So apparently intractable are the political, ethnic and sectarian problems in the Middle East that there are many in the West who throw up their hands at the possibility of their ever being resolved. Tony Blair is resolutely no such character. In a choleric speech yesterday the former Prime Minister attacked those who see only shades of grey, and set out instead a startlingly black-and-white vision of how the West should respond to turmoil that stretches from the eastern tip of Egypt to Pakistan’s border with India. Above all, says Blair, Western powers must redouble efforts to counter “radical Islam” – intervening wherever possible to support “revolution” against religious hardliners.
Mr Blair speaks with the same fervour with which he took Britain into the disastrous war in Iraq. Yet not all is misguided. The Middle East is not the “vast unfathomable mess” of stereotype, nor should the West apply a hands-off foreign policy. The threat posed by extremist Islam is real and growing. American and European policymakers should indeed “engage” in countering its spread, through means primarily diplomatic and – as a very last resort – military. But Mr Blair’s desire to “take sides” leads him to abandon reasonable caution, ignore the reality on the ground, and join arms with parties who deserve no such backing from Western leaders.
“The future of the region” hangs in Egypt. Yet Mr Blair’s absolutist approach – his formulation of a “very clear and unambiguous struggle” throughout the Middle East, between, essentially, religious ideology and freedom – leads him to endorse the military coup that evicted Mohamed Morsi, head of the country’s first elected government, and brush over the repression that has followed under the interim rule of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He ignores the massacre of 1,000 Brotherhood supporters, the re-assertion of strongman rule and the arrest of Al Jazeera journalists for “aiding terror”. By offering his support to Mr Sisi, who exerts control over national media and is sure to win election to the presidency in May, Mr Blair further legitimises the military’s ongoing campaign against freedom of expression, and freedom of religion, within Egypt. That irony is lost in a torrent of conviction.
Mr Blair casually elides the Muslim Brotherhood with terrorist activities. How he envisages that Egypt will progress to a safe, free society without engaging the Brothers is not clear. Their record in power was inept at best, but the party’s millions of supporters will not turn into liberal secularists simply because Mr Sisi has banned the organisation and arrested hundreds of its members. Instead, they may be forced underground, and into the waiting arms of the very radicals whose number Mr Blair seeks to thin.
One topic upon which Mr Blair didn’t linger is the deterioration of Iraq. Taking Britain to war there in 2003, he leapt before he looked – a decision with terrible and ongoing consequences. UN figures show nearly 8,000 civilians were killed there last year. That is no reason to turn away from all intervention in the Middle East, but it should turn the focus to diplomacy, even to the involvement of Islamist groups – from the Taliban to the Muslim Brotherhood – with whom we may strongly disagree, but who will survive so long as they can call on popular support.
The long, difficult battle against religious extremism in all its forms requires patience, determination and clarity of thought; but a Manichean view of the Middle East is not a good place to start.