In which Tony Blair agrees with Stop the War…

I’ve an article over at Progress about Tony Blair’s speech this morning on the threat of extremist Islam.

It’s a fairly long piece, so I want to let it stand for itself.

However, it does occur to me that in explicitly stating that regime change in Iran should not be a policy objective, in stating that Assad could retain power, and if the British media is correct, that we should be prepared to treat with Russia in areas of common interest, then Tony is, more or less, advocating the policy position advocated by Stop the War, and the various media adjuncts thereof.

Naturally, this is confusing for them, and so far, Blair’s critics have chosen to ignore his actual policy proposals in the Middle East.1. The Huffington post headline is even ‘Peace Envoy calls for war.. again‘. Except I can’t find any such call for any war in the speech.

I can’t imagine what the anti-war crowd makes of Blair calling for no outside led regime change in either Iran or Syria, and his explicit acceptance of an extended Assad regime, even if  policed by a no-fly zone. If this post by Mehdi Hasan is any guide, some will ignore entirely what Blair said about Syria and Iran. Perhaps it will cause some sort of short-circuit in others. Peter Oborne may explode to discover he agrees with Tony Blair about Assad.

It follows from his that those who have the best right to complain about Blair’s speech are the consistent liberal interventionists. If even Blair is not arguing for the overthrow of destructive, murderous regimes like this, who will make the case?

After all, this is a speech that is willing to treat with Iran’s executioners, with the Syrian tyrant and with the turgid militarist nationalism of Egypt, all in order to erode the position of religious extremists. This pragmatism is put at the service of containing the export of extremist radicalism, and of creating the space for pluralistic governments and movements to prosper. The pluralistic citizens of Iran and Syria are sacrificed to that cause.

This practicality is uncomfortable for idealist liberals like me, but it does at least represent a plan, rather than the wail of discouraged disgust at all the bad options we are currently stuck with.

For example, My fellow liberals are clearly finding it hard to answer what we should do about Egypt, if a plague on both Sisi and the Brothers is clearly a Pontius Pilate of a policy?

My take on it is that Blair is right that engagement with radical Islam is essential, and equally right that ignoring the problem will solve nothing. We’ve seen that in Syria, where non-intervention has encouraged radicalism more surely than direct intervention, and without any ability to limit its outrages. Yet intervention is clearly not an available option. If we are to be more than hand-wringers, we have choices to make.

However, endorsing Blair’s core analysis does not require support for his every expression of what that engagement should be in each case. So I am less tolerant of Egypt’s military than Blair, more willing to act to overthrow Assad and Iran and support hard pressed pluralists in both nations. More positively, I am heartened that at last, Western voices are willing to issue even coded critiques of Saudi  efforts to export extremism. I would like to go further there.

As for the willingness to work with Russia, I am less cynical than most, despite my strong distaste for Putin. Just because we oppose Russia strongly on Ukraine does not mean there can be no engagement elsewhere. Was Churchill no anti-communist because he was willing to join Stalin against Hitler?

Where these accommodations might rub is if we were asked to choose, between Putin’s support for Assad and his pressure on Ukraine. that would be a hard moral and political choice. At the moment, though we are losing both arguments, so even a Hobson’s choice might be an improvement.

In the end though, I suspect Blair’s speech will go some way to prove his case.

If tackling religious extremism is really a priority, there is no pure path forward, no route without cost. We don’t want to address that. The west has chosen to forego direct intervention in the Middle East as too high a cost. That is a choice.

Yet so far, we are also foregoing any other forms of engagement, pretending this is a policy, not an abnegation of responsibility. As a result, we see the disasters around us, and tell ourselves they are at least not our fault. That surely cannot last.


  1. Except in that those who oppose intervention in Ukraine, demand Western governments intervene against Egypt’s military, which would in effect throw them into Russia’s open arms []

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