Tony Blairs tragedy - to get the battle within Islam right


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This item from the Independant by Johann Hari is pretty good - I first read it on the Intranet Cutting Service. The article is at:

"Tony Blair's tragedy - to get the battle within Islam right but to get the US wrong

Over the past week, Lebanon’s cities smouldered and wept under Israeli bombardment, Iraq blistered into civil war, and Taliban fundamentalists slaughtered British soldiers and then gunned down teachers in front of their primary school classes for committing the “crime” of educating girls. In the middle of this meltdown, Tony Blair called for a “complete renaissance” of our foreign policy to battle “Reactionary Islam.” Now that a ceasefire is at last stuttering into place between Israel and the Lebanese government, we can begin to pick through the Prime Minister’s thought. Where he is right, he is very right – but where he is wrong, he is disastrously in error.

Tony Blair believes we should “join the dots” between the acts of Islamic fundamentalist violence across the world. “9/11 in the US, 7/7 in the UK, 11/3 in Madrid, the countless terrorist attacks in countries as disparate as Indonesia or Algeria, what is now happening in Afghanistan and in Indonesia, the continuing conflict in Lebanon and Palestine, it is all part of the same thing,” he argues. Many people instinctively scoff at this, claiming that these are reactions to little local problems – an occupation here, an attempt to impose shariah law there. But if you speak to jihadists, as I do pretty often, from London to Palestine to Syria, they indeed see this as a global battle with a global cause. They join the dots every day. Blair is right to say this thought “resembles in many ways early revolutionary Communism. It doesn't always need structures and command centres or even explicit communication. It knows what it thinks.”

But this is a nebulous fight, where the nature of the other side isn’t clear. There are three broad interpretations of it. The first is that this is a battle between the West and the world’s inherently violent, inherently crazy one bilion Muslims, a view held by ‘Clash of Civilisations’ school on the Ameircan hard-right. The second is that this is a battle against the American Empire, where jihadists are simply the mirror-image of US imperial violence, an inevitable blow-back against America’s support for psychotic dictators and its rapacious quest for oil.

The third option is articulated by Blair, and influenced by pro-war left thinkers like Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman. He believes that this is a sprawled-out civil war within Islam, a battle between moderate Muslims who seek democracy and co-operation, and Reactionary Muslims who seek the Rule of God through a medieval reading of shariah and a Caliphate-Empire of their own. These jihadists strike against the West, he argues, in an attempt to rally revolutionary sentiment at home. They kill Westerners so they can drive out Western proxies in their region like the House of Saud or Israel itself and become regarded as the representatives of the One True Islam for taking on the Great Satan. If you read the writings of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the man Bin Laden describes as his mentor, you will see this logic spelled out clearly: go after the “big tyrant” to topple the “little tyrants” in the Muslim world.

We already know what happens when this Reactionary Islam wins, because we watched Taliban Afghanistan for years. It means Muslim women imprisoned in burquas and in ignorance after being denied an education, Muslim adulterers stoned, Mulsim gays beheaded, all Muslims forbidden from listening to music or watching television or admiring art. It is hard to imagine a more deserving opponent for anybody who believes in human rights and human freedom.

I think Blair’s reading of the battle within Islam is supple and subtle and right. So where does Blair’s analysis go wrong? How did it produce such disaster across the world? It comes from a terrible, willfully naive misreading of his allies. Tony Blair seems to genuinely believe that the United States is the armed wing of Amnesty International, a state-machinery that will be dedicated benevolently to ensuring the right side prevails in this civil war. He even seems to extend this analysis, at moments of rhetorical overheat, to Israel. But in reality, the United States government is motivated by many ugly factors, with Blair’s benevolent reading way, way down on the list.

We only need to look at the events of the past month to see this. The war against Hizbollah was almost certainly unnecessary and has embolded Reactionary Islam against the forces of Moderate Islam. Let’s look at the facts. Hezbollah have said that they will never fire across the Israeli border again if they get their prisoners back and there is a negotiated two state solution agreed to by the elected Palestinian government. So once Israel’s soldiers were snatched, the sensible solution was to negotiate a prisoner swap (as that well-known peacenik Ariel Sharon did four years ago) and immediately open negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Of course it is possible Hezbollah are lying, and they care more about acting on crazed anti-Semitism or the orders of Iran. But before you drive three quarters of a million people from their homes and risk restarting a civil war that killed 100,000 people, isn’t it a good idea to find out – especially since a two-state solution is the right thing to do anyway?

But Blair did not advocate this route, the one called for by almost every moderate Muslim in the world. He sided with the White House, scuppered all calls for an immediate ceasefire, and effectively defended the Israeli action. Today, Hizbollah’s rockets may be blasted to pieces but there are tens of thousands of Lebanese children determined to join up and kill Israelis anew.

This keeps happening: Blair assumes the United States is the vehicle for emboldening moderate Muslims, when their actions have precisely the opposite effect. Look at Iraq. Blair believed the toppling of Saddam would embolden Moderate Muslims by creating a model for elected governments and free speech at the heart of the region. But American’s leaders pursued totally different goals, as people who supported the war, like Blair and (thankfully without even a tiny smidgeon of his influence) me, should have known would be the case all along. They instead were worried primarily about control of the oil supply, notoriously defending the oil ministry as Baghdad fell but not the hospitals or museums.

Blair is fond of dismissing this charge as a “conspiracy theory.” Is his misreading of American power so profound? Of course access to oil supplies – and profits for the energy companies who pay American politicians’ bills – are not the only factor in US policy calculations. But in 1945 the US state department set the tone for the next half-century when it declared the Middle East’s seas of oil are "a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history". Dick Cheney – President Bush’s neocortex – reinforced this in 1999, explaining, “Oil is unique in that it is so strategic in nature. We are not talking about soapflakes or leisurewear here. Energy is truly fundamental to the world's economy. The Gulf War was a reflection of that reality.” He was talking about the first Gulf War, but he could easily have been describing the Second.

The Prime Minister’s understanding of the inner workings of American foreign policy seems disturbingly limited. Jon Snow reveals in his autobiography that in a conversation with him, Tony Blair didn’t even know who Mohammed Mossadeq, the democratic Iranian Prime Minister liquidated by the CIA in 1953 and replaced with a fascistic dictator, was. Another of his friends told me she was appalled when Tony Blair enthusiastically greeted Henry Kissinger into Downing Street not long after 1997, but discovered when she challenged him that he just didn’t know anything about the Kissinger-Nixon years.

Blair rightly said that Iraq and Afghanistan would only recover from sectarian hatred if they were provided with economic opportunity. But did he really believe the Bush administration and the IMF would provide this? Not a single road has been built since the Taliban fell, and both countries have been predictably subjected to an enforced neoliberalism that has brought disaster everywhere it has been tried, from Argentina to Russia. As the economist Amy Chua has shown, the economic model imposed by the US could almost have been designed to create mass unemployment and heat ethnic tensions to the point of civil war.

This is Tony Blair’s tragedy: to have the correct analysis of the battle within Islam, but no weapons with which to fight it except a petrol-soaked US army which is pursuing very different goals he does not understand.

POSTSCRIPT: You can send comments on this for publication to

You can send them just to me at johann +*at*+

POSTSCRIPT: With the horrors continuing in Lebanon, it's clear my prediction in passing that the UN-brokered ceasefire plan meant the fighting would stutter to a close was far too optimistic. The curse of optimistism..."

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