Wednesday, September 27, 2006

the long farewell

Two thoughts occur simultaneously when looking back on Blair's valedictory speech yesterday. The first is the foremost, "thank god he'll be gone soon". For all the blokey asides, the rhetorical skill and the fair domestic progress, the utterly misguided, blinkered Tony Blair remains terribly evident the second he gets on to international affairs. He blindly stated again - against all conventional wisdom - that there is no connection between terrorism and foreign policy. He insisted that he would dedicate the rest of his time in power to pursuing a peace agreement in the Middle East, without seeming to grasp how irretrievably his stock has fallen in that part of the world. I seem to recall Blair promising a peace agreement in 2002. Seeing as he didn't succeed then, when his policy of bombing the shit out of foreign countries was still in its infancy, I find it rather hard to imagine that he'll manage it now. Still, perhaps he'll prove me wrong.

In the US, meanwhile, a leaked intelligence report indicates that:

"The Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jihadist success [in Iraq] would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere,"

"The Iraq conflict has become the 'cause celebre' for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world. If this trend continues, threats to US interests at home and abroad will become more diverse, leading to increasing attacks worldwide."

Well, duh.

The second thought arising from the Blair speech, sadly, is "oh, you could have been good". No-one is more comfortable or natural in the political arena as Tony Blair; next to him Gordon Brown's speech seemed flat and lacking in energy. That's not to say that I don't think that Brown would make a decent prime minister - merely that when you see Blair at his best it is a dismal reminder that Labour may never encounter elect another leader possessed of so much consummate skill. What a shame that his talents were obscured by his flaws.

Thank God he'll be gone soon.


Stephen Newton said...

I’m taken aback by the strength of your feeling on Blair.

Terrorism is a military tactic (of the weak; though being weak has no bearing on whether you’re right or wrong) not an ideology. It needs to be seen in the context of the military, political and ideological aims of those who use it.

Current conflict, including military acts such as terrorism, arises from different visions of how the world should be. Our foreign policy is the projection of our ideals to lands where they sometimes don’t hold true. It’s active in the battleground of ideas. Opponents may appear to react violently to foreign policy, but in truth things run much deeper than that.

Foreign policy makers need to take the reactions of others into account. However, each time a policy is altered for fear of a violent reaction, we should feel shame (unless we’re happy to live in a world where the threat of violent intimidation is accepted).

We can attempt to remove conflict through isolationism and relativist value systems (e.g. ‘I’d be horrified if my neighbour refused to allow his daughter to go to school, but will defend to the death an Afghan father’s right to do the same’), but that’s unsustainable. Or we could change our values to coincide with those of others, in this case by embracing a radical Islamism.

On the other hand, should we decide that liberal democratic values are worth preserving, we’ll have to accept that others will hate us for thinking so. Free speech, for example, will be continually attacked by those who abhor blasphemy and have always been prepared to kill for their ideals (remember Salman Rushdie).

jonathan said...

Hi Stephen,

Thanks for your comment, full of interesting points, most of which I agree with. Most importantly, I just want to clarify that I agree that "each time a policy is altered for fear of a violent reaction, we should feel shame". I'm not arguing that the 'war against terror' should be halted because we run the risk of provoking a reaction. As Roy Hattersley says;

"The reason policy should be changed is the simple fact that the policy is wrong. To demand a shift because it will reduce the risk of suicide bombing is to diminish the case for altering course from a matter of principle to a question of self interest."

Contrary to your suggestion (which I agree with) that terrorism is a military tactic rather than ideology, Blair asserts quite the contrary. "It's an attack on our way of life. It's global. It has an ideology." He is guilty of a profoundly misleading simplification on a scale not incomparable to Bush's persistent suggestion that Iraq and 9/11 were somehow linked.

I'm not opposed to intervention abroad in all instances, and certainly support the notion of liberal democracy (although I'd argue that traditionally Western foreign policy has often, in Jack Donnely's words, "grossly overemphasize[d] the mechanism of elections"; too often it has assumed that an electoral democracy alone will secure civil and political rights - rarely the case).

All the same, you suggest that liberal democracy is "worth preserving" as if liberal democracy is under threat. It isn't. The abhorrant Islamist terrorism which the world has witnessed in the last twenty odd years has never threatened the foundations of democracy. It would probably be arguable that it has never intended to challenge the notion of democracy.

I'm prepared to accept that people will hate us because the West challenges their belief systems (the Rushdie case being a good example, the cartoon affair being a less good one), although I would be reluctant to imply by that the Middle East is full of rabid Islamists - emphatically not the case.

Anyway, turning back to Blair - he states that it would be cowardly to "retreat now, hand Iraq over to Al Qaida and sectarian death squads", and - for once - I'm minded to agree with him. Yet how have we got to the stage where Iraq - until recently a modern, secular country - is potentially in the hands of Islamists?

Blair obviously believes that his position - the Euston approach, if you like - is valid and I respect that. But I find his refusal to counternance any alternative viewpoint deeply frustrating. If, as seems to be the case, Western endeavours abroad have indeed both hardened opposition to liberal values, failed to encourage peace or stability and alienated huge numbers of the British electorate, then it's his duty to confront it, not deny it.

We desperately need to re-evaluate our foreign policy, in my opinion - and all Blair offers is dogmatic pig-headedness. Islamophobia, misinformation, denial, rendition... I can't take it any more! :-)

Stephen Newton said...

You began by saying you agree with much of what I said and I feel bound to say that I agree with much of what you’ve said in response.

I’m far from being Blair’s number one fan – I think he’s intellectually weak – and feel uncomfortable taking on the role of defender. And I know that I run the risk of nitpicking. But I do think you misquote a little. He said: ‘This terrorism isn’t our fault. We didn’t cause it. It’s an attack on our way of life. It’s global. It has an ideology.’

‘This terrorism,’ is clearly a reference to al-Qaeda and I think it fair to say those things about them.

The idea of a ‘war on terror’ is an oversimplification for the most part, but I detect a movement to put terrorism as a tactic on a par with the tactic of targeting civilian populations. Nobody had a problem with the latter until after World War II (during which everyone bombed civilians with impunity). In this sense there is a war on all terror.

I also feel deep shame when allies fail to live up to liberal democratic ideals in their prosecution of the war and Blair, as tactician, must take some responsibility here.

Nevertheless, my firm belief that it was better to attempt to replace Saddam with a democracy overcomes this. It’s no exaggeration to say that any administration previous to Clinton (or perhaps Bush Snr.) would have replaced him with another pro-US dictator, after all, the USA and Britain installed Saddam in the first place and propped him up for quite some time.

This is America’s first attempt to export democracy, rather than install a brutal proxy. They deserve a little credit for that.

I guess, I’m suggesting the criticism, while often deserved, could be more measured.