A message and warning
To many, Tony Blair’s is a discredited voice from the past — his political popularity at home plunged when he strongly supported President George W. Bush’s rash decision to invade Iraq — but the former British prime minister recently issued a warning that merits close — and careful — attention.
The time has come, Blair declared, for the west to recalibrate its response to what he described as the biggest threat to global security, Islamic extremism.
The western powers, he said, should even consider joining Russia and China in an effort to counter the extremists, whose determined opposition to modernity is, he argued, holding back development in Africa and the Far East.
Blair suggested the west’s desire to keep a safe distance from all the strife unsettling the military and political landscapes in places such as Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, exists because the west is uncomfortable when it comes to talking about religion.
But, however understandable it may be, the reluctance of the west to become involved carries a terrible cost, Blair said.
“Within the Middle East itself, the result has been horrible, with people often facing a choice between authoritarian government that is at least religiously tolerant; and the risk that in throwing off the government they don’t like, they end up with a religiously intolerant quasi-theocracy,” he observed.
“For the last 40 to 50 years, there has been a steady stream of funding, proselytizing, organizing and promulgating coming out of the Middle East, pushing views of religion that are narrow minded and dangerous,” Blair continued. “Unfortunately we seem blind to the enormous global impact such teaching has had and is having.”
He described Islamic extremism as “not about a competing view of how society or politics should be governed within a common space where you accept other views are equally valid.” Rather, Blair noted, “it is exclusivist in nature … the ultimate goal is not a society which someone else can change by winning an election.”
The extremists, he continued, seek to establish a society governed by religious doctrines that are essentially “unchangeable.”
And he faulted the western allies for, in effect, looking the other way.
“We call for the regime to change in Syria, we encourage the opposition to rise up, and then when Iran activates Hezbollah on the side of Assad, we refrain even from air intervention to give the opposition a chance,” Blair said.
“The result is a country in disintegration, millions displaced, a death toll approximating that of Iraq, with no end in sight and huge risks to regional stability,” he declared, adding that the west should take a new look at creating no-fly zones but taking care not to allow Iran to support the rebels.
How will Blair’s call to action be received in Washington? The more hawkish politicians — such as Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham — may find comfort in what they interpret as Blair’s implicit criticism of the Obama administration’s reluctance to act in some areas.
However, it is always easier to recommend a particular policy when embracing or rejecting that policy is the responsibility of others.
President Barack Obama would be wise to carefully consider Blair’s observations, for it is increasingly clear that religious extremism is the cause of much strife in this troubled world. But that’s not the issue in Ukraine, for example, or in the rising tensions between China and Japan or North Korea and South Korea.
Blair’s speech offers a positive contribution to the understanding of the difficulties facing the west, but there are other considerations that must also be taken into account.