Yesterday morning, Tony Blair – former Prime Minister and current Middle East envoy for the UN, US, EU and Russia – delivered one of the most Orwellian speeches of his career at Bloomberg London HQ, on the subject of ‘Why the Middle East matters’:
“When we consider the defining challenges of our time, surely this one should be up there along with the challenge of the environment or economic instability.”
Blair is talking about what he sees as “a radicalised and politicised view of Islam” that “distorts and warps Islam’s true message,” an ideology which is “spreading across the world,” “destabilising communities and even nations,” and “undermining the possibility of peaceful co-existence in an era of globalisation.”
Spearheaded largely from the Middle East, the expansion of Islamist ideology “still represents the biggest threat to global security of the early 21st century.”
Oil and money
But Blair also candidly sets out his four key reasons for elevating the significance of the Middle East to such a level. The first reason is control of oil:
“First and most obviously, it is still where a large part of the world’s energy supplies are generated, and whatever the long term implications of the USA energy revolution, the world’s dependence on the Middle East is not going to disappear any time soon. In any event, it has a determining effect on the price of oil; and thus on the stability and working of the global economy.”
So presumably something needs to be done to ensure our continued access to oil on the most favourable terms possible to ensure the stability of global capitalism.
Blair’s second reason is the region’s proximity to western Europe, just “a short distance from the Levantine coast.” Third, he highlights the centrality of Israel at the “centre of this maelstrom,” and the need to protect its “alliance with the USA, its partnership with leading countries of Europe, and the fact that it is a Western democracy” – no mention here of Israel’s ongoing illegal occupation and legal apartheid. And fourthly, he argues that Islam’s future “will be decided” in the region:
“Underneath the turmoil and revolution of the past years is one very clear and unambiguous struggle: between those with a modern view of the Middle East, one of pluralistic societies and open economies, where the attitudes and patterns of globalisation are embraced; and, on the other side, those who want to impose an ideology born out of a belief that there is one proper religion and one proper view of it, and that this view should, exclusively, determine the nature of society and the political economy.”
You’re either ‘with us’, or ‘against us’
In other words, for Blair the “essential battle” is between benevolent capitalists – associated by definition with democrats – and mad fundamentalists, whose tyrannical social models stand in the way of the techno-utopia of globalisation; this means ‘us’ in the west “taking a side and sticking with it.”
But Blair’s binary Bushi’ite vision of the world obscures well-documented realities. For instance, although he laments the last half century of “funding, proselytising, organising and promulgating coming out of the Middle East, pushing views of religion that are narrow minded and dangerous,” he simply ignores that throughout this period, such activity blossomed with western acquiescence and support precisely to guarantee access to cheap oil. More recently, as former MI6 officer Alastair Crooke points out, the US has tacitly approved continued Saudi and Gulf state financing of Islamist extremists to weaken Syrian and Iranian influence.
Similarly, when Blair refers to the “terror being inflicted” in north and sub Saharan Africa, such as “Nigeria, Mali Central African Republic, Chad and many others,” he overlooks the fact that our very own security services have turned a blind eye to the Algerian state’s ongoing sponsorship of al-Qaeda affiliated terror networks across the region. The strategic benefit of that gamble, it appears, once again turns out to be protecting access to Algeria’s, and northwest Africa’s, lucrative oil and gas supplies.
Capitalism’s unspoken holocaust
Indeed, the bulk of Blair’s argument is derived from utter fantasy. He says that “the modern world” works through “connectivity”; its “essential nature is pluralist,” favouring “the open-minded.” Modern capitalist economies, he said, “work through creativity and connections.”
While there is certainly much to celebrate in the values, principles and achievements we associate with modernity, Blair’s black and white vision is incapable of acknowledging that the expansion of global capitalism was and remains a deeply violent process.
Wherever one stands ideologically on the benefits or pitfalls of modern capitalism, the expansion of global capital since 1945 was not a wondrous process of economic inevitability. It was tied directly to military interventions in over 70 developing nations designed to create the political conditions conducive to markets that would be ‘open’ to western capital penetration, and thus domination of local resources and labour.
In his landmark book, Intervention and Revolution: The United States in the Third World (1968), the late former State Department official Richard J Barnet observed:
“Even the word ‘communist’ has been applied so liberally and so loosely to revolutionary or radical regimes that any government risks being so characterised if it adopts one or more of the following policies which the State Department finds distasteful: nationalisation of private industry, particularly foreign-owned corporations, radical land reform, autarchic trade policies, acceptance of Soviet or Chinese aid, insistence upon following an anti-American or non-aligned foreign policy, among others.”
The number of people that died in the course of this forcible integration of former colonies across Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East into the orbit of an emerging US-UK dominated global economy, is astonishing.
In his book, Unpeople (2004), British historian Mark Curtis offers a detailed breakdown of the death toll at approximately 10 million – a conservative under-estimate, he qualifies. American economist Dr JW Smith, in his Economic Democracy (2005), argues that globalisation was:
“… responsible for violently killing 12 to 15 million people since WW II and causing the death of hundreds of millions more as their economies were destroyed or those countries were denied the right to restructure to care for their people… that is the record of the Western imperial centers of capital from 1945 to 1990.”
It’s not ‘us’ – it’s ‘Them’
But obfuscating imperial history and its legacy is necessary for Blair to convincingly project an image of a near-perfect “modern world” whose chief problem supposedly boils down to Islamists holding back the region’s growth potential. The reality is that what we face is not a ‘clash of civilisations’ with barbarians out there, but a Crisis of Civilisation that encompasses us all – a global political, economic and ideological system that is breaching its own environmental and natural context.
The turmoil of the Arab Spring, for instance, that Blair wants to reduce to religious rivalry, is actually rooted in the increasing incapacity of regional states to remain stable in the face of mounting challenges of oil depletion, climate-wrought droughts, and widening inequality wrought by neoliberal austerity.
Yes, this crisis is refracted through the lenses of longstanding political repression, inter-religious divisions, and sectarian competition. But Blair’s focus on the latter serves to distract from the deeper, systemic causes of the crisis, beguiled instead by the ever-looming spectre of ‘Them.’
But this is no surprise. In truly Orwellian language, Blair’s prescription for action in the Muslim world entails “supporting” polities which uphold “the principles of religious freedom and open, rule based economies” – which seems to mean any political system capable of underpinning the legal basis for west-friendly capitalism.
Egypt – ‘democracy’ with guns?
For instance, Blair describes the Egyptian coup of July 2013, bringing to power indefinite Army rule under the command of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, as “the absolutely necessary rescue of a nation.” While millions of people did indeed take to the streets to protest the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood via President Mohamed Morsi – who whatever the many faults of his regime was at least originally democratically elected and up against overwhelming odds – the regime now in place whose success Blair claims is “massively in our interests” is essentially Hosni Mubarak’s tyranny on steroids.
Compare Blair’s narrative with the facts. He trivialises the ‘new’ Army regime’s crimes, which he concedes we “disagree strongly with – such as the death sentence on the 500,” by emphasising the need to be “sensitive” to the “violent deaths” of “over 400 police officers.” In the process, Blair conveniently overlooks the Army junta’s unprecedented massacre of thousands. As the Economist reports:
“In the months since the coup more than 300 policemen and soldiers have been killed in terrorist attacks or clashes with protesters. Egypt’s press has near-unanimously pinned blanket blame on the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government officially declared a terrorist organisation in December. This is despite evidence that the security people were targeted by more radical Islamist groups, and despite the killing of an estimated 3,000 civilians, most of them supporters of Mr Morsi.”
Having declared the Brotherhood a “terrorist” group without an ounce of due process, the regime continues to accelerate its crackdown on anyone who dares to protest the legitimacy of the Army’s reign, which appears less a transitional phase to democracy than a stepping stone to “a hybrid regime that would combine Islamism with militarism” – at least if Sisi’s 2006 US Army War College thesis is anything to go by.
Blair’s unashamedly tokenistic cheerleading for ‘democracy’-junta-style should come as no surprise. During and since his stint as Prime Minister, under the guise of do-gooding, his diplomatic clout has consistently been wielded in the interests of the fossil fuel industry.
He has, for example, given speeches and presented reports on climate change, including at the Copenhagen summit, focusing on “the need for governments to fund new technology while allowing industries to keep polluting.” Among schemes he advocated were “global carbon-trading” enabling “polluting industries and countries” to “buy the right to emit extra greenhouse gases from those with lower emissions.”
Even as Middle East envoy, his ‘peacemaking’ has included brokering “large business deals in the West Bank and Gaza involving telecoms and gas extraction which stood to benefit corporate clients of JP Morgan” – the giant banking firm that employs him as a “£2m-a-year adviser.” Among these deals was a plan to sell Gaza’s gas to Israel, which could prevent Palestinians from accessing the bulk of the revenue.
So make no mistake – this is not simply about Tony Blair. His speech is about rehabilitating the narrow, powerful interests he represents; a thinly veiled effort to distract public attention from the systemic causes of the Crisis of Civilisation and onto its symptoms, with a view to shore-up the old guard of a dying system through fear-mongering propaganda.
Old habits die hard.
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It among other books. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed