According to the dictum attributed to Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Yet evil will triumph even more easily if good men help the evil-doers. In the Syrian civil war, with more than 80,000 dead and no end in sight, that is what the European Union has been doing, by upholding an arms embargo on the supply of weapons to all sides.
This in practice assists Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship; freezing in place its military superiority over the poorly armed Free Syrian Army, and enabling the dictatorship better to massacre its own citizens. FSA soldiers, demoralized by their shortage of arms, have been responding by defecting to the relatively well-equipped Islamist militia Jabhat al-Nusra, whose leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani had pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, Iran systematically violates the arms embargo by sending arms to its Syrian ally.
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Western policy during the break-up of Yugoslavia and the wars in Croatia and Bosnia of the 1990s was contemptible not merely for its moral bankrupcty – for its collusion with the dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s genocide and aggression – but also for its sheer blindness to the way that history was going. It should have been obvious when the war broke out in Croatia in the summer of 1991, both that Yugoslavia was finished as a state and that Milosevic’s attempt to replace it with a Great Serbia was a deeply regressive and destructive project that could only end in disaster. Western interests would have been best served by looking to the future and defending the Yugoslav successor-states of Croatia and Bosnia. Instead, the Western powers continued to support a united Yugoslavia that was already dead. This rapidly mutated into a policy of appeasing the Serbian strongman, which continued for four sorry years. Western diplomacy twice rescued the collapsing Serbian forces from defeat – in Croatia in late 1991 and in Bosnia in the autumn of 1995 – while calls for military action to halt Serbian aggression were fended off. In the end, the policy of appeasement was abandoned and Milosevic was militarily confronted and eventually put on trial for war-crimes. But only after the Western alliance had been seriously jeopardised and discredited, Milosevic had embarked on yet another round of ethnic cleansing in Kosova, and irreparable damage had been done to the Western Balkans.
In the Egyptian crisis today, Western leaders face another Bosnia moment. Mubarak having launched his violent assault on the Egyptian revolution, they can now take decisive action to halt him – through demanding that he step down immediately in favour of a broadly based caretaker administration and permit free and fair elections, and by making clear that all US and European economic assistance will be withdrawn from Egypt unless he does. It makes no sense to say that the West should keep out of Egypt and mind its own business; the huge economic assistance and political support Mubarak has received from us up till now mean that we are already deeply and inextricably involved and responsible.
Or Western leaders can wring their hands and continue to vacillate, thereby effectively giving Mubarak the same green light they once gave Milosevic. In which case, they will be responsible for the bloodshed and repression that will follow, but they will not achieve the much vaunted ‘stability’. Mubarak’s violence and repression may start a civil war, or may simply warp and poison Egyptian and Middle Eastern politics for years to come, as domestic opposition to his regime, denied the chance to express itself through a normal democratic process and justifiably angry at Western betrayal, is channelled toward extremism and violence – think Algeria or Chechnya. Instead of an Egyptian democratic revolution starting to lift the Middle East out of its cesspool of dictatorship and religious extremism, a more repressive, violent and unstable Egypt under a crumbling, desperate regime will drag the region further down into the depths.
The most murderous acts of state violence are often the work of remnants of decaying regimes that had previously, in their prime, appeared relatively moderate and benign. So it was in Bosnia, where the genocide was spearheaded by the Yugoslav People’s Army that had once served Tito’s enlightened despotism and, before that, had been born from a liberation struggle against the Nazis. So it was in Rwanda, where Juvenal Habyarimana’s dictatorship, previously stable and relatively benevolent in its treatment of the Tutsi, collapsed in a genocidal orgy that (almost certainly) first claimed the life of Habyarimana himself.
The Egyptian crisis has already forced us to confront some painful truths. I have long greatly admired Tony Blair, but his praise for Mubarak as ‘immensely courageous and a force for good’ – even if it was in relation to Mubarak’s input into the Israeli-Palestinian peace-process rather than a general description – was simply disgraceful. Reminiscent, in fact, of Blair’s unfinest hour back in 1999, when he endorsed Vladimir Putin’s fledgling tyranny while its murderous assault on Chechnya was at its height. And look what that got us – a vicious autocracy more hostile to the West than any regime in Moscow since the Cold War.
Unlike with regard to Blair, one expects very little from a hardline-nationalist brute like Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, who has not only aligned himself with, but actually outdone, the monstrous Saudi regime in his support for the Egyptian dictator and his opposition to Egyptian democracy. The idea of Israel as a ‘beacon of democracy’ in the Middle East has always been wishful thinking on the part of its admirers – essentially the mirror-image of the myth, put about by the other side, of Israel as the root of all evil in the region. Israel is neither an angel nor a devil; it is a flawed democracy whose political classes are in the grip of an obnoxious nationalist mind-set, putting it roughly on a par with contemporary Turkey, Greece or Serbia. Of couse, the Israeli government has legitimate security concerns regarding how a post-Mubarak Egypt will behave, but there is also the rather less legitimate concern as to how its ongoing criminal policy of colonising the West Bank will fare without Mubarak to guard its rear. Hence, not so much a ‘beacon of democracy’ as a beacon for beleaguered tyrants. Arab oppression and Israeli oppression are two sides of the same coin and will fall together; both Israeli security and Palestinian independence will best be achieved by the democratisation of the Arab world.
The Middle East is at a historic crossroads, and Western policy toward the Middle East is at a historic crossroads. Barack Obama and David Cameron have been less than glorious in their reaction to the crisis so far, but nor have they discredited themselves totally, as Bill Clinton and John Major did over Bosnia. There is still time for them to choose the right path. History will judge them.
William Hague, the new British foreign secretary
‘Compared with a decade ago, this country is more open at home and more compassionate abroad and that is something we should all be grateful for…’. So said Britain’s new prime minister David Cameron, paying tribute to the outgoing Labour government. Britain is embarking on a new political era, and it is sad to see so many self-proclaimed ‘progressives’ still stuck in the same ideological trenches they inhabited in the 1980s, unable to view ‘progressive politics’ in anything other than anti-Tory terms, and damning the Liberal Democrats for their supposed ‘betrayal’. Cameron presented Britain with a historic opportunity to reconstitute our mainstream party of the right as a party of the centre. Had he failed to form a government, the Conservative Party could quite possibly have moved back towards the right. I have been critical of the Liberal Democrats in the past, but Nick Clegg’s decision to form a coalition with Cameron was a supremely responsible act, rescuing Cameron’s ‘progressive Conservative’ project and moderating any right-wing tendencies that a straight Conservative government would have had. The new British government enjoys greater legitimacy than any other combination arising from the election would have done; as much as is possible, it broadly represents what the nation wants, which is a change of government but not a move to the right. The Labour Party will benefit from a rest after thirteen years in office. Those who see British politics purely through anti-Conservative or anti-Labour lenses are still living in the twentieth century; the formation of a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition shows that old distinctions between ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ parties no longer apply.
Crucially, the foreign and defence portfolios in the new government are in the hands of Conservatives. Of course, Britain’s last Conservative government under John Major had a disgraceful record in world affairs – either failing to halt or actively aiding and abetting genocide in Iraq, Bosnia and Rwanda, while undermining our alliance with the US. But not all Conservative politicians are the same – Winston Churchill was not Neville Chamberlain and Margaret Thatcher was not Edward Heath. There is cause for concern at the continued influence in the party of elements complicit with Major’s disastrous policies, such as Malcolm Rifkind and Pauline Neville-Jones. But the signals coming from Cameron and from the new foreign secretary, William Hague, are promising.
There is absolutely no reason why the Conservative commitment to greater British sovereignty within the EU is ‘anti-European’; on the contrary, it is the Franco-German-dominated Euro-federalist bloc that is anti-European, as it seeks to divide Europe between the ‘ins’ and the ‘outs’, and to exclude countries like Turkey and Ukraine from the European family. In his recently leaked memo, Hague has made it clear that his government will be ‘firm supporters of enlargement’ and ‘favour an outward looking Europe’.
Hague has also said that his government will ‘want to see a more muscular EU approach in Bosnia’. He has consistently spoken up for Bosnia; last year, he criticised the ‘weak and confused’ EU response to the ‘pressure to fragment the country’ and said: ‘It is moving slowly in the wrong direction and – despite all the efforts and all the bloodshed and all the sacrifices there – it’s moving in the wrong direction without alarm bells sounding in most European capitals.’ He warned that the crisis in Bosnia threatened to derail efforts to expand the EU to include Serbia, Croatia and Turkey, and promised: ‘People think the Balkans are what we debated in the 1990s and now we can forget about it. In fact, it’s a crucial area in foreign policy in the next five to 10 years and will get a lot of emphasis in the next Conservative administration.’ Earlier this year, Hague wrote to his predecessor, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, to express his concern at Britain’s arrest of Bosnia’s former vice-president Ejup Ganic.
Cameron, too, has spoken out for the rights of the vulnerable nations of South East Europe. As early as 2003, before he became Conservative leader, Cameron wrote a stirring defence of Macedonia; ‘the country – and I am determined to call it Macedonia – has a perfect right to exist. The population is overwhelmingly Macedonian, with a distinctive language, culture and history.’ Criticising ‘Greek pettiness’ toward Macedonia, Cameron called for an active policy to support it and the former Yugoslavia generally: ‘Let Macedonia into Nato and guarantee its borders. Ensure there is a speedy framework for getting the former Yugoslav republics into the EU so they can benefit from free trade and structural funds. Recognise the fact that Macedonia paid a substantial price for looking after Albanian refugees from Kosovo during the war – and pay aid in respect of it. Above all, stay involved to give the region the stability that it needs so badly.’
When Russia attacked Georgia in August 2008, Cameron was quicker to react than Gordon Brown and more forthright; he flew to Tbilisi to stand shoulder to shoulder with Georgia’s leaders, and to state that ‘I think it’s important that the world’s oldest democracy must stand with one of the newest when it’s been illegally invaded by another country… We wanted to come to express the strongest possible support of the British people, British government and British opposition for Georgia, its independence and integrity.’ He later drew the parallel between Russia and 1930s Germany: ‘Russia’s pretext — that it has a right to step in militarily to protect its citizens — has chilling echoes from Czech history, and dangerous implications if it is now the basis of Russian policy. Such a doctrine cannot be allowed to stand.’ Far from being ‘anti-European’, Cameron defended Georgia from a pro-European perspective: ‘We should not accept that while the Czech Republic, Poland and the Baltic States are in Nato and the EU, with their full measure of independence and liberty, other countries on Russia’s periphery that have not yet become members are somehow condemned to exist in a political no-man’s-land.’
Cameron’s audacious move to form an alliance with the Liberal Democrats, outflanking the right wing of the Conservative Party and reshaping British politics, indicates that he may be a bold world leader in the years ahead. Let us hope so. The US and EU have dithered over the worsening crisis in Bosnia – as did the UK under Brown. A British government committed to a broader, more outward-looking Europe, committed to supporting and defending the states of East and South East Europe, is exactly what Europe needs.
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