It’s that man again: Blair wants ground troops sent into Iraq
Tony Blair is calling for "boots on the ground" in the fight against an enemy he judges to be a threat to western security in Iraq. It sounds familiar – but this time the former prime minister might have a point.
One thing is for certain: Blair is incorrigible. He used his evidence sessions at the Iraq inquiry to call for the west to go in all guns blazing against Syria. He has consistently argued that the best way to confront radical Islam is to batter it into submission through force. Now, seven years after leaving Downing Street, he thinks he has a right to be listened to as he outlines a fresh case for sending western soldiers into the Middle East.
"Maybe it's worth appreciating the fact that there are lessons I have learnt from the experience of having gone through the process of taking these decisions, of having to deal with the situation in Iraq where, as I say, precisely the same type of terrorist forces we were facing in Iraq in 2006-07 is exactly what we face now in 2014."
These comments come in a BBC interview promoting a 'long-read' article on his Faith Foundation website, in which he lays claim to a pamphleteering kind of wisdom. Even its broadbrush title, The Way Ahead, is something which Tom Paine or Lenin could have come up with. The message is that the threat from Islamic extremism is a kind of world war for the 21st century. "I became convinced whilst PM that this was the issue of our time," Blair writes. "I am even more convinced now."
— Baroness Hussein-Ece (@meralhece) September 22, 2014
— Bonnie Greer (@Bonn1eGreer) September 22, 2014
— Jonathan Fryer (@jonathanfryer) September 22, 2014
The Islamic State seems to be making Blair's case for him. "A group like Isis, they are brutal, they kill without mercy and they're prepared to die without regret," Blair says. "That makes them a fanatical force." Never mind that they have taken advantage of the weak political situation in Iraq, a country left bruised and vulnerable to exactly this kind of insidious takeover because of the 2003 invasion of Iraq which Blair masterminded. Cause and effect seem important to him, but he refuses to acknowledge the extent of his own culpability for the region's present instability. Blair claims kudos for having been there and done that. Yet he shies away from accepting any kind of responsibility.
He shouldn't need to. We need to get over his role in the past. It is history, and the counterfactuals are now so hard to calculate that they effectively become irrelevant. Whatever got the world into this situation – of having an entire political quasi-state that make the Taliban look as mild and meek as Mary's little lamb – we are here now and this threat needs dealing with. There isn't much subtlety about destroying a state by force. When it needs to be done, though, Blair is rather good at knowing what works.
"You can harry and hem them in, but in the end you're also going to have to have [use] force capability on the ground," he says simply. "I'm not saying we in the west need to do this. It would be better if it were done by those people closer to the ground who have the most immediate and direct interest in fighting them. But I don't think in all circumstances we should rule it out and after all we do have the force capability to do this."
Blair is ahead of the world leaders on this. Unencumbered by the need to present a semblance of legality to the attacks on Isis, he has made his view on ground troops clear when the politicians have barely reached consensus on airstrikes. Britain is expected to join America and France in authorising the targeting of Isis targets later this week. This is itself a big turnaround. It's not so long since, on September 11th, foreign secretary Philip Hammond regrettably stated that Britain would not be sending in its Typhoons. No 10 hastily reversed that statement, saying it didn't rule anything out. David Cameron will complete the U-turn later this week. There is even talk of parliament being recalled on Thursday to authorise the military action.
Blair wants more. "My point is very simple: all of our experience teaches us that unless you're prepared to fight these people on the ground, you may contain them but you won't defeat them," he insists.
Last week, American generals seemed to indicate they liked the idea, too. US Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told a Congressional panel that ground troops should be deployed if the present strategy of airstrikes and logistical support doesn't shift Isis from Iraq's most important assets.
He and Blair are on the same page. Dempsey, clarifying his position, said that he would recommend sending some of the 1,600-odd American military 'advisers' already in Iraq "on attacks against specific targets" the moment he thought doing so would be useful. This is the first tentative step on the road to military conflict on the ground; it's what JFK was up to against the Viet Cong, and look how that turned out. Blair makes the same distinction. "No one is wanting to see armies back in there, occupying territories," he says. "It's not necessary and probably not wise to do that. But there may be situations – there's already enormous help being given to those on the ground by intelligence, military training, through helping arm and support them in all sorts of different ways. I think as policy evolves there may be a role for some armed force capability."
Dempsey's comments didn't go down too well. While defense secretary Chuck Hagel was also interested in the idea of ground troops, the White House shied away from the idea. Obama repeated his promise not to send in the troops. But he did offer this lofty piece of rhetoric as an addendum: "When the world is threatened, when the world needs help, it calls on America. And we call on our troops."
Perhaps this is what motivated Blair to make his own call for action. Despite the man's toxic brand – and there really is no-one quite as tainted as Blair engaged in the current debate – when it comes down to it Isis does need confronting and destroying. It cannot be allowed to continue. Blair, the armchair general, has a more legitimate voice in 2014 than Blair the statesman. However sickening it may be to admit it, he's got a point.