As 2006 ends I am both nervous and hopeful about the prospects for 2007. Nothing better encapsulates why I feel this mix of emotions than Tony Blair’s recent essay in Foreign Affairs, which I wish everyone would read carefully.
The first thing that struck me is how articulate Mr. Blair is. He has always been the superior spokesman for the ideological worldview that underlies his support for the Iraq War and the “global war on terrorism”.
So what are Blair’s main points?
1. The attacks of 9/11 were the product of a growing global ideology of radical Islam, not simply the work of a few isolated madmen.
2. We are not in the midst of a “clash of civilizations”, but in a struggle for civilization itself.
3. Islam itself is not the problem; in fact Islam has many elements that are eminently reasonable and progressive.
4. Poverty is not the root of the problem, and the problem will not go away if we withdraw our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
5. The ideology of radical Islam must be confronted everywhere.
6. We must support those in Iraq and Afghanistan who stand for democracy regardless of whether or not the war was justified.
7. The ultimate struggle is for modernity and global liberal values. These are much more than just security, and include new multilateral trade deals, protecting human rights, and fighting climate change.
Let me begin with what I find hopeful about this message. Mr. Blair is one of the liberalism’s wisest defenders of the past decade. He gets the big picture. He understands that you can’t promote democracy and then torture people, that the Doha Round of the WTO is as important for beating terrorists as expanding democracy, that America must take the lead on environmental issues that have potentially huge security implications. Put simply: Mr. Blair is one of the champions of enlightenment values and we owe him great respect.
But with respect to his perception of the “enemy” and how to combat the forces of radicalism, I do not think the facts support Mr. Blair’s worldview.
Let us start with Iraq. Iraq is in the midst of a civil war. While it is certainly true that there are elements in Iraq who want to see democracy fail in order to establish a Taliban-like state, most of the conflict is motivated by the oldest reason in the world: power. The Sunnis are afraid of being disenfranchised and the Shiites want to take full control; there is nothing particularly ideological about it at all, and the jihadists are only a small part.
While supporters of the war continue to put their faith in the Iraqi government, it is becoming increasingly hard to tell the “good” guys from the “bad” guys; some of the worst elements in Iraq, notably Al Sadr, are part of the democratically-elected government. In addition, it is reasonable to assume that once we leave Iraq Al Qeada will be weakened, not strengthened, because many powerful groups in Iraq view them as enemies and are already engaged in fighting them, while our presence serves as a recruiting tool for the jihadists.
We also should not let Mr. Blair off the hook about the original motivation for the war. He says that radical Islam should be combated everywhere. I agree, which is exactly why attacking a weak non-threatening secular regime was a bad idea.
Finally, Mr. Blair is surely aware that the radicals who killed more than 50 British citizens in bus and train bombings were themselves British citizens, as are the majority of the 1,600 Muslims in Britain who are currently under heavy surveillance. The murder of Theo Van Gogh in Holland was committed by a Dutch middle class citizen. Bin Laden and his affiliates are mostly middle class and Western-educated. And where is their support coming from? Primarily Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. While the threat of terrorism might not go away if we left Iraq, there is little doubt that these men have been further radicalized by the invasion and occupation.
In summary, when I listen to people like Mr. Blair I am hopeful because of their strong and unwavering commitment to liberal values. Philosophically I agree as well with the neocons, who also believe strongly in freedom and democracy. I believe that American power can and should be a force for good in the world (e.g., personally I wish that America would unilaterally invade Sudan and crush the perpetrators of the Sudanese genocide).
But I diverge with Blair on tactics and strategy. As I have said many times, democracy is not a precondition for peace and liberal values. Democracy can bring people like Al Sadr or Hamas to power. In Saudi Arabia and Pakistan it would likely bring Al Qaeda to power.
The war against Islamic radicals is much more a long-term ideological struggle than it is a military one. As to the practical matter of defeating and deterring the individuals who are actively seeking to do us harm, it seems increasingly obvious that this is best done through intelligence gathering and global law enforcement efforts, not by the crude use of military force.
That people as smart as Mr. Blair don’t seem to get this, even after these past four years, is what makes me worry.
P.S. A few comments on Saddam’s execution: 1. Read the description of what happened at the execution and it will make you sick to your stomach; Saddam’s executioners prayed to Al Sadr, whose militia the Defense Department has recently indicated is the #1 threat in Iraq (yes, greater than Al Qeada). 2. The whole affair in Iraq is becoming a sicker and sicker travesty by the day, and this banana-republic show trial is just one more page in a downward spiral. 3. None of this is to suggest that I am sad that Saddam is dead; I am sad that the greatest nation on earth is so morally adrift that “victory”, no matter how elusive, has become a hollow term.