Friday, 25 April 2014

Tony Blair: Fictions and Contradictions.

'Tony Blair's speech this week at Bloomberg in London reveals a growing support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. A decade ago, Blair was justifying wars in the Middle East on the grounds that they would launch a democratic revolution and sweep away Arab despots'.The hypocrisy of Tony Blair's Middle East vision Arun Kundnari, Guardian 24 April 2014)
To point to Blair's hypocrisy is to state the obvious. The question few journalists ever bother dealing with is why western politicians have held to such double standards. With Blair, the criticism even in 2003 was about why remove Saddam in Iraq but then back Saudi Arabia's despotic theocratic state.

The reason is western energy security, that is access to oil and gas reserves in a world of rapidly industrialising Great Power rivals to both the US and EU states, not least that of China, India, and, partly, Russia. With supplies of oil struggling to keep pace with global demand a resource race is on.

The Second Iraq War in 2003 was launched with reasons that had nothing to do with the cosmic battle between 'extremist Islamism' and the forces for secular democracy. By getting rid of Saddam Hussein, Blair seems to have believed it would trigger off a domino effect with neighbouring states.

The plan was for a sucessful model democracy to act as a force for democratisation across the Middle East. If Blair could be criticised for that, and what went catastrophically wrong, then it is hardly surpising he has now had to go back on that and pose as a wise realist in 2014.

The shift in Blair's 'thinking' is, as always, explained by his need to reposition himself and to rationalise to himself and the media classes why the Iraq War was 'the right thing to do' and that it was 'extremist Islamism' and a violent jihadist death cult that unexpectedly wrecked his plans for Iraq.

It's difficult to understand why Arun Kundnani is so surprised that Blair has 'embraced Arab despots whose regimes, he says, are necessary bulwarks against Islamism'. In Egypt, Blair regards the coup as a military takeover, a transitional stage in a longer term democratic process.

To a certain extent, Blair is embarrassing the Western powers by using his international public position as Special Envoy to the Quartet to be so forthright in his support for the Egyptian coup. The position is largely meant to be a useless and token one for Blair to occupy. and he's largely detested by both sides.

Elsewhere, Blair has not, in fact, embraced the Syrian government as a defence against Islamism. On the contrary, Blair states not that 'Assad must go' but that he 'should go' after an agreement has been made between the two sides. However,
'Should even this not be acceptable to him, we should consider active measures to help the Opposition and force him to the negotiating table, including no fly zones whilst making it clear that the extremist groups should receive no support from any of the surrounding nations'.
Blair has not 'embraced' Assad but is emitting vague and obliquely menacing messages about 'the Opposition' having 'fissures and problems around elements within', meaning, in ordinary language, that the insurgents contain violent jihadists affiliated to Al Qaida and other Islamists.

Naturally, Blair cannot use the term 'extremist Islamists' to a significant part of the Free Syrian Army because that would mean admitting the West has backed the very 'extremists' Blair has condemned elsewhere in Egypt, most obviously the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

'Islamist extremism' is a conveniently flexible propaganda term. 'Extreme' means against Western strategy, in particular the oil and gas interests Britain has in Egypt and in the Syrian Civil War where it backs Qatar and Turkey who, in turn, fund and support the Muslim Brotherhood.

In order to get around that obvious fact, Blair uses the term 'extremist groups' to insinuate that he could mean those being backed by Saudi Arabia in their proxy war against regional  rival in Shia Iran. Only he could not mention it by name, so it could be taken to mean only Iran and its ally in Lebanon's Hizbollah.

These foreign policy contortions, the use of abstract language and a simplified worldview are a means by which Blair can make himself useful in 'framing the debate'. Whether it bears any connection to reality is not so important as 'shifting perceptions' in the west as regards the Muslim World.

Partly, Blair wants to rehabilitate his image by claiming what happened in Iraq would have happened anyway after the Arab Spring just as it has unfolded in Syria. To 'engage' and 'commit' to intervention earlier, as he was in Iraq, would have prevented massacre and carnage. He needs people to 'believe' this.


Responses and Replies,

In part I think he is trying to "frame the debate" so as to move the focus before Chilcot reports. I think that he also realises that western policy has got itself into a dead end in the region as the contradictions have become too obvious (particularly in Syria). Blair seems to think that he has to help to resolve some of those contradictions, by hinting at the problem of jihadis in Syria and the amount of support they have received from Saudi Arabia. Western policy makers cannot go on pretending that these problems don't exist - they have become too obvious and it is an embarrassment that western pronouncements ignore them. Yet Blair has framed them in a way that doesn't shine too much light on them (and doesn't say much about what to do about them).

The contortions are obvious, but western policies in the region are full of contradictions. A few contortions are necessary to resolve some of those contradictions. Blair is unaccountable, so he doesn't have to admit that what he is saying now contradicts what he said 12 years ago.
Blair would have us believe that had the western powers took decisive military intervention from the outset of the Syrian conflict, by using air power as in Libya, then Assad could have been removed before Al Qaida had a chance to exploit the chaos caused by civil war.

The point Blair misses is that the western powers ( the US, France and UK ) were active and engaged in trying to get Assad to go by supporting Arab backers of 'the Opposition' through the Friends of Syria Group. They made it plain 'regime change' was the goal.

The mistake was not in refusing to use decisive military intervention. Blair only claims that to make his decision to join the US invasion of Iraq one of many decisions about the problem of action or inaction which both can have bad consequences in his view.

Had the western powers carried out a Libyan style air campaign against Assad, the result would have been similar-chaos.Ground troops, i.e a full scale invasion, would not have been on the cards as Syria has little oil and the Iraq invasion had discredited that option.

Blair's entire screed is based on a mixture of geopolitical fantasy and retrospective wish thinking, 'if only' this or that would have been done and attention and commitment paid to the Middle East it would not be in the mess it's in now.

'I'm surprised that Blair and others in the West haven't begun arguing more openly for the need to fight for resources (strategic interests) instead of camouflaging it with other agendas (fighting extremism, promoting democracy etc.). He did refer to this in this speech, but that has largely been ignored in the media'.
Blair did refer to it in passing and, at least, mentioned it as one very important factor why the Middle East matters. The media ignored it because it routinely screens out any mention of the role of natural resources in driving conflicts before the public.

There is a sort of taboo on mentioning minerals, oil and gas. Partly so as not to 'rock the boat' and also because an advanced consumer society could not function without access to the relatively cheap oil and gas that fuels the economy and high octane lifestyle western nations are accustomed to.

That basic reality has to be denied because, humans can only bear so much reality' and so a sort of geopolitical wish thinking takes over and predatory struggles over resources have to be seen as secondary to ennobling causes such as 'democracy promotion' and 'our values'.

This does not mean western politicians such as Blair do not mean that they believe western military intervention is not about spreading democracy, the rule of law and human rights. It is just that when energy security is threatened, these get sacrificed.

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