Notes From the Margins…

The Return of Saint Tony

  • August 23, 2021
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It’s a truth not universally acknowledged in British politics, that if you have men like Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab in government, everyone who isn’t them can look good, or at least better,  by comparison.  In a (dis)United Kingdom sinking ever deeper into multiple crises of its own making, this tendency can make it difficult, if not impossible to reach the new understanding of ourselves that is essential if we are to have even the ghost of a chance of becoming a better country, particularly when it comes to Britain’s wars.

Take the re-emergence of Tony Blair, who has just commented ‘dramatically’ on the withdrawal from Afghanistan this weekend in an article in the Daily Mail, no less..

Across the board, Blair’s article has been hailed as evidence of a great statesman, with a grasp of geopolitical strategy that is absent amongst his successors  Even worse, a chorus of liberal pundits have united to praise Blair while condemning what Ian Dunt called the ‘idiots’ and ‘ideologues’ who opposed Blair’s wars.

So a curious situation arises, in which the principal architect of what even Tory politicians recognise is a gross strategic failure is praised for his wise statecraft, while the critics of the ‘9/11 wars’ are depicted as inherently ‘ideological’ or ‘extremist’.

Add this to Blair’s bitter criticism of the ‘imbecilic’ American decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, and you have a situation in which it is possible to believe that we Brits were the real heroes all along, and if only we’d listened to Tony it would all have come out right in the end, even though when we did listen to him it all came out wrong.

At no point in any of this, have I seen any critical analysis of the points that Blair made in his piece.  It’s enough for Blair to sound cleverer than the shambling fraud currently occupying Number 10 (not difficult) to evoke a painful combination of nostalgia and counterfactuals amongst British politicians and the Tory-liberal commentariat.

If only Tony were in charge.  Tony wouldn’t have let Biden do this.  Tony understood what was at stake.  If only Boris could be like Tony. If only people could stop blaming Tony for everything etc, etc

Just to be clear, it’s quite right that Blair should not be blamed ‘for everything.’ But that doesn’t mean he can’t be blamed for some things, and his speech is a typically slick attempt to avoid blame for anything, and project blame onto others, while also essentially advocating the same combination of limitless militarism and neo-colonial occupations that have proved so disastrous in the past.

Blair rightly condemns the botched US withdrawal that has been carried out without any regard for Afghans or any attempt to hold the Taliban to their promises.

He castigates the West for its lack of ideological commitment, its inability to ‘define our interests strategically’ and assert its ‘traditional global leadership role’.

In referring to his own decision ‘to join the United States in removing the Taliban from power’, he congratulates himself, as always, on his willingness to accept the difficult ‘decisions of leadership’, even though he repeatedly ignored or refused to consider evidence and expertise that contradicted his own messianic belief in his moral rectitude when he was in power.

Some might conclude that this unwillingness to look beyond your own preconceptions is a flaw in a leader rather than a virtue, but Blair still seems as devoid of self-doubt as he was in 2001.

He reiterates the same lie used to justify the invasion of Iraq: that the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was intended to prevent another terrorist attack – ignoring the ease with which the al-Qaeda leaders escaped from Afghanistan after the invasion.

He claims that the commitment, ‘of turning Afghanistan from a failed terror state into a functioning democracy on the mend…may have been a misplaced ambition, but it was not an ignoble one’ while leaving out any reference to the warlords and mass murderers with whom the US collaborated to topple the Taliban, or the series of corrupt governments who siphoned off millions of dollars and rigged elections during the attempts to create a ‘functioning democracy’ in Afghanistan.

Such allies should have cast some doubts over the ‘nobility’ of the invasion.   Though Blair refers to ‘mistakes’ and ‘lessons learned’, he doesn’t say what they are.

He doesn’t ask why not a single one of the post- 9/11 ‘interventions’ has produced a viable democracy or even a functioning state.

He claims that ‘The world is now uncertain of where the West stands because it is so obvious that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in this way was driven not by grand strategy but by politics’ – as if ‘grand strategy’ and ‘politics’ were diametrical opposites.

He attributes the American withdrawal to the ‘imbecilic’ political slogan about ending “the forever wars”, as if that was the only reason the US withdrew from the longest war in its history.   He offers no explanations for why a battle-hardened Afghan army of 300,000 (nominal) soldiers, equipped and trained by the world’s only superpower, simply refused to fight, beyond the sudden lack of ‘effective air support’.

He rightly refers to the ‘real gains’ made during the occupation as ‘something worth defending. Worth protecting’, without mentioning the corruption, insecurity, thieving, and nepotism of a central government that 300,000 soldiers and whole swathes of the Afghan population did not want to defend.

He rightly argues that ‘We must evacuate and give sanctuary to those to whom we have responsibility – those Afghans who helped us, stood by us and have a right to demand we stand by them’ and points out that there are forms of pressure that can still be brought to bear on the Taliban to protect civilians.’

He insists that the occupation ‘often dashed our hopes, but it was never hopeless’, even though the US military itself had decided that it was.  He even has the gall to insist that ‘If it matters, you go through the pain’ – this from a politician who has spent the years since leaving office enriching himself to a degree that no British politician has ever achieved.

He leaves open the question that ‘we have not had another attack on the scale of 9/11, though no-one knows whether that is because of what we did post 9/11 or despite it’ while ignoring the staggering rise in terrorist incidents worldwide.

He then goes into a boilerplate neocon depiction of ‘radical Islam’ as the ideological successor to communism,  conflating Islamist governments and movements across the world into a common phenomenon aimed at ‘ creating a state based not on nations but on religion, with society and politics governed by a strict and fundamentalist view of Islam’.

He manages to include Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, and sub-Saharan Africa in the list of countries and regions where this ‘exclusionary and extreme’ ideology has taken root to varying degrees, while curiously managing to leave out Saudi Arabia, and the ‘Islamist’ movements that have acted as Western strategic assets.

In revisiting the Cold War, he notes that ‘The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan saw jihadism rise, without referring to the role of the West and its allies in helping it ‘rise’.   He insists that ‘Iran and al-Qaeda…cooperate’ even though there is no evidence to suggest any such cooperation.

He claims that ‘Iran uses proxies like Hizbullah to undermine moderate Arab countries in the Middle East. Lebanon is teetering on the brink of collapse,’ as if Hizbullah and Iran were responsible for a failure of governance that reaches across the Lebanese political class.  He claims that ‘In the West, we have sections of our own Muslim communities radicalised’ without addressing the extent to which the ‘war on terror’ has contributed to that radicalisation.

On and on it goes.  Reaching into the neocon playbook, he compares the West’s unwillingness to commit to a policy of open-ended militarism against ‘Radical Islam’ to its previous willingness to confront ‘ Revolutionary Communism’ both ‘ideologically and with security measures.’

Blair does not mention that these ‘ security measures’ included the overthrow of democratically elected left-of-centre governments, the Vietnam War, support for dictatorships, covert ‘rollback’ operations, torture training programs in Latin America, collusion in massacres and gross acts of state terror.

In asking the question ‘This is what we need to decide now with Radical Islam. Is it a strategic threat? If so, how do those opposed to it including within Islam, combine to defeat it?’ he already has the answer.  E

Even though he claims that ‘We have learnt the perils of intervention in the way we intervened in Afghanistan, Iraq and indeed Libya’ he doesn’t say what these lessons are, beyond great ‘commitment’ to the interventions that he continues to advocate:

For Britain and the US, these questions are acute. The absence of across-the-aisle consensus and collaboration and the deep politicisation of foreign policy and security issues is visibly atrophying US power. And for Britain, out of Europe and suffering the end of the Afghanistan mission by our greatest ally with little or no consultation, we have serious reflection to do. We don’t see it yet. But we are at risk of relegation to the second division of global powers. Maybe we don’t mind. But we should at least take the decision deliberatively.

Blair doesn’t even consider the possibility that the policies he advocated may have contributed to the ‘atrophying’ power he describes.  Instead he argues only that ‘If the West wants to shape the 21st century, it will take commitment. Through thick and thin.’

Why should it be up to ‘the West’ to ‘shape the 21st century?’ Who gave us this role?  Why should we be able to do it better than other countries? Why should any particular country or group of countries have such a role?

For Blair, as always, the answer lies in using military power to ‘uphold our values’ and a new interventionism based on ‘a sense of rediscovery that we in the West represent values and interests worth being proud of and defending.’

This, from the man who urged the West to support the al-Sisi coup in Egypt, even after the Egyptian military had massacred more than 1000 people and was busy locking up and torturing its opponents; who tried to give Saudi Arabia a carte blanche after the state-sanctioned murder of Khashoggi; who has never seen a dictator he didn’t want to work with or make money from; who never once questioned the lawless swathe of violence which the Bush administration unleashed across the world.

Now he wants to wage a new global war against ‘Radical Islam’ that will uphold our ‘values and interests’ and deter China, Russia, Iran etc

This, according to Blair, ‘is the large strategic question posed by these last days of chaos in Afghanistan. And on the answer will depend the world’s view of us and our view of ourselves.’

Some may suspect that this question had already been asked and answered long before the unfolding calamity we are now witnessing.

But Blair, perhaps more than any other British politician, has a special ability make us look benign, noble and benevolent to ourselves even when we appear to be disastrously failing.

That ability, more than anything else, explains why the British political class is now extolling this shallow and dangerous ideologue as the best statesman we have.

He believes that war is necessary to ensure that we remain a ‘great power.’

So, despite all the evidence to the contrary, do they.

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1 Comment

  1. Guano

    25th Aug 2021 - 2:39 pm

    Invading Iraq in 2003 led to a strategic gain for Iran, which now has influence in a line of countries in the Middle East (Iraq, Syria. Lebanon).

    Bombing Libya, facilitating the assassination of Gaddafi and not showing the slightest sign of an attempt to stabilise Libya in 2011 has led to the spread of armed, radical black-flag jihadis in the Sahara and Sahel.

    Allowing Turkey and Qatar and Saudi Arabia to arm the Syrian opposition and allow in militias to Syria in 2011, and then to directly arm the Syrian opposition in 2013, led to a proliferation of black-flag jihadis in Syria (such as the large concentration of militia in Idlib controlled by Turkey and pledging allegiance to Al-Qaeda).

    I opposed the War on Terror because all-out war is an unsuitable way of dealing with terrorists: the risk is that the target is missed and the collateral damage creates a chaos that is an opportunity for terrorists. Nothing has changed my opinion, but we are dealiing with politicians and media outlets that are afraid to oppose wars.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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