Tony Blair Failed to Learn From His “War on Terror”

Anthony Charles Lynton Blair – more commonly known as Tony Blair, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom. His political legacy could have been a great one. His efforts in pursuing a resolution to the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland led to a peace agreement there that, despite incessant challenges, has held. Instead, his legacy will forever be the disaster of the Iraq War and its aftermath in 2003 and onwards.

Yet, despite the fact that it was the Arab world where Blair’s political legacy crashed and burned within, it is still the Arab world where he publicly intervenes on a regular basis. Earlier this week, Blair gave an extended speech at Bloomberg’s headquarters in London on Islam and Islamism, where he displayed again his ironic ability to talk about the right issues, but invariably in a manner that nullifies any benefit that might accrue thereof.

He is, for example, correct about the fact there is a difference to be made between Islam, as a religion and faith of more than a billion people, and Islamism, a widely varied set of political ideologies. The confusion of the two has seldom been useful, whether carried out by Islamists seeking authenticity, or by anti-Muslim bigots seeking to associate millions of people with the actions of extremists like al Qaeda. Blair, however, falls into more of the same because he also conflates groups that ought to be distinguished sharply from each other. Indeed, ironically, Blair identifies Tunisia as a country that should be supported, but if there is a success story unfolding in Tunisia, a substantial portion of the credit will have to be accorded to Islamists. Yet, in Blair’s frame, the Tunisian Islamists are on the “other” side.

These are not simply theoretical niceties or intellectual nit-pickings. I have my own criticisms of the Muslim Brotherhood’s approach to the Egyptian revolution, and Mohammed Morsi’s year in power. Indeed, there was (and is) a great deal to criticize. But Blair’s approach to Egypt has been one that agrees with the nationalist far right of Egyptian politics, which is hardly one that should be supported instead of the zero sum game of the Brotherhood. For that portion of Egyptian political opinion, the removal of Morsi was the “rescue of a nation” – although the original protests were simply about calling for early presidential elections. No doubt there were those who viewed them as some sort of cosmic cultural war – but to extrapolate upon the motives of ”the nation” is something of a stretch, to say the least. Blair correctly reminds us in his speech of the casualties suffered by members of the Egyptian police force and soldiers, but there is no mention of the demise of the now thousands of people who perished in the mass killings that have taken place at the hands of the state since the beginning of the revolution – not least in the last 10 months. If all Egyptian blood is sacred, then, indeed, all Egyptian blood is sacred. 

In Blair’s narrative, such things are obviously secondary to the task at hand, which is to take the war against “radical Islam.” The human rights of Islamist supporters, regardless of their offenses, are simply glossed over. Indeed, he fails to note even the abuses taken against non-Islamists, if those who are the main opponents of Islamists commit such abuses. Such is the overwhelming importance that Blair apportions to dividing the world into those who are “with us” and those who are “against us.” 

One might have thought that such an approach would have been proven inept and ruinous in how it led Britain and the U.S. into the Iraq War. If anyone needed reminders of how terrible such an attitude is, they only need to look at how the power struggle between the military backed government and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is currently playing out. In short, it’s being criticized from all sorts of angles, within and without the country. But, unfortunately, it seems Blair is asking us to repeat this same stratagem in the hopes of acquiring a different result. If the “War on Terror” led the UK into such a disaster, how is Egypt’s “War on Terror” going to end up so differently? Should Blair not, at the very least, remind us all, and Egyptians in particular, of how destructive such a frame, which so damaged the UK and other countries, has been? Does not Egypt deserve better than Islamist extremes and security states?

This goes to the very heart of our counter-terrorism strategy in the UK, as well as British allies such as the U.S. and elsewhere. It needs to be considered critically by all countries facing terrorist activities today. When the human rights abuses that take place in Egypt are ignored, it is not a favor Western friends are granting to Egypt. Rather, it is a betrayal of the highest order, not only to our own principles, but also to Egypt, Egyptians and our collective security.

A recent report in The Financial Times illustrates this abundantly well. If Ayman al-Zawahiri’s attitudes were at least partially shaped by the treatment he received in Egypt’s jail 30 years ago, what attitudes are being molded now? Should we not heed the warning of the likes of Basma Zahran, a lawyer for El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, a rights group, who warns us: “We will see types like Ayman Zawahiri or even worse models after this ends”? This is not simply an ethical issue – which ought to be enough but seldom is – it is also a security one.

It is a security issue that, incidentally, is not aided by this type of Manichaean approach that Blair seems to endorse. Nor will it be solved by another extreme that simply denies there is a problem in the first place or essentially apologizes for radicalism. After leaving office, Blair would have been in the ideal position to craft a new path within the Left that would have insisted on a far more constructive engagement with such a noted issue of the time. 

Instead, Blair has chosen a worldview that, as one commentator noted, has resulted in a speech that “could have been an address by (right-wing) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.” That is hardly an inspirational epithet for Blair’s political wisdom or prowess. Indeed, it simply means that this former leader of the Labour Party has become more right-wing than much of the mainstream right-wing would now dare to be publicly, which only encourages the far-right further.

Blair could have become a British version of Jimmy Carter, the former U.S. president who presided over the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel, and who is widely respected across the globe for his efforts in conflict resolution and political dialogue. He could have been the former British prime minister who gave a speech urging respect for human rights, condemned massive abuses by state forces, rejected violence from extremists, prescribing transitional justice for the last three years and insisted on pluralism by all sides in Egypt. Instead, as one author put it, even his own political heir has disowned him owing to his foray into Iraq. Interventions like these types of speeches are hardly going to help him now.