British Middle East Policy

Speech by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, August 1, 2006

Edited by Andy Ross

What is happening today out in the Middle East and beyond is an elemental struggle about the values that will shape our future.

It is in part a struggle between what I will call reactionary Islam and moderate, mainstream Islam. But its implications go far wider. We are fighting a war, not just against terrorism but about how the world should govern itself in the early 21st century, about global values.

Ever since September 11th, the US has embarked on a policy of intervention to protect its security. Afghanistan, Iraq, and the broader Middle East initiative in support of moves towards democracy in the Arab world were not just about changing regimes but changing value systems.

The fanatics had been engaging in terrorism for years before September 11th, as part of a growing movement that believed Muslims had departed from their proper faith, were being taken over by Western culture, were being governed treacherously by Muslims complicit in this take-over. For the fanatics, the true way to recover the true faith was to take on the West. If they were merely fighting with Islam, they ran the risk that fellow Muslims would reject their fanaticism. A battle about Islam was just Muslim versus Muslim. They realized they had to create a completely different battle in Muslim minds: Muslim versus Western.

We could have chosen security as the battleground. But we chose values. The moment we did so, we made both Iraq and Afghanistan into existential battles for reactionary Islam. We committed ourselves to supporting moderate, mainstream Islam. The battles in Iraq or Afghanistan became battles between the majority of Muslims in either country who wanted democracy and the minority who realize that this rings the death-knell of their ideology.

In doing this, we widened the definition of reactionary Islam. It is not just Al-Qaeda who felt threatened by the prospect of two brutal dictatorships becoming tolerant democracies. Other countries could see the threat. In Iraq, Syria allowed Al-Qaeda operatives to cross the border. Iran has supported extremist Shia there. The purpose of the terrorism in Iraq is carnage, leading to civil war.

One cause unites Islam: Palestine. Here a moderate leadership was squeezed between its own inability to control the radical elements and the political stagnation of the peace process. Israelís disengagement from Gaza should have been the opportunity to re-start the process. But Hamas won the election.

So the opportunity passed to reactionary Islam and they seized it: first in Gaza, then in Lebanon. They knew their terrorism would provoke massive retaliation by Israel. Within days, the world would forget the original provocation and be shocked by the retaliation. They want to trap the moderates between support for America and an Arab street furious at what they see nightly on their television. For them, the struggle is Islam versus the West.

To turn this around requires us first to perceive the nature of the struggle we are fighting and secondly to have a realistic strategy to win it. At present we are challenged on both fronts.

Global terrorism is directed at the United States and its allies, but also at nations who are not allies of the West. It is not the product of poverty, and its fanatics are hardly the champions of economic development. It is based on religious extremism, not any religious extremism, but a specifically Muslim version.

What it is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan is not about those countries' liberation from US occupation but to prevent those countries becoming democracies. It is to prevent Palestine living side by side with Israel; not to fight for a Palestinian state but against an Israeli state; not wanting Muslim countries to modernize but to retreat into governance by a semi-feudal religious oligarchy. In the end, even the issue of Israel is just part of the wider struggle for the soul of the region.

It is a global fight about global values; it is about modernization, within Islam and outside of it; it is about whether our value system can be shown to be sufficiently robust, true, principled and appealing that it beats theirs. Islamist extremism's whole strategy is based on a presumed sense of grievance that can divide people against each other. Our answer has to be a set of values strong enough to unite people with each other. This is about hearts and minds.

We have to empower moderate, mainstream Islam to defeat reactionary Islam. And because so much focus is on this issue, it is becoming a surrogate for all the other issues the rest of the world has with the West.

We are not yet succeeding because we are not being bold enough, consistent enough, or thorough enough, in fighting for our values.

But there are many reasons for long-term optimism. Across the Middle East, there is a process of modernization as well as reaction. It should give us hope that any time people are permitted a chance to embrace democracy, they do so.

The question is: how do we empower the moderates to defeat the extremists?

First, naturally, we should build strong alliances with all those in the Middle East who are on the modernizing path.

Second, we need to re-energize the peace process between Israel and Palestine. We need a two-state solution. The Palestinian state must be independent and viable, but also democratic and not threaten Israel's safety. A settlement would be proof that the region and therefore the world can accommodate different faiths and cultures.

Third, we need to see Iraq through its crisis and out to a non-sectarian, democratic state. The Iraqi and Afghan fight for democracy is our fight. Victory for them is victory for us all.

Fourth, we need to make clear to Syria and Iran that there is a choice: come in to the international community and play by the our rules or be confronted. Their support of terrorism and their desire to wreck the democratic prospect in Iraq are dangerous and wrong.

From now on, we need a whole strategy for the Middle East. Each part is linked. Progress between Israel and Palestine affects Iraq. Progress in Iraq affects democracy in the region. Progress for moderate, mainstream Islam anywhere puts reactionary Islam on the defensive everywhere.

This struggle is part of a far wider debate. The increasing divide today is between open and closed. Is the answer to globalization, protectionism or free trade? Is the answer to the pressure of mass migration, managed immigration or closed borders? Is the answer to global security threats, isolationism or engagement? Those are very big questions.

I am on the open side of the argument. The way for us to handle the challenge of globalization is to compete better, more intelligently, more flexibly. See competition as a threat and we are already on the way to losing.

Immigration is the toughest issue in Europe right now. It needs to be controlled. There have to be rules. But, properly managed, immigrants give a country dynamism and new ideas as well as new blood.

And isolationism is a perennial risk in the US and EU policy. Global terrorism means we can't opt out even if we wanted to. The world is interdependent.

We can win people to these positions if our policy is not just about interests but about values, not just about what is necessary but about what is right. That is why I say this struggle is one about values.

Full original transcript

AR  I  agree with all this. Thanks, Tony