engagement in the Middle East
The second tenet of his approach, following neatly on from the first, is that there is a significant number of Muslims who do not buy into the dangerous rhetoric of radical Islam and who embrace liberal values of tolerance, democracy and globalisation. This group is fighting against extremism and will stand with us, if we decide to eschew the easy and convenient paths of appeasement and blissful ignorance. We should all remember the brave Afghans and Iraqis who defied the terrorists and turned out to vote in enormous numbers. We should bear in mind the initial sentiment behind the Arab Spring, where citizens across the MENA region took to the streets to demand democracy and an end to the culture of dictatorship that has been a defining feature of the region since time immemorial. According to Blair, there is no credence to the view that ‘they’re all as bad as each other’ and that we should disengage and let the fire burn itself out.
Syria and Iran
Upon these two points, Blair laid down some policy suggestions, in surprisingly granular detail for a keynote speech. He decried the Syrian crisis as an ‘unmitigated disaster’, noting that both removing Assad and allowing him to stay seemed to be ‘ugly’ options. The democratic Syrian Arab Spring protests have been hijacked by Islamists who want to replace Assad’s brutal, Baathist government with a caliphate of equal, if not greater, brutality. Iran has activated Hezbollah and its Revolutionary Guard to support Assad and this alliance is slowly creeping towards victory. Both of these deplorable developments are exacerbated by Western policies of non-interference. Because the democratic movement was unable to access support from anywhere, it was throttled by the jihadists who are bankrolled by the Saudis and Qataris. To date, our non-intervention in Syria has cost as many lives as our intervention in Iraq, except that in Syria there is no end in sight to the bloodshed, little if any hope of Assad being removed and a vanishingly small chance of the people of Syria being given the opportunity to shape their own future.
Additionally, Iran and Syria feel they can act as brutally as they wish with impunity, because the so called ‘red lines’ imposed by the US administration are not worth the oxygen wasted in drawing them. Blair outlined that the ideal outcome for the West, at this advanced stage of the conflict, would be a political settlement which keeps the Islamists at bay, even if the price of that settlement is that Assad is to be allowed to stay in power for an interim period. This said, he did not mince his words when he explained that, if Assad would not accept that his being in power for the long term was not a viable option, then we should consider ‘active measures’, including a no-fly zone to force Assad to the negotiating table, whilst also denying Islamist opposition groups any level of support.
Further on Iran, it was stressed that under no circumstances should the regime be permitted to become a nuclear-weapons state and that steps should be taken to roll it back from being a nuclear-weapons threshold state. On the other hand, Blair warned, Iran should not be allowed to buy itself more regional influence than it already has with the promise of nuclear concessions. The Islamic Republic plays a deeply destabilising role in the region and beyond and this should neither be encouraged nor tolerated.
On the subject of Egypt, Blair emphasised that the fate of the region would be determined by the outcome in Cairo. The new President, whoever he may be, has a tough job ahead of him, but it is vital that he receives Western support and encouragement to ensure that Egypt stays on the path to democracy and does not instead fall victim to extremists or revert to a military dictatorship. Whilst the Muslim Brotherhood was democratically elected once, it seems they intended to dismantle and corrupt all institutions of the Egyptian state. Morsi ruled with an iron fist, as his Brotherhood set about the task of establishing an authoritarian Islamist theocracy, which would not suffer the existence of non-Muslims. Blair clearly distanced himself from the current Egyptian administration on some issues, notably the death sentence on over 500 Muslim Brotherhood supporters, but he did not compromise on his widely-criticised view that the counter-revolution “was the absolutely necessary rescue of a nation”.
Blair laid out a passionate and convincing case of why we do not have to luxury to disengage from today’s security challenges, above all else the fight against global radical Islam. His speech presented a challenging and thought-provoking mixture of pragmatism, realism but also the early-day Blair idealism. Whilst you can disagree with him on details – whether his support for the Egyptian counter-revolution or cooperation with Russia in the fight against radical Islam – it is hard not to agree with his overarching analysis. The violent phenomenon of radical Islam, with its visions of a global caliphate where liberalism and democracy are heretical words worthy of the death penalty for even being spoken, is not going away on its own. It is a complex and virulent cultural pathogen, which will require a broad range of interventions to cure; not only military interventions, but also economic, political and diplomatic. Blair’s speech was not without flaws, but he should be congratulated for having the courage to tell an inconvenient truth, which many politicians and commentators in the West would rather ignore.