Anyone who has listened to a Tony Blair speech in recent years would not be surprised that he is concerned about radical Islam. On that front, his speech on the Middle East at Bloomberg last week broke little new ground. Equally unsurprising is the visceral response to any public uttering from Blair these days. Those happy to denounce him as a war criminal will find plenty to sneer at.
This is a pity, because Blair’s words should be taken seriously. His central point – that radical Islam in not only a threat, but that its influence is growing – is undeniably true. Blair says this problem is so pronounced that it is time to take sides: you are with the forces of democracy and pluralism or you are with the forces of repression and Islamism.
As Blair himself acknowledges, it is more complicated than this. In every country affected, “there are an array of complexities in each case, derived from tribe, tradition and territory”. However, he sees the bigger picture, and is correct to point out that “there is something frankly odd about the reluctance to accept what is so utterly plain”, and that the key struggle in the Middle East is “around the issue of…Islam, in politics”. Pretending this is not an animating force will lead us to make consistently bad policy choices.
One threat to Blair’s vision of consistent Western engagement in the Middle East is parochialism. Recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the view that the region is ungovernable and should be left to ‘look after itself’ increasingly attractive. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Western policymakers have begun stressing the need for a pivot to Asia, the danger of a resurgent Russia and the impact of the shale revolution at a time when our ability to shape events in the Middle East seems so diminished.
For those fighting for a more democratic Middle East – both in the West and the region itself – this is a great problem. Putting aside the debate about the invasion aside, look at President Obama’s policies in Iraq to see how a lack of engagement can lead to the rise of authoritarianism and deterioration in democracy. In the region more broadly, our security will not be enhanced by repeating the mistakes of the last century and hoping authoritarian strongmen can ‘keep a lid on things’. It would also be morally bankrupt to support the repression of latent democratic aspirations in the Middle East.
Yet when talking about who the West should work with to solve the problems of the region, Blair does end up in some morally troubling territory. His understandable distaste of the Muslim Brotherhood means he glides over the authoritarian leanings of the new Egyptian government a little too easily. He believes (albeit reluctantly) that Bashar al-Assad should retain power in Syria for an unstated length of time. He calls for closer engagement with Russia and China – a move that would provide further political cover for these regimes to crack down on domestic political dissidents under the banner of them being ‘al-Qaeda linked’.
Even if he has got this wrong, Blair still has the big picture right. For the last three decades, radical Islam has been repressed by dictators; had its legitimacy challenged by democracy promotion; and then been seemingly overwhelmed by popular revolution. Yet each time, it has emerged emboldened rather than diminished.
The temptation for the West is to ignore all of this, to hope that Blair is wrong and to dismiss the Middle East as an ungovernable region that is none of our concern. Yet as the strength of Islamism continues to spread, perhaps Blair will be proved right. And perhaps the movement he was warning of may not turn out to be as accommodating to us as we were to it.
Robin Simcox is a Senior Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign affairs think-tank based in London. He tweets at @RobinSimcox