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Home > Politics

Arc of the Convenient

4 August 2006

Tony Blair's very pleased with his shiny new 'arc of extremism', isn't he? After testing it at the G8 summit in July he used the conflation of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah no fewer than three times in the speech he gave in Los Angeles this week.

Something was clearly needed to replace the 'axis of evil', Iraq having left the group with nervous exhaustion and not being due to rejoin for the reunion tour until its second breakdown has really taken hold. The 'axis of evil' rolls off the tongue, the 'axis' part summoning images of the World War II's Axis powers of Germany, Japan and Italy. The 'evil' part metaphorically dresses Iranians, North Koreans and Iraqis in stormtrooper uniforms making it morally easier to shoot, cluster bomb and waterboard them.

The 'arc of extremism' is an altogether more contrived outfit, a bit like The Monkees being the US's answer to the Beatles. The band's name belies the fussy pedantry evident in much of New Labour's thinking and language. But Blair loves a clever label, even one as unmemorable as this. The simple, literal approach of 'Four Poofs and a Piano' is not for the likes of him.

But it confers almost nothing to the mind in terms of mental imagery. Pause for a minute and try to picture an 'arc of extremism'.

No, us neither.

It makes you wonder just what names got discarded in the obviously-nothing-better-to-do brainstorming session that came up with it. It's hard to think of anything worse. The 'cat's cradle of calamity?' 'Trellis of terror?' 'Minestrone of mayhem?'

In the same speech, on the subject of the ongoing unpleasantness in Lebanon, Blair said: 'We will continue to do all we can to halt the hostilities'. Or at least all that can be done from beside Cliff Richard's swimming pool in the Bahamas. Has nobody told him they have sun and duty free shops in Tel Aviv and Beirut? (At least, we're assuming Beirut still has them - the Israeli airforce bombed the city's Rafik Hariri International Airport back in July.)

The struggle against Hezbollah and global terrorism in general, says Blair, 'is about hearts and minds about inspiring people, persuading them, showing them what our values at their best stand for'. The thing is, as Rory Bremner once memorably said, it's hard to win people's hearts and minds 'when you leave their hearts in one place and their minds in another'.

It all boils down to 'a struggle between what I will call Reactionary Islam and Moderate, Mainstream Islam,' said Blair, as if cluster bombs are able to distinguish between Muslims of either flavour. In case he hadn't noticed - apart from Israel - the Middle East has had a moderate, mainstream, democratic and secular (albeit with a significant Muslim population) state for a little while now. It has a 'sophisticated, educated, cosmopolitan' people, according to journalist Robert Fisk who's lived there for 30 years. It's called Lebanon and it's currently being bombed to shit.

How to sort the reactionary from the moderate in the 750,000 displaced people currently on the move in Southern Lebanon? Tony doesn't say. Of those who weren't members of the 'arc of extremism' before this all started, you can probably now lay good odds that a good number of them will be before it's all finished. 'Kill them all and let God sort them out' - maybe? - as Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux said back in 1209 when the crusaders asked him how they were to tell Cathar heretics from the Catholics. In that respect, 5,000-lb bombs have a certain 13th Century vibe.

So how to confront Syria and Iran, the Lennon and McCartney of the 'arc of extremism'? Again, Tony doesn't say. Asked twice at his last press conference before going on holiday this week, he couldn't or wouldn't give an answer. Something to do with modernisation was mentioned. What this is we're none the wiser. It's certainly a word to strike fear into the hearts of those back home who've been victims of Blair's programmes of modernisation, be it trying to get a fair answer from the tax credit system, a fair hearing from the immigration system or a fair trial from the anti-terrorist system. Abroad, it's almost certain to be something even harsher. 'This is a war, but of a completely unconventional kind,' said Blair. The weapons that rained down on Iraq looked pretty conventional to us, Tony.

One of the bigger questions to come out of this though is, is Blair *really* the right person to be talking about exporting our 'values' abroad, to the dark savages who apparently have none? Either Blair is stupid or he thinks his audience is. We're talking about a guy who's helped to level Iraq, who's up to his neck in a corruption investigation, allows aircraft transporting bunker buster missiles from the US to Israel (and on, a little faster, to Lebanon) to refuel in the UK, and has a money-grabbing wife and a princeling son enjoying the best life has to offer simply because of who his dad is. Most decent-thinking Britons don't subscribe to those values let alone those swarthy foreigners on who Tony hopes to foist them. (He's also got a brass neck for talking about extremism, being happy, as he is, to turn a blind eye to creationism being taught in British schools.)

Some people have caught on, however. The United Nations' deputy secretary general Mark Malloch Brown said that the UK is 'poorly placed to broker a deal over Lebanon because of their role in bringing about war in Iraq.' At the UN at least, Tony's about as welcome as Mel Gibson at a meeting of the Tel Aviv Temperance Society.

Maybe Blair sees himself much like Moses who, having led his people through hardship (or in this case, the 'elemental struggle about the values that will shape our future') to the borders of the Promised Land (or the very 'future of the world'), is prevented from entering it himself, because of his sins, by God.

Which is where all the trouble began, isn't it? With Blair soon to depart to spend more time with the American lecture circuit, no doubt he's thinking what Moses should have said to God after his snubbing: 'Well, at least I won't have to clear up the mess.'

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