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article imageOp-Ed: Tony Blair speech on Middle East simplistic and surprising

By Ken Hanly     Apr 28, 2014 in Politics
London - In a recent speech titled "Why the Middle East matters," Tony Blair gives a radically simplified view of Middle East politics. He emphasizes the threat to the Middle East, and to the world, from radical Islam.
The radical Islamists according to Blair want to create a "politics of religious difference and exclusivity." These Islamists are a threat to those who want to embrace the modern world and want "pluralistic societies and open economies." The text of Blair's entire speech can be found here.
In an article in the Independent, Patrick Cockburn describes Blair's speech as demented. That is going a bit far since there are many things that Blair says which are true enough or true in general. However, there are aspects of the speech that if not demented are surprising and rather weird. They can perhaps be best understood as Cockburn interprets them as following views of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies such as Bahrain: Overall, Blair has swallowed whole and is now regurgitating the official line of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, though he never mentions any of the Gulf monarchies by name.
Since the basic threat to the west and in the Middle East is radical Islam, you would think that Blair would talk of Al-Qaeda linked groups or the Salafist and Wahhabi groups associated with Saudi Arabia. As Cockburn points out Saudi Arabia is intolerant of other forms of Islam such as Shi'ism as well as Christianity and Judaism and is the home country of 15 of 19 of the 9/11 hijackers and was the home of Osama bin Laden.
For Blair it is not Saudi Arabia or other monarchies who have never even faced an election but the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt that represents the dreaded Islamist threat. The Brotherhood party actually won an election in Egypt and was then overthrown by the military led by General Sisi after large demonstrations against the regime. Certainly on occasion the Brotherhood has used terrorist tactics but the fact is that it was elected and the post-coup government was not elected. Nor does the new government exemplify a regime of religious toleration as Blair advocates. It does not suffer opposition of any stripe religious or secular.
No doubt Blair will be invited to speak in Egypt. Blair says: "The Muslim Brotherhood was not simply a bad government, It was systematically taking over the traditions and institutions of the country. The revolt of 30 June was not an ordinary protest. It was the absolutely necessary rescue of a nation." No doubt there is some truth to what Blair says in that Morsi did try to concentrate power but he ruled with the agreement of the armed forces. He did also challenge the judiciary many of whom are leftovers from the Mubarak era. They are now evening the score by sentencing Brotherhood supporters to death by the hundreds making a mockery of the judicial system. As Cockburn notes, Blair mentions the number of soldiers and police who died in the aftermath of the overthrow of Morsi but he does not mention the deaths of protesters that Cockburn assesses at 1,400. Cockburn believes that Blair's views will validate the opinion of the genuine Al Qaeda linked Jihadists who have all along maintained that the electoral route to power is a mirage.
On Syria Blair claims that the west should have done more to support the opposition including what he calls "air intervention" no doubt of the type that was used in Libya to ensure regime change. Blair is aware that now the situation is more complicated as the opposition forces are dominated by Islamist groups of the type that Blair condemns. He even suggests that it might be best for Assad to stay on for the present if some agreement could be reached. However, if not he thinks that a no-fly zone should be imposed to aid the opposition but at the same time there should be no support from surrounding nations for extremist groups within the opposition. It is not clear how that would be possible.
In spite of recognizing that there are aspects of the Gulf monarchies that he cannot support he ends up supporting them when he claims that the West should support its allies "whether in Jordan or the Gulf where they're promoting the values of religious tolerance and open, rule-based economies, or taking on the forces of reaction in the shape of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, we should be assisting them."Cockburn concludes: As for combating jihadist Islam: nothing is more likely to encourage its spread than the policy supported by Blair of persecuting moderate Islamists, who did stand for election, while giving full backing to autocratic kings and generals.
Some commentators were much more favorable to Blair's speech. An article in the Guardian says: His speech today at Bloomberg — "Why the Middle East matters" — was reflective, not didactic, and signaled a nuanced approach to the complex set of interconnected challenges in the region. This will come as no surprise to those who have followed his work as envoy of the Quartet on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — with well over 100 visits to date. After over 100 visits the Quartet has seen the peace talks break down with no resumption in sight.
The Blair speech rarely talks about democracy but stresses the fight against Islamists. No more are middle east wars concerned with launching democratic revolutions. Blair supports authoritarian military-dominated regimes such as Egypt and certainly is not suggesting there should be revolutions to overthrow the Gulf monarchies.
Another article points out why Blair's speech may represent a trend among many neo-conservatives after some Arab Spring revolutions did not turn out to their liking: Once it became clear that democratic revolutions would not fit the mold of pro-western liberalism and free market economics, neoconservatives decided that the old-guard despots may once again be needed in order to stabilize the region. While Blair supporters talk of Blair's nuanced position his speech is actually simplistic in its analysis and the main drift is towards increased emphasis upon stability with talk of religious freedoms a sort of ornamental accompaniment to the narrative whereas earlier narratives used democratic freedoms in the same rhetorical manner to bring listeners on board. In order to counter the violent Islamic ideology the west must prop up authoritarian monarchies, military-supported governments as in Egypt, and spend billions to finance a global-military industrial complex to be used in the fight against terrorism.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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