Blair’s Blunders

Avi Shlaim

Unpublished, 20 July 2005

Tony Blair is a serial blunderer when it comes to the Middle East and the so-called war on terror. His latest claim is that the London bombing is unrelated to the Iraq war. Anyone who believes that will believe anything. Few people do. A recent report by Chatham House, the independent think-tank, pointed out that the key problem for the UK in fighting terrorism is that the country is “riding as a pillion passenger with the United States in the war against terror.”  There can be no excuse for the London atrocities but even the security services had warned Blair of a potential upsurge in domestic terrorism if Iraq was invaded. Nor did it take an expert to predict this. Simon Schama wrote in the Guardian that an attack on Iraq would turn the country into a teddy bears’ picnic for terrorists. This is precisely what has happened. The invasion of Iraq has given a powerful boost to the al-Qaeda network. The London bombs are part of the fall-out or blow back.

Even if it is conceded, for argument’s sake, that there is no link between the terrorist attack in London and the Iraq war, Blair’s entire record in the Middle East is still one of catastrophic failure. Blair used to portray Britain as a bridge between the two sides of the Atlantic. By siding with America against Europe over Iraq, however, he himself has helped to destroy the bridge. Blair supported the Bush administration over Iraq in the hope of exercising some influence over its policy. This was a serious miscalculation. American policy was doomed to failure from the start, and the end result has been to saddle Britain with a share of the responsibility and the moral opprobrium for this failure. Unlike Britain in its heyday, America is unfit to be an imperial power in the Middle East. There are three reasons for this, all beginning with the letter I: ideology, ignorance, and incompetence.

These three factors have converged to turn Iraq into hell on earth. In Arabic there is a saying that something that starts crooked remains crooked. In the case of Iraq the war was illegal, the occupation was hopelessly mismanaged, and the joy of liberation quickly turned sour. What we have in Iraq today is chronic instability, an incipient civil war, endemic violence and anarchy, an upsurge of terrorist activity of every kind, and a national insurgency to which the allies have no answer. Occupation was accompanied by devastation and destruction on a massive scale, horrendous suffering, and a civilian death toll estimated at 25,000 by the Oxford Research Group. The allies pride themselves on having brought democracy to the Iraqi people but they have failed in the primary duty of any government, namely, to provide security for the civilian population.  They themselves are now embroiled in a vicious, protracted and unwinnable conflict. Against this background it is hardly surprising that some Iraqis are beginning to wonder whether they were not better off under the evil regime of Saddam Hussein.

When seeking the approval of the House of Commons for the war, Tony Blair pledged that after Iraq is disarmed, he and his American friends would seek a solution to the Palestine problem. Here too he has failed miserably and his failure continues to feed Arab and Muslim rage against Britain. The basic problem is Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people. Starting a second occupation in Iraq is not a solution to this problem. True, Blair was the driving force behind the Quartet’s Road Map that envisaged the emergence of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel by the end of 2005. But Ariel Sharon wrecked the Road Map with his plan for unilateral disengagement from Gaza and the retention of the major settlement blocs on the West Bank. George Bush’s support for Sharon’s plan amounted to an abrupt reversal of American policy since 1967 which regarded the settlements as an obstacle to peace. Tony Blair’s public endorsement of this plan was the most egregious British betrayal of the Palestinians since the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

The misbegotten war in Iraq, the suffering of the Iraqi people, and the double standards displayed by Blair over Palestine have all magnified the terrorist threat against Britain even if they are not the primary motive. Tony Blair’s glib talk about the need to pull terrorism up by the roots reveals a basic misunderstanding of this complex phenomenon. Terror is simply a technique of warfare, the weapon of the weak, and the term “war on terror” is therefore a misnomer. Terrorism is a response to social, economic, and political problems and unless these root problems are addressed, terror will persist. The war on terror is also an unhelpful concept because it deflects attention from the context in which terrorists emerge to the military means for fighting them. This rigid, simplistic, selective, and one-dimensional view of terrorism is part of the problem, not part of the solution. As long as Tony Blair adheres to it, he will continue to serve, alongside his American friends, as a recruiting sergeant for al-Qaeda.