Blair’s fundamentalism is the real enemy of western valuesSimon Jenkins
The prime minister is wrong. He is about to tour the world setting out his vision of British foreign policy in three speeches. The first last week was bold, sincere and in parts wise. But it rested on a howler that would fail an elementary test in diplomacy. As a basis for statesmanship it cannot pass. Speaking in London on Tuesday Tony Blair sought to justify his five wars in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq (twice). The original casus belli was set out in his Chicago lecture in 1999 when he propounded the concept of a just war in a modern age. Britain’s duty was, wherever possible, to make the world a better place. The United Nations’ “principle of non-interference” no longer applied. It was overruled by genocide, ethnic cleansing and “regimes based on minority rule”. All this was Blair’s unilateral “doctrine of international community”.
With the realists tugging at his sleeve, he did qualify this Comintern-like phraseology. Britain’s case must be strong, diplomacy should be tried first, there should be a strategy, Britain’s interests must be at stake and armed force must be likely to win. With these plodding provisos, Blair duly went to war.
Today the focus has shifted from humanitarian relief to what is termed a war of values. Britain must be active, not reactive. It should seek international support and build new institutions, the subject of Blair’s next two speeches (in Australia and America). But if Britain shirks the fight, it “risks chaos threatening our stability”. The crusade to introduce democratic values worldwide is “utterly determinative of our future here in Britain”. Hence Iraq, Afghanistan and, by association, Iran, not to mention Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe and North Korea. Blair says that “in their salvation lies our own security”. Pre-emptive war is thus a matter of national survival.
This is high-octane tosh. I go along with some neo-Blairism. There is a sort of argument between the old and new ways of running countries, “ultimately a battle about modernity”. I admire Blair’s readiness to call a totalitarian spade a spade and I accept that some of his critics, by not wanting to “trespass on sensitive feelings”, can end up yielding the argument to those with whom they should disagree.
But there is a world of difference between a disagreement and a war. It is one thing to wish another man were more like oneself and quite another to feel at risk because he is not. Nobody so “threatens our values and national security” that Britain must declare war. Half of Blair’s speech was sane but the rest was written by some swivel-eye just out of a CIA/SIS briefing session.
Herein lies the howler. Terrorism is not, as Blair keeps calling it, an ideology. It is a weapon, like a gun or a bomb. It can kill people and destroy property but it cannot win arguments or topple governments. Given the West’s sensitivity to media coverage, the technique can be potent in scaring those fearful of (other people’s) bombs. But it is a weapon that most armies use. Nato in 1999 claimed that the bombing of Belgrade would terrify the Serbs into submission. Britain and America used airborne terrorism in the assault on Baghdad in 2003, even describing it in terrorist jargon as “shock and awe”.
There is no such thing as global terrorism any more than there is global bombing. Nor can I see how it serves any purpose to tar Muslim fundamentalism with this brush. Many (although not most) Muslims do not live in democracies and strongly disagree with Blair’s claim to superior “values”. They reject the West’s loose morality. They thought that the UN was set up to protect such differences between peoples. Yet they would emphatically reject the use of violence to express that difference.
Blair is obsessed with the Al-Qaeda network, on which he could now read at least five books setting it in context. While Osama Bin Laden is mad and his appeal to disaffected Muslim youths is dangerous, he is neither representative of evangelical Islam nor is he a substantive military or political threat to the West. He can kill people. Killers can always evade the police, but with the exception of 9/11, Al-Qaeda has never deployed anything more dangerous than a bomb. Even if it did, it would not “threaten western values”, unless Blair and his ministers do so on its behalf (as the home secretary is currently doing). By equating “terrorism” with Islamic fundamentalism, Blair turns what are demented criminal acts into victories against western civilisation. That is absurd.
To grant apocalyptic status to a loose and paltry network invites anyone with a grudge against the West to join in — or at least offer rhetorical support. Blair’s attempt to bond Al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, Iran’s mullahs, the Taliban and Hamas into some giant global conspiracy is both inaccurate and distorts coherent strategy. Among other things it ignores the importance of distinguishing secular and clerical Muslim regimes. To claim that Britain must “go to war for its salvation” against any bomb maker who writes Al-Qaeda on a laptop is ridiculous.
Unlike many critics of Blair’s Iraq adventure, I do not question the sincerity of his motives, merely their wisdom. Had he and George Bush been more scheming they might have been more competent, rather than sowing mayhem wherever they put their boots in the sand. Nothing but blind Blairite fundamentalism can justify sending British troops to south Afghanistan just now. As for the claim that these wars may be tough in the short term but will “deliver Islam for democracy” in the long term, has Blair read no history? War is always meant to be short term.
Western democracy is one of the great constructs of human society. It has seen off the two ideological challenges in the 20th century, state fascism and state communism. To equate Al-Qaeda with such titanic forces is silly. As Lord Guthrie, formerly Blair’s chief of defence staff, points out in a new Policy Exchange pamphlet (Taming Terrorism: It’s Been Done Before), far tougher terrorist campaigns have been met and overcome in the past, without “declaring war”.
Blair claims that terrorism has found a chink for Muslim extremism in the armour of western values. This suggests a Nixonian mind so immured behind bodyguards, bomb shelters, machineguns and security briefings as to have lost touch with reality. Even if Muslim extremism were a real threat to the West, which it is not, to imagine that it can be countered by military conquest is fantasy. We would all like to see our values propagated. But this vision of values that must conquer or die is jihadist rather than democratic.
I share Blair’s values, although I regard them as stronger than he does. I share his admiration for most things American and his loathing for dictatorship and oppression worldwide. I respect his forlorn quest for fairer trade and I am proud of Britain’s record in humanitarian relief. The case for a new “international community” is strong and Blair has often put it cogently.
But this community will only come into being if pursued through example and persuasion, not through war. Success lies in culture and capitalism, through the interpenetration of peoples and religions and the liberation of market forces. Because such intercourse is not couched in the language of a medieval crusader, Blair dismisses it as “benign inactivity”. Such dismissal shows how limited is his political vision.
The West’s attempt — or rather that of a Labour prime minister and a Republican president — to impose its values on distant states through armed force has been an aberration doomed to failure. As Francis Fukuyama points out in his latest book, it has betrayed the neoconservative cause as much as the liberal one. It is so obviously cruel, costly and counter-productive as to be almost beyond debate.
Blair is now trotting round the world and showing his fear of Bin Laden. He is curbing civil liberty at home and releasing bombs and bullets across the Middle East. The resulting loss of life and of respect for the West have been appalling. Perhaps in his next speech Blair might re-examine his lack of faith in the robustness of western democracy. Perhaps he might find its values stronger and its liberties more trenchant than he supposes. Perhaps he might be more of a liberal and less of a wimp.