Two schools of thought have emerged to explain the defeat of the West in the so-called “war on terror”. With proponents such as acclaimed CIA analyst and author Michael Scheuer, the first claims that it was a result of imperial hubris. “Al-Qaeda hates us not for who we are but for where we are,” argues Scheuer, a former chief of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit which was dedicated to tracking the Al-Qaeda leader. “So, too, does most of the Muslim world.” He adds that America’s “propping up of unpopular Middle Eastern regimes and unflagging support for Israel weakens its hand in the region.”
This argument is relatively straightforward: America and its allies lost because the “war on terror” was based on false assumptions about the Arab and Muslim world. The Muslim world hates the “Great Satan” not for its freedom and Big Macs, or its way of life, but because of its constant meddling in Middle Eastern affairs to serve its own interests. Moreover, such interests are more often than not at the expense of the security and interests of the Muslim world.
Defeat is explained away by those subscribing to the second school of thought as a failure of implementation. Proponents of this view, like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, peddle this notion shamelessly, attributing their failure to poor execution. Endless war, invasion and occupation, they argue, could have been successful with proper planning and implementation.
This defence of the “war on terror” by the likes of Blair has been labelled “The Incompetence Dodge”. Coined as early as 2005 by Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias, in response to explanations touted by hawkish liberals for why the invasion of Iraq had gone disastrously awry, the dodge, they argue, is a way for the architects of the war on terror to acknowledge the obviously grim reality of the war without rethinking any of the premises that led them to support it in the first place.
The dodge, say Rosenfeld and Yglesias, not only helps protect its exponents from personal embarrassment, but also serves a more important, and dangerous, function, which is to preserve the ideological underpinnings of such liberals who see themselves as defenders of the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention. The dodge’s real significance, they argue, pertains to the future of liberal interventionism after Iraq, meaning that even if the security rationale for the war in Iraq collapses, the moral case for continuous war would remain unshakable.
A very similar scenario played out following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. In a desperate attempt to salvage their reputation, dodgers issued statements and started to publish lengthy articles and give media interviews, recycling many of the same old arguments and talking points. Blair’s response, as I argued in a previous article, was noteworthy because unlike many of the other architects of the war on terror, the former prime minister has shown no remorse over what by general consensus has been two decades of failed policy. One only needs to look at the rise of extremist terror groups over the past two decades to reach that conclusion. There would be no Daesh, surely, without industrial scale torture in western-run prisons such as Abu Ghraib and Bagram.
Highlighting the dodgers’ skilful use of distraction by blaming the Wests’ failure on incompetence, rather than flawed ideology, Blair doubled down — or rather tripled down — on his ideological convictions earlier this week in a lecture at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). The British think tank, which counts well-known war-on-terror profiteers such as BAe Systems and Lockheed Martin among its donors, is, as bizarre as it may sound, a registered charity.
“The Taliban is part of the global movement of radical Islam,” Blair said as he reflected on the 20 years since 9/11. “The movement contains many different groups, but they share the same basic ideology.”
All told, he put up a dismal defence of a world view and Western foreign policy that have very little to show other than failed states and more terrorism. Oddly, the narrative Blair presented was as conspiratorial as the extremists he so loathes and wishes to destroy through seemingly never-ending wars.
Remarkably, with nothing but two academic papers published by the institute that bears his name, Blair argued that Islamism is a “first-order threat to [our] security” in the same way that “Revolutionary Communism” was, and needed to be countered through “a combination of security and ideological measures.” Blair’s argument was that the Wests’ failures in Afghanistan and Iraq are more to do with domestic politics in London and Washington — including the lack of resolve to see the policy through — and nothing to do with beliefs and assumptions about the Muslim world which set the West on its disastrous course.
Blair’s defence of Western militarism, understandable perhaps for a man who is said to have profited handsomely from inflating threats and overstating the dangers of Islamism, was devoid of new facts and understanding of groups that subscribe to political Islam. The notion that Daesh, the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood and its many offshoots can be lumped into a single group is as misguided as it is dangerous.
If Blair’s view of the threat posed by what he calls radical Islam was based on more than the institute that bears his name, and instead on experts that have been studying Islamism over the past two decades, he’d have a more nuanced approach and a policy that does not demand ongoing war and occupation. Having a policy on Islamism, understood as a broad ideological tradition, is unwise to say the least.
Indeed, viewing Islamist groups as a single entity renders any assessment of the threat they pose meaningless. Islamist groups include global jihadists as well as political parties that are either ruling or in opposition in Turkey, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, Kuwait, Yemen, Indonesia and Malaysia, to name but a few. There is also a wealth of literature on the “inclusion-moderation hypothesis”, the notion that democratisation incentivises Islamist groups to moderate their rhetoric and policy.
As we approach the anniversary of 9/11, the architects of the war on terror would serve Western interests much better by being a little more contrite and reflective, with less hubris. It’s not as though Blair isn’t capable of this. After all, he did admit three years ago that, “We were wrong to boycott Hamas after its election win.” Neither the US nor the West in general can afford another “wrong” turn if they wish to remain the global hegemon.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.