Iraq, Syria and the Middle East – a response to Tony Blair

Professor Lee Marsden provides a critique of Tony Blair’s recent essay on ‘Iraq, Syria and the Middle East’.

Tony Blair’s latest intervention in events in the Middle East have been summarily dismissed by London Mayor Boris Johnson as ‘unhinged’. While such comments are hardly respectful towards the current Middle East peace envoy they reflect exasperation at the continued hubris of the man responsible for taking the UK into the disastrous Iraq war on a demonstrably false prospectus.

And yet Tony Blair is not quite yesterday’s man, since leaving office he has built a multimillion pound business advising governments and businesses around the world, acts on behalf of the Quartet (US, EU, Russia and the UN) as Middle East envoy, runs an influential faith foundation and attracts audiences worldwide for his contribution to current political debate. His essay on ‘Iraq, Syria and the Middle East’ is an important but flawed contribution to the debate around what is happening in the region today.

Blair’s essay is divided into two parts – a defence of the Iraq war and then a call for action against Islamist extremism. The by now all too familiar arguments on justifying his support for George Bush’s Iraq strategy receive a new twist by the insertion of the counterfactual: What if Saddam Hussein had remained in power?

For Blair, the situation would have been even worse – the Arab Spring would have happened anyway and led to similar uprisings in Iraq which would be even more brutally crushed in Iraq. Saddam would have developed chemical weapons and used them against Iraqis because Bashar al-Assad was able to do so undetected by the West in Syria.  The problems in Iraq today have nothing to do with the 2003 invasion but are the result of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pursuit of sectarian policies, the failure to use oil money to develop the economy, and the inadequacy of Iraqi forces. He points out that al-Qaeda forces were a ‘beaten force’ three/four years ago.

The problem for Blair is that his counterfactual exists only in a world inhabited by neoconservatives and New Labour apologists for the war. Hussein was being contained and did not have weapons of mass destruction. Blair is being disingenuous when he claims the same could have been said about Syria’s chemical weapons. The removal of Saddam and subsequent dismissal of the Iraqi military created a power vacuum and facilitated an al Qaeda presence in Iraq, denied them under Saddam. Iraq experts George Joffe and Toby Dodge pointed this out long before the invasion and were ignored by Blair.

Al-Qaeda may have been a beaten force in 2010 but the prospect of a significant marginalised Sunni community reengaging with Islamist extremism against a Shia majority administration was not. Maliki and the Iraqi armed forces are easy targets to blame for the military successes of ISIS and yet Maliki was and, until ISIS most recent gains, remained the West’s choice. The 930,000 Iraqi security forces were trained, armed and part funded by the United States. If these are unable to halt the advance of ISIS what hope is there for Afghan forces trained and equipped in the same way after US withdrawal in Afghanistan? The benefits of oil production have been hampered by ongoing insecurity caused by the invasion.

In a world of counterfactuals, would the world be a safer place today with Saddam Hussein in power – yes it would!

Blair’s solution

While acknowledging the complexity of the individual issues affecting the Middle East and beyond Blair sums up the issue of our time as being the necessity to confront Islamist extremism. This trumps all other considerations and should be the primary focus of US, EU, Chinese and Russian foreign and domestic policy which all face the same ‘challenge of extremism’. For Blair, the West should stop blaming itself [him] for causing the problems in the Middle East – the problems were there anyway.

They are the result of ‘poor governance, weak institutions, oppressive rule and a failure within parts of Islam to work out a sensible relationship between religion and Government have combined to create countries which are simply unprepared for the modern world’. When this is combined with a lack of educational and employment prospects for young people this was ‘always going to lead to revolution’.

For Blair the solution is to use force against the Islamist extremism and defeat it in the Middle East, its spiritual home, and defeating it there will inevitably lead to its defeat in the rest of the world.  If the west and the rest don’t defeat extremism in the Middle East then Iraq/Syria becomes a safe haven for terrorists, those British and other Western citizens returning from fighting in the region become a threat domestically.

The way to defeat Islamist extremism is to unite with those in the Muslim world who sympathise with this approach; coordinate attacks on extremists with Arab governments; and assist the reform process but not where this leads to sectarian religious practices. While he does not call for boots on the ground he advocates further military intervention in the region presumably using targeted airstrikes, assassinations, and intelligence. All these thoughts he presents as his contribution to ‘a comprehensive plan for the Middle East that correctly learns the lessons of the past decade’.

The weakness of Blair’s argument is that it is precisely because he has not learned the lessons of the past decade that he would have us pursuing the same failed policies. Western intervention is not the solution but a contributory factor to the problem and a rallying point for religious extremists. Western plans for the Middle East included the Sykes-Picot carve up of the Ottoman empire, the division  of Palestine, exploitation of natural resources, the overthrow of governments (elected and otherwise), propping up and removing dictators, simultaneously supporting and opposing democracy, all depending on western interests. Do we really expect further interventions to solve the extremist Islamist problem?

Tony Blair is right to identify Islamist extremism as a problem but he fails to define such terminology, as though this was generally understood. Would he include the Muslim Brotherhood in this description? – Democratically elected in Egypt and the Palestinian territories and yet denied legitimacy by the West. Can al Qaeda, Taliban, al Nusra, ISIS, al Shabaab, Boko Haram, and Ansar Dine all be lumped together as having a common objective? Islamist extremism for Blair becomes a catch-all term for any group opposed to western policies and values. The term itself plays into the hands of Islamophobia and fails to acknowledge that the common factor is Sunni rather than Shia Islam and in particular its Wahhabi variant. The role of Saudi Arabia in advancing Wahhabi ideology and fermenting sectarian rivalries between Muslims throughout the world is never addressed by Blair. Until Blair can address such issues he may be well advised to follow Boris Johnson’s advice and ‘put a sock in it’.

Lee Marsden is Professor of International Relations, School of Political, Social and International Studies, University of East Anglia.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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