Tony Blair is a man of wisdom and experience, a global player with many positive achievements to his credit, but in UK politics he is a spent force. The charismatic leader who transformed the fortunes of Britain’s Labour Party and led it to three successive election victories, is now the object of scorn by those in charge of the party. They have utterly rejected his middle-of-the-road approach, with its appeal to a wide swathe of moderate electors, in favour of a sharp turn to the left under their new leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Nowadays many who supported Blair while he was prime minister view with suspicion his subsequent foray into high-level political consultancy, and resent or envy the multi-million fortune he has accrued in doing so. Clients he has signed up to his advisory practice include the Kuwaiti, Mongolian, Kazakh and Peruvian governments and the Abu Dhabi investment fund, Mubadala. In November 2010 he signed a contract with PetroSaudi, a Saudi oil company, and he is also an adviser to J P Morgan, the investment bank, and to Zurich International, the Swiss-based global insurance company.
The future is not all golden, however, for looming over it is the shadow of the 2003 war in Iraq to which, in alliance with US President George W Bush, he committed the UK. All those who opposed his decision to join the US in the invasion of Iraq, and many who did not, are awaiting with keen anticipation the comprehensive report being prepared by Sir John Chilcot into Britain’s involvement in the conflict. Many expect, and more than a few hope, that Tony Blair himself, and the government he led, will be roundly condemned for mistakes, failures and perhaps even worse, and possibly face future legal action.
The Chilcot inquiry, set up in 2009, has been in progress for some seven years. From about 2011, when Tony Blair appeared before the committee, there has been consistent pressure from the British public, and particularly from those who lost relatives in the conflict, for Chilcot to complete his report and publish. But Chilcot has not only been meticulous in his investigation, but also scrupulous in seeking comments, clarifications and corrections from every person named in the report before finalizing it. Back in October 2015 Chilcot announced that the long-delayed document will go for national security vetting in April 2016, before being released to the public in June or July.
However turbulent Tony Blair’s future may be, no one can deny that since resigning as UK prime minister in June 2007, he has acquired a unique knowledge and understanding of the Middle East. For on the very day that he stepped down, he was appointed special envoy to the International Quartet on the Middle East (the UN, the EU, the US and Russia), and he acted in that capacity for the next eight years. It would be fair to say that despite his best efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and he certainly strove hard, especially in the early days – events beyond his control frustrated his good intentions. Cataclysmic changes within the Middle East, sparked in part by the Arab Spring, in part by the US-led invasion of Iraq, rendered all his efforts fruitless.
Nevertheless, when he chooses to pronounce on the chaos that now engulfs the Middle East, he speaks with a degree of knowledge and expertise that few, if any, can match. On 27 March 2016, in an article in the UK’s prestigious Sunday Times, Blair addressed the urgent question of how the civilized world can overcome the malign organization that threatens its very existence – Islamic State (IS).
His basic premise is quite clear: We have been dragging our heels. “IS has to be eliminated with greater speed and vigour,” he writes, warning that if we do not get our act together pretty quickly, the West will face “increasingly frequent acts of terrorism”, and may eventually be the subject of a terrorist act “of such size and horror” that it will force a change in attitude. “But by then,” he predicts, “the battle will be much harder to win without measures that contradict our basic value system.”
His recommendation? That the US and its allies bite the bullet, put aside the “no boots on the ground” strategy, and send ground troops to Syria and Iraq and anywhere else that is necessary, with the objective of crushing IS and the extremist ideology that fuels it. He calls also for the West to equip Arab ground forces to support the anti-IS coalition.
“We must build military capability able to confront and defeat the terrorists wherever they try to hold territory,” writes Blair. “This is not just about local forces. It is a challenge for the west. Ground forces are necessary to win this fight, and ours are the most capable.”
Beyond Syria and Iraq, Blair has Libya in his sights, where IS has established a formidable stronghold. Britain is known to be considering contributing 1,000 non-combat troops to a 5,000-strong international force to train the Libyan army, as it seeks to overcome IS, but many commentators – Blair among them – consider both the projected 5,000-strong force, and Britain’s proposed contribution, woefully inadequate.
“To have allowed IS to become the largest militia in Libya, right on Europe’s doorstep is extraordinary,” he wrote. “It has to be crushed.”
Blair is equally forthright when he turns to the problem of Islamism. He sees the military battle against IS as part of a wider strategy aimed at confronting what he calls this “perversion” of the Islamic faith. Islamism, he maintains, “is not interested in coexistence. It does not seek dialogue but dominance. It cannot therefore be contained. It has to be defeated.” For this to happen, he believes, the “paralysing grip of the present political discourse” on both right and left must be countered – on the right, bigotry against all Muslims; on the left, politically correct aversion to using the term “Islamism” and the belief that “we have caused all of this through western policy”.
Blair believes Islamism could be defeated by marshalling an alliance within Islam. “The majority of Muslims hate the way their faith has been hijacked,” he writes. It would not be surprising to learn one day that Tony Blair, in the light of the common threats of Islamic State and Iran, has been instrumental in brokering the current rapprochement between moderate Arab states and Israel.
In short, Tony Blair has surveyed the extreme danger that Islamic State poses to the world, and in clear-headed and candid fashion has offered his recipe for overcoming it. He is a man whose opinion merits attention.