I wanted to begin this piece with the sentence "Tony Blair is back". But, of course, our former prime minister has never really been away. Not for him a quiet life of self-portraits and coin tosses. Blair, unlike his ol' partner-in-crime George W. Bush, has spent his 'retirement' agitating for military action against Syria, calling for regime change in Iran, dodging citizen's arrests over his illegal invasion of Iraq and making the case for Tory-style austerity at home. Oh, and don't get me started on all those awkward rumours about the former PM and the former Mrs Murdoch.
This morning, the ex-Labour-leader-turned-Middle-East-peace envoy turned up at Bloomberg's HQ in London to deliver a keynote speech on the threat from Islamist extremism. It was a classic from the Blair-as-liberal-hawk meets Blair-as-expert-on-Islam genre; a collection of half-truths, belligerent threats, sweeping statements and ill-informed generalisations.
TONY THE NEOCON
"On foreign affairs, Tony is basically a neocon," a former cabinet ally of Blair once told me. "Tony believes he has a unique ability to join up the dots and see the big picture. The question is: do the dots exist and is he right to join them up in the way he does?"
Take Syria. Blair has long been a supporter of Western military intervention against the brutal regime of Bashar al Assad and in support of the Syrian opposition, despite the fact that in the conflict between Assad and the opposition, the violent Islamists - in the form of the hand-chopping, suicide-bombing ISIS and the al Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front, among numerous others - are on the side of... wait for it... the opposition. Blair glosses over this rather crucial point in his Bloomberg speech, making only a brief reference to "extremist groups" and saying, almost in passing, that they "should receive no support from any of the surrounding nations". (They do - including from our close ally, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.)
Then there's Tunisia, which Blair bizarrely praises for the "genuine and positive attempts by the new government to escape from the dilemmas of the region and to shape a new Constitution". Why do I use the word "bizarrely"? Well, the new, interim government in Tunisia was appointed in December, according to the BBC, as "part of a deal reached... that will see the moderate Islamists hand over power to end the political deadlock". Moderate Islamists? You don't say.
In fact, the behaviour of the Ennahda Party in Tunisia, like the AKP in Turkey, undermines Blair's hyperbolic claims about the "essential battle" being between the wild-eyed supporters of a singular "Islamist ideology" and everyone else. Islamism, as I have previously argued, is a deeply-contested term. To pretend that, say, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of AKP shares the views or ideology of Mullah Mohammed Omar of the Afghan Taliban is absurd. It is Blair's simplistic, nuance-free and Manichean approach to this rather complicated subject, and region, which enables people such as the former EDL leader Tommy Robinson to gleefully proclaim that the former prime minister's analysis of Islam and Islamism "confirms everything we say."
The biggest problem with Blair's speech this morning, however, is that it brazenly avoided the Iraq-sized elephant in the room. The former PM said that the threat from radical Islam "is not abating. It is growing. It is spreading across the world." Yet the inconvenient truth for Blair and his (thankfully) dwindling band of supporters and apologists is that the biggest boost to radical/violent/Islamist/al-Qaeda (pick your own descriptor) ideologies was delivered by Blair himself, in 2003, when he decided to participate in Bush's illegal, unprovoked and catastrophic invasion of Iraq. TB and GB turned out to be the violent Islamists' best friends.
Don't take my word for it. The decision to attack and occupy Iraq, admitted former MI5 director-general Eliza Manningham Buller in September 2011, "increased the terrorist threat by convincing more people that Osama Bin Laden's claim that Islam was under attack was correct. It provided an arena for the jihad... [and] spurred some young British Muslims to turn to terror."
In fact, in February 2003, a month before the invasion, Blair himself received a memo from the Joint Intelligence Committee, which pointed out to the prime minister and his advisers that violent Islamist groups such as al Qaeda "continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to western interests" and that "the threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq". The PM ignored the JIC's warning and didn't share it with parliament.
The empirical evidence linking Blair's Mesopotamian misadventure to the rise and rise of violent Islamism is pretty clear, too: according to a 2007 study by terror experts Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, "the Iraq war has generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks, amounting to literally hundreds of additional terrorist attacks and thousands of civilian lives lost". Blair and Bush's war of choice against Saddam Hussein, the study's authors concluded, "greatly increased the spread of the al-Qaeda ideological virus". Thanks, Tony!
SHILLING FOR THE GENERALS
Blair, in his speech this morning, also talked of the need to take "coherent" positions on the various Middle East conflicts and crises. "We have to take sides," he declaimed. Maybe, but let's take a moment to look at whose sides he takes.
The former PM used his Bloomberg address to heap praise on Israel, "a western democracy", while conveniently ignoring the Jewish state's ongoing human rights abuses and defiance of international law and refusing to mention the words "occupation" or "settlements".
He called on the West to "reach out and cooperate with.. Russia and China". Why? "China and Russia have exactly the same desire to defeat this ideology as do the USA and Europe." No mention from Blair as to how how China and Russia try and "defeat" Islamist terrorism - for example, China's odious record of torture against its mainly Muslim Uighur population or Russia's carpet bombing of Muslim-majority Chechnya in the late 1990s. (Then again, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised: back in 2000, "liberal interventionist" Blair decided to attend the opera with Vladimir Putin at the height of the latter's repression of the Chechen population.)
Worst of all, Blair in his Bloomberg speech reiterated and ramped up his support for the military junta in Egypt. He refused to use the word "coup" in reference to the Egyptian army's takeover of power in July 2013, referring only to "the absolutely necessary rescue of a nation" from the dastardly - yet democratically-elected - Muslim Brotherhood government. He seemed blissfully unaware of the argument that driving the MB underground, and declaring them a terrorist organisation, could increase the threat from, and popularity of, violent Islamists both in Egypt and across the region.
"We should support the new [Egyptian] government and help," he declaimed. Help and support with what exactly? Gunning down unarmed protesters? Forcing 'virginity tests' on female protesters? Arresting and detaining foreign journalists?
Forget all of that: according to Blair, we in the West need to "show some sensitivity to the fact that over 400 police officers have suffered violent deaths and several hundred soldiers been killed" in Egypt since the coup. So? This is dictator apologism of the worst sort. Couldn't a defender of the Assad regime say the same sentence vis-a-vis Syria security forces killed while cracking down on Syria's opposition? Why, then, the double standard with Egypt?
Is this what the former prime minister of Great Britain, the thrice-elected leader of our country, the self-styled crusader for Western democracy and liberal interventionism, has been reduced to in his retired life? Shilling for unelected and blood-stained Egyptian generals? Pontificating on how to tackle an Islamist terror threat that he helped exacerbate and spread through the region?
As even the arch-Blairite writer Stephen Bush, a contributing editor to the Blairite magazine Progress, reluctantly conceded in February: "In retirement... Labour's serial election winner may have finally found an enemy who is capable of destroying him: himself."