Johann Hari: Tony Blair's tragedy is to be right about Islam, and wrong about the United States

The Prime Minister seems to believe that the US is the armed wing of Amnesty International
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The Independent Online

Over the past week, Lebanon's cities smouldered and wept under Israeli bombardment, Iraq blistered into civil war, and Taliban fundamentalists slaughtered British soldiers and then gunned down teachers in front of their primary school classes for committing the "crime" of educating girls. In the middle of this meltdown, Tony Blair called for a "complete renaissance" of our foreign policy to battle "Reactionary Islam". Now that a ceasefire is at last stuttering into place between Israel and the Lebanese government, we can pick through the Prime Minister's thought. Where he is right, he is very right - but where he is wrong, he is disastrously in error.

Tony Blair believes we should "join the dots" between the acts of Islamic fundamentalist violence across the world. "9/11 in the US, 7/7 in the UK, 11/3 in Madrid, the countless terrorist attacks in countries as disparate as Indonesia or Algeria, what is now happening in Afghanistan and in Indonesia, the continuing conflict in Lebanon and Palestine, it is all part of the same thing," he argues. Many people instinctively scoff at this, claiming that these are reactions to little local problems - an occupation here, an attempt to impose shariah law there. But if you speak to jihadists, as I do pretty often, from London to Palestine to Syria, they indeed see this as a global battle with a global cause. They join the dots every day.

There are three broad interpretations of this battle. The first - from the American and Israeli hard-right - is that this is a war between the West and the world's inherently violent, inherently crazy one billion Muslims. The second - from much of the left - is that this is a battle against the American empire, where jihadists are the mirror-image of US imperial violence, an inevitable blow-back against America's support for psychotic dictators and its rapacious quest for oil.

The third reading is articulated by Blair. He argues that this is a sprawled-out civil war within Islam, a battle between moderate Muslims who seek democracy and co-operation like everyone else, and reactionary Muslims who seek to impose a medieval reading of shariah and a caliphate empire of their own. These jihadists strike against the West primarily in an attempt to rally revolutionary sentiment behind themselves at home. If you read the writings of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the man Bin Laden describes as his mentor, you will see this logic spelled out clearly: go after the "big tyrant" in the West to topple the "little tyrants" at home like the House of Saud.

We already know what happens when this reactionary Islam wins, because we watched Taliban Afghanistan for years. It means Muslim women imprisoned in burqas and in ignorance, Muslim adulterers stoned, Muslim gays beheaded, and all Muslims forbidden from listening to music or watching television or admiring art. It is hard to imagine a more deserving opponent for anybody who believes in human rights and human freedom.

I think Blair's reading of the battle within Islam is broadly right. So how has it produced such disaster across the world? It comes from a terrible, willfully naive misreading of his allies. Tony Blair seems to genuinely believe that the US is the armed wing of Amnesty International, a state-machinery that will be dedicated benevolently to ensuring the right side prevails in this civil war. He even seems to extend this analysis, at moments of rhetorical overheat, to Israel. But in reality, the US government is motivated by many ugly factors, with Blair's benevolent reading way, way down the list.

We only need to look at the events of the past month to see this. The war against Hizbollah was almost certainly unnecessary and has emboldened reactionary Islam against the forces of moderate Islam.

Let's look at the facts. Hizbollah have said that they will never fire across the Israeli border again if they get their prisoners back and there is a negotiated two-state solution agreed to by the elected Palestinian government. So once Israel's soldiers were snatched, the sensible solution was to haggle out a prisoner swap and immediately open negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Of course it is possible Hizbollah are lying, and they care more about acting on crazed anti-Semitism or the orders of Iran. But before you drive three quarters of a million people from their homes and risk restarting a civil war that killed 100,000 people, isn't it a good idea to find out - especially since a two- state solution is the right thing to do anyway?

But Blair did not advocate this route, the one called for by almost every moderate Muslim in the world. He sided with the White House and scuppered all calls for an immediate ceasefire. Today, Hizbollah's rockets may be blasted to pieces, but there are tens of thousands of Lebanese children determined to join up and kill Israelis anew.

This keeps happening: Blair assumes the US is the vehicle for emboldening moderate Muslims, when their actions have precisely the opposite effect. Look at Iraq. Blair believed the toppling of Saddam would embolden moderate Muslims by creating a model for elected governments and free speech at the heart of the region.

But America's leaders pursued totally different goals, as people who supported the war, like Blair and (thankfully without a smidgeon of his influence) me, should have known would be the case all along. They instead were worried primarily about control of the oil supply, notoriously defending the oil ministry as Baghdad fell but not the hospitals or museums. Yet still Blair bizarrely says this is a "conspiracy theory", when even Dick Cheney - President Bush's neuro-cortex - publicly acknowledges the first Gulf War was "a reflection of that reality."

The Prime Minister's understanding of US foreign policy seems disturbingly limited. Jon Snow reveals in his autobiography that in a conversation with him, Tony Blair didn't even know who Mohammed Mossadeq, the democratic Iranian Prime Minister liquidated by the CIA in 1953 and replaced with a fascistic dictator, was. Blair rightly said that Iraq and Afghanistan would only recover from sectarian hatred if they were provided with economic opportunity. But did he really believe the Bush administration and the IMF would provide this?

Not a single road has been built since the Taliban fell, and both countries have been subjected to an enforced neoliberalism that has brought disaster everywhere it has been tried, from Argentina to Russia. As the Harvard economist Amy Chua has shown, the economic model imposed by the IMF could almost have been designed to create mass unemployment and heat ethnic tensions to the point of civil war.

This is Tony Blair's tragedy: to have the correct analysis of the battle within Islam, but no weapons with which to fight it except a petrol-soaked US Army pursuing very different goals which he does not understand.