June 22, 2014 5:31 pm

Removing Saddam Hussein did not cause this crisis

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The Middle East’s problems lie in the toxic mix of bad politics and bad religion, writes Tony Blair
©AFP

For the avoidance of doubt, of course the Iraq of 2014 bears, in part, the imprint of the removal of Saddam Hussein 11 years ago. To say otherwise, as a recent editorial in this newspaper implies that I do, would be absurd.

However, there are two important points that must also be recognised.

We cannot ignore the fact that Isis, the jihadist group advancing across Iraq, rebuilt itself and organised the Iraq operation from the chaos in Syria. Isis and other al-Qaeda-type groups in Iraq were flat on their back four years ago, having been comprehensively beaten by a combination of US and UK forces and Sunni tribes. The civil war in Syria allowed them to get back on their feet.

So the first point is that non-intervention is also a decision with consequences. In the case of Syria those consequences have been dire, and as security chiefs in the UK and Europe are warning, they pose a real threat to our security.

Second, no analysis of the Middle East today makes sense unless we examine the impact of the Arab revolutions overturning the old regimes. It is odd to argue that revolution would not have come to Iraq. And surely Saddam Hussein’s response would have been more like that of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, than that of Hosni Mubarak. Whatever decision had been taken in 2003, in 2014 we would be facing a major challenge.

There is a tendency to write off the Saddam Hussein time in Iraq as if he were a force for stability and peace. Just to remind ourselves: he began the Iraq-Iran war in which there were more than 1m casualties, many dying from chemical weapons, something which then played a part in pushing Iran towards its nuclear programme; he invaded Kuwait; he used chemical weapons in a genocidal attack against the Kurds; he excluded the Shia majority; and he persecuted the Marsh Arabs. The region’s problems are the result of deep-seated issues that, with the removal of those regimes, have now come to the surface.

That is the point I am making. I am not seeking to persuade people about the decision in 2003. I am trying to convince them that the fundamental challenge is not the product of that decision or indeed the decision in Syria. It is a challenge of immense complexity that has not originated in anything we have done since this challenge burst fully on to our consciousness after the attacks of September 11 2001. Its origin lies in the toxic mix of bad politics and bad religion that is not confined to Iraq or Syria but is spread across not just the Middle East but also the world.

The reason we got into such difficulty in Iraq, as in Afghanistan, was precisely because once the dictatorship was removed, extremist Islamist forces then made progress extraordinarily difficult. That is their hideous impact the world over. The fundamental challenge today arises not from the decisions of 2003 or those of 2014. It is the challenge of Islamist extremism and it is global.

In the case of Syria the consequences of non-intervention have been dire

It is a challenge we cannot avoid. Its outcome will dramatically affect our own security. We may be war weary and want to disengage but the people we are fighting do not share that weariness. Leave aside Iraq or Syria; look at Pakistan today. It has powerful institutions; it has a functioning democracy. Yet be in no doubt, the struggle it is waging is existential. Nigeria was two decades ago a model of religious tolerance. Today it is on the rack of extremism. Even in western societies, there are tensions that are real and dangerous.

The bad news is that this issue is not going away. That is why I am speaking about it. Since leaving office I have spent a large part of my time studying it and through my foundation trying to counter it.

Short term, we have to do what we can to rescue the situation in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, without inclusive government this will be hard to do. The US is right in demanding political change as the price of its engagement. In Syria, an outright win for either side is no longer sensible; the majority of Syrians just want the torment to end.

Long term, we have to have the right mixture of soft and hard power responses, which fights this extremism wherever it is conducting its terror campaigns. We must deal with the root cause of the problem which lies in the formal and informal systems that educate young people in a closed-minded approach to religion and culture.

The good news is that this extremism does not represent the majority of Muslims. As the recent elections in both Iraq and Afghanistan show, where despite threats, violence and terror, people came out to vote in their millions. These people want to be free: free of dictators and free of terror. We should help them. It is in our interests that they succeed.

The writer was prime minister of Britain from 1997 to 2007

This article has now been closed to further comments. Many thanks for your contributions to the discussion.

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Letters in response to this article:

Blair spells out the dangers we face / From Mr Martin Beresford

Blair fails to mention the chaos he sowed after toppling Saddam / From Lord Williams of Baglan

We need to hear Blair’s testimony / From Ms Maureen Green

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