Radical Islamism goes deeper than we think, says Tony Blair

In a forensic and measured interview by the BBC's John Humphrys, the former Prime Minister defends h

Tony Blair has sparred with John Humphrys over his prime ministerial record.

The BBC Today interviewer asked Blair whether he believed the "war on terror" had been won. "We've achieved significant results . . . but I don't think this is over," he replied. I think the radical Islamism which gave rise to this terrorist group is still with us, still powerful."

In a wide-ranging 28-minute interview, taking in Iran, extraordinary rendition and the death toll in Iraq, Blair repeated several times his belief that al-Qaeda was part of a "bigger, broader picture". He also said he had no knowledge of British collusion in the torture of detainees who had been subject to extraordinary rendition: "You can't know everything the security services are doing."

Here are some of the key exchanges.

On the "war on terror":

Tony Blair: The real question is not whether you call it the war on terror or you don't, it is: what is the nature of the threat? I think the most interesting and difficult question for me ten years on is: was this a group of isolated people, terrorists, with an ideology, who committed a terrible atrocity or was this group at the furthest end of a spectrum of what I would call radical Islamism, and therefore this is something far bigger, far greater than even we assessed after September 11 . . .

I don't think you can treat these people as just a weird and warped group with no connection to the wider world.

On the threat of Islamism:

TB: When I'm in the Middle East, and you see the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood, or Hamas, you look at the role that Iran is playing in the region, I think it's a big mistake to say this was just about Bin Laden and a group of terrorists. That's my view.

John Humphrys: The fact you pitched the "war on terror" at every stage against the worst that we could imagine led to appalling consequences.
Tony Blair: I wouldn't agree with that. I think the difficulties we had in Afghanistan or Iraq - we removed the regimes actually quite easily, the Taliban in a couple of months and Saddam in two months - what then happened is the very forces I'm talking about combined together, Iran from the outside, al-Qaeda from the outside, insurgents from inside, in order to try to destabilise those countries.

On the death toll in Iraq:

JH: That's rather the dismissing the consequences of what you did . . . Look at Iraq. The deaths of tens - most people believe hundreds - of thousands of entirely innocent people. . . Many more than had been killed in any acts of terrorism.
TB: The figure that the Iraq Body Count gives is over 100,000.
JH: Johns Hopkins [university]... 650,000.
TB: Those figures were hugely discredited.

On WMD:

TB: Let's look at what we did in Afghanistan and Iraq. What we did was remove a brutal and repressive dictatorship.
JH: ... that wasn't threatening us. Or the Western world.
TB: I disagree. I think the Taliban harbouring al-Qaeda was threatening us. I think Saddam was undoubtedly a threat.
JH: How? He didn't have weapons of mass destruction, as we now know.
TB: He was in breach of United Nations resolutions going back many years, and had used chemical weapons against his own people. And by the way, started two wars in the region.

On how Blair dealt with Bin Laden:

JH: You went off on the wrong foot and created massive problems.
TB: That is to assume that the problem was Bin Laden and a group of terrorists. That comes back to the difference in analysis between us - if you were right, then now that Bin Laden is dead, you would expect to find this radical Islamism dying with him. But it's not. Look at Nigeria, Somalia, look at what's happened in the Middle East, in Lebanon, look what's happening in Yemen today. Look at what's happening in all of these countries where radical Islamism is developing. It's not about one man.
JH: And we're not dealing with all of those by invading those particular countries.

On Iran:

TB: Iran was a threat before Saddam.
JH: But it's a greater threat now.
TB: It's a threat that has been growing for a period of time. The reason it's a bigger threat now is not because Saddam has gone in Iraq.
JH: Oh, it is. [Ahmedinajad] has influence in Iraq that he didn't have before.
TB: That is correct that Iran is trying to influence Iraq in a way that is deeply unhelpful. My answer to that is you deal with Iran.
JH: What do you do to Iran?
TB: If necessary, you've got to be prepared to use force to stop their military nuclear programme.
JH: What kind of force . . . could it include invasion?
TB: No, I don't think it would include invasion, but I think you cannot rule out using military force against Iran if they continue to develop nuclear weapons.

You can listen to the full interview here. It begins around the 1.32 mark.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era