The US and its allies have waged a series of wars over the past two decades for legitimate reasons. One reason has been self defence: the US’s intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 was a straightforward case of a state defending itself from attack. Another has been humanitarian: the interventions in Kosova in 1999 and Libya in 2011 averted humanitarian catastrophes. There is a strong case for intervening in Syria today on the same grounds. A third reason has been to promote progressive and democratic change. One of the ironies of the most controversial of the West’s recent wars – the Iraq war – was that although there were strong humanitarian and democratic reasons for waging it, these were not primarily stressed by Western leaders. Before President George W. Bush, US leaders had pursued the policy of leaving Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in power while strangling Iraq with sanctions over many years – at enormous cost to the Iraqi people. Although the Bush Administration bungled the occupation, the argument that a short war was a price worth paying to free Iraq from dictatorship, sanctions and isolation was not unreasonable. A pity, therefore, that the war was justified on the grounds of the Baathist regime’s supposed development of ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Even before the coalition failed to discover them, the grounds for invasion were not deemed sufficient by international opinion. The war was from the start a propaganda disaster from which the West’s reputation is still struggling to recover.
An Israeli or US attack on Iran would most likely be another such propaganda disaster. It would have no humanitarian justification, nor would it advance the cause of democracy or human rights in Iran or the Middle East. The argument that it would constitute a pre-emptive act of self-defence by Israel – which we shall come to – is not to be sniffed at but is nevertheless misguided. We are left with a purely strategic argument: the need to limit the power of a barbaric Islamist regime with an aggressively anti-Western ideology and foreign policy, that is promoting bloodshed and strife in the region. While this argument, too, is not to be sniffed at, it is not sufficient to go to war, and would not be accepted as such by world opinion.
It has been suggested that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states would publicly deplore an Israeli strike against Iran while privately rejoicing in it. In other words, Israel would be doing the dirty work for a group of regimes, at least one of which is, if anything, even worse and more dangerous than the Iranian regime itself. Iran promotes regional trouble and instability; it enables the Assad regime’s slaughter of its own people and supports the terrorist Hezbollah in Lebanon. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s promotion of trouble extends far beyond the Middle East, through its export of Wahhabi fundamentalism from Pakistan to Bosnia. Last October, a locally grown Wahhabi, Mevlid Jasarevic, carried out a terrorist attack against the US embassy in Sarajevo. Osama bin Laden himself was the bastard offspring of the Saudi system. Going to war against Iran with the silent blessing of Riyadh would be like going to war against Stalin with the silent blessing of Hitler.
The idea that ‘weapons of mass destruction’ pose a terrifying threat is a canard. Nuclear weapons have only ever been used once, against Japan in 1945. The Cold War came and went without either side falling victim to them, yet nearly three thousand civilians were massacred in the US in September 2001 by virtually unarmed terrorists. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in his genocidal campaign against the Kurds in Iraq in the late 1980s, but a much higher death-toll – up to one million – was achieved by the perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, using much more primitive weapons, in particular machetes. In other words, sophisticated ‘weapons of mass destruction’ are not needed to carry out mass murder, and those regimes that possess them have not used them against the Western democratic world, whose powers of deterrence have been sufficient to protect us from them – though not from more primitive forms of attack.
Israel has very legitimate reasons for wanting to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons: the regime in Tehran has made clear it will never recognise Israel, that it views the state of Israel as illegitimate, and that it seeks Israel’s destruction. Its propaganda systematically demonises Israel and Israelis, and it supports terrorist and extremist groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, that are likewise formally committed to the end of Israel. It represents a real threat to the latter – broadly comparable to the threat posed by the Soviet Union to the Western democratic world during the Cold War. Yet the Tehran regime’s stated desire to see Israel abolished is no less utopian than the Soviet leadership’s formal goal of overthrowing world capitalism; it is a crucial part of the self-legitimising ideology and propaganda of a tyrannical regime, not a concrete policy goal.
Against this threat, Israel possesses very effective protection in the form of its own nuclear deterrent. Even were it to acquire nuclear weapons, Iran would be in no position to use them against Israel, or against anyone else, since to do so would lead to its own certain annihilation. It is simply unserious to portray Iran’s leaders as lunatics seeking to commit suicide by launching a nuclear strike against Israel, as opposed simply to cynical, calculating politicians seeking to strengthen their state’s power in the region while exploiting anti-Zionist rhetoric. Former enemies of the West have not lived up to the stereotype of the suicidal madman: Saddam Hussein failed to attack the US forces that were amassing against him in Saudi Arabia in 1990, and instead passively awaited their offensive; Osama bin Laden did not die fighting heroically in Afghanistan in 2001, but scuttled off to Pakistan and hid there until he was hunted down; Ratko Mladic quietly let himself be arrested in Serbia last year. Furthermore, neither Ahmadinejad nor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei possesses the sort of absolute power that Saddam possessed; the Iranian theocracy is far from democratic, but neither is it a totalitarian personal dictatorship. Its regional policies have been evil but sober rather than crazy; it has done nothing even as adventurous as trying to annex Kuwait, let alone launch a war that would inevitably destroy it. We should, perhaps, be more afraid of the nuclear capacity possessed by Pakistan – a highly unstable state deeply infiltrated by extreme, murderous Islamist currents, whose intelligence services are involved in supporting the Taliban’s war against Western forces in Afghanistan.
According to a poll carried out last month, 58% of Israelis oppose attacking Iran without US support. This is, after all, not 1967, when Israel took preemptive action in the face of a very real and immediate existential threat. Yet even that stunning victory, like the military victories won by Israel before and since, did not provide the country with lasting security. That can only come with a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement. For the longer this conflict continues, the more likely it is that Israel, not to mention the Palestinians, will suffer a major catastrophe. Meanwhile, as the Israeli author David Grossman argues, the uncertain results of a strike against Iran would have to be set against the long-term damage to Israel’s standing among the more educated, liberal and secular elements in the Iranian population that may one day overthrow the regime and come to lead the country. They would have to be set against the global anti-Israeli backlash that would inevitably occur.
Unfortunately, the same right-wing nationalist Israeli government that is apparently preparing to attack Iran, has shown itself a major obstacle to a peace agreement and to regional normalisation, from its foot-dragging over the peace process and its promotion of settlement-expansion to its obstruction of the wholly legitimate Palestinian demand for membership of the UN and UNESCO, undermining the most moderate leadership Palestine has yet produced. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was the world leader who supported the dictator Hosni Mubarak against his own people most openly during last year’s Egyptian revolution. There is absolutely no reason why Israel, the US and the West should allow themselves to be dragged into a damaging war to serve the reactionary, chauvinistic agenda of this government, which will probably use the opportunity to impose further repressive and discriminatory measures against the Palestinian population of the West Bank. A successful war against Iran would further encourage the Netanyahu government along its self-destructive nationalistic path, making a future peace agreement even less likely and further jeopardising Israel’s future.
Democrats should be deeply concerned at the climate being generated by this government and its supporters as they prepare for war. Nobel laureate Guenter Grass’s wrote a pretty innocuous and banal poem criticising Israeli policy vis-a-vis Iran, containing such lines as the demand that ‘the governments of both Iran and Israel allow an international authority free and open inspection of the nuclear potential and capability of both. No other course offers help to Israelis and Palestinians alike’. He was consequently subjected to hyperbolic verbal attacks by senior Israeli ministers Eli Yishai and Avigdor Lieberman and barred from entering Israel, while a campaign is being waged to smear him as an anti-Semite. If Israel is falling prey to this kind of hysteria, it is time for people who really care about the country to play a moderating role.
There is an Israeli left, and we in the West would do better to support them. The threat posed to the Middle East by Iran’s regime can ultimately only be resolved by a democratic revolution in that country. In the meantime, to weaken this regime, we would do better to concentrate on bringing down its murderous ally in Damascus, something that would not only save lives, but if handled properly might even improve the West’s reputation in the Middle East, instead of ruining it further.
Update: A strong case against an Israeli attack on Iran is made by Shalom Lappin at Normblog.
With the massacre at Homs, Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime has given notice to the world that the slaughter in Syria will continue until it falls, which it must inevitably do in the not-too-distant future. The question is how many people will be killed before it does. The fall of this regime will be a tremendous step for peace and progress in the Middle East. Yet set against the strong humanitarian and geopolitical arguments in favour of intervention is awareness of the price that we will have to pay to do so.
In Libya, the human loss involved in the overthrow of Gaddafi was greatly reduced thanks to Western military intervention; without it, the Gaddafi regime would probably still be slaughtering civilians today. The West has not been hypocritical in singling out Libya for military intervention. Libya differed from the start from other countries affected by the Arab spring, insofar as the rebels captured large areas of ground, which could then be defended by regular military means. It is something else entirely to protect civilians from the soldiers and police of a regime that still controls the ground in question. Even in Libya, we could not immediately protect civilians in Tripoli and other towns under Gaddafi’s military control from his security forces; these had to be driven out or destroyed first, and this was only possible because we began with rebel forces, in control of substantial liberated territories, that could be defended and built up. That is why the accusations that the West has been ‘hypocritical’ in intervening in Libya, but not in Bahrain, Yemen or Syria, have been unfounded. But the situation in Syria is rapidly approaching the stage when a Libyan-style intervention may be feasible.
The overthrow of the Syrian regime is both a pressing humanitarian necessity and would bring enormous benefits to the Middle East. Baathist Syria has shown an exceptional readiness to massacre its own citizens, perhaps surpassed in the Arab world only by its defunct Baathist counterpart in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The current slaughter still has not reached the scale achieved by Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad at Hama in 1982, when as many as 40,000 may have been massacred, but the Hama massacre should stand as a warning to what may yet occur if the outside world does not act. Furthermore, Baathist Syria plays an exceptionally egregious role in regional affairs: as the principal regional ally of Iran, supporter of Hezbollah and Hamas and most virulently anti-Israel of all Arab states, it contributes more than any other Arab regime to obstructing Middle Eastern peace. The overthrow of this regime would lower Arab-Israeli tension, weaken extremist forces in the region and further isolate the regime in Tehran.
On the other hand, however overwhelming the case for humanitarian intervention in Syria is, the West will pay a stiff price in propaganda terms if and when it does. Unlike Gaddafi’s Libya, but like Saddam’s Iraq, the Syrian dictatorship is based upon the rule of a religious minority over a majority. As Saddam’s regime embodied Sunni Arab hegemony over Kurds and Shia Arabs, so Assad’s regime embodies Alawi hegemony over Sunnis. The overthrow of the Syrian regime will inevitably be bloody and is likely to assume the appearance, at some level, of an Alawi-Sunni inter-communal slaughter. Although Western military intervention, by speeding the transition, may result in less bloodshed than would otherwise be the case, it will inevitably mean that the West will be blamed for whatever such bloodshed – undoubtedly substantial – does occur. The massive slaughter that followed the fall of Saddam’s regime in Iraq, perpetrated above all by the Iraqi insurgency, was not caused by the US intervention – although the Bush Administration’s clumsy occupation policy undoubtedly exacerbated the problem. The fall of that regime would inevitably have had a bloody aftermath involving substantial violence between Sunni and Shia elements. But the US’s role in overthrowing it did mean that the US was blamed for the violence that occurred; violence that, more than anything else, discredited the intervention.
This does not mean that the West and its allies should refrain from intervening. But it does mean that we should be extremely careful how we do so, studying the lessons of the propaganda disaster in Iraq as well as of the essentially successful interventions in Kosovo and Libya, and treating the propaganda front in any future intervention as of primary importance. We do not need a UN Security Council resolution to intervene, and it would be wrong to grant the Assad regime’s friends in Moscow and Beijing absolute power to block intervention. But we do need a broad coalition incorporating Arab states, Turkey and (informally) Israel, and enjoying at least the passive approval of a significant part of the international community as a whole.
As a precursor, Britain and other Western states that have not done so should recognise the Syrian National Council as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, withdraw recognition from Assad’s regime and draw up plans to provide arms, training and intelligence to the Free Syrian Army. The coalition should prepare the ground for the eventual imposition of a no-fly zone over part or all of Syria, and for air strikes to defend cities liberated by the Free Syrian Army and other rebel forces, if and when this becomes strategically and diplomatically feasible. A no-fly zone could be followed by the establishment of a liberated area in northern Syria under Turkish-led Western military protection, where Syrian civilians would be safe and where rebel forces could operate freely and begin to build a new administration for the country.
Two further conditions should be met before such full military intervention is launched. The first should be an unambiguous request for such intervention on the part of the Syrian National Council. The second should be confidence that any intervention would have to be reasonably safe for the forces intervening – Kosovo and Libya were successes in part due to the absence of Western casualties, which the Western public, after the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq, will not tolerate.
Western leaders need to be very clear, however: though we can help the Syrian revolution to defeat the old order, we cannot guarantee that it has a happy outcome. It is the responsibility of the Syrian people and their revolutionary bodies – the Syrian National Council, Free Syrian Army and Syrian Revolution General Commission – to do this, and above all to prevent any sectarian bloodletting. But come what may, we should never accept the premise that those outside forces trying to halt the bloodbath are the villains: that title goes to the murderous regime in Damascus, and to its criminal defenders – in Tehran, Moscow and Beijing.
I cannot remember any year of my life being so exciting, in terms of global political developments, as 2011. In a positive way, too: although many of the great events of last year have been far from unambiguous triumphs for human progress and emancipation, they have nevertheless demonstrated that many of the chains that bind humanity are not as immovable as they previously seemed. Though many of the battles remain to be fought and some will be lost, that they are being fought at all is reason for optimism. I haven’t remotely been able to provide adequate comment at this blog, but here is my personal list of the most inspiring events of 2011 – not necessarily in order of importance.
1. The Arab (and Russian !) Spring.
Cynics regret the fall of the Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi regimes, and the likely fall of the Saleh regime, in the belief that these acted as Hobbesian leviathans keeping lids on political Islam. They fail to appreciate that these dictatorships, through preventing the emergence of healthy political pluralism and through opportunistic collaboration with Islamism, acted as the incubators of the very Islamist movements they claimed to keep in check. It is pluralism – more so than democracy – that is ultimately the cure for the evil represented by Islamism. The Arab Spring may end badly in some or all of the countries in question, but hats off to the brave Syrians, Yemenis, Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis and others who have redeemed the honour of the Arab world through their heroic struggle against tyranny, showing that change is possible. The Arab fighters against tyranny may not win, or they may succumb to a new tyranny, but they are fighting a struggle that needs to be fought. And hats off too to the brave Russians who are raising the banner of freedom in the heart of Europe’s worst police state.
2. International intervention in Libya and Ivory Coast and the fall of Muammar Gaddafi and Laurent Gbagbo.
For all that I supported the US-led intervention to overthrow the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, events have proven it was an intervention too far: carried out without any form of mandate from world opinion or support in the country in question and attempting a too-radical overthrow of the existing order, it brought democratic change and emancipated the Shia majority and Kurdish minority, but only at great human cost and immense damage to the West’s reputation and to the political standing of the Western governments that participated. By contrast, the intervention in Libya was everything the intervention in Iraq was not: carried out in support of a genuine popular uprising and at the request of Libyans themselves, with a genuine international mandate, it brought down a dictatorship without any foreign troops setting foot in the country or losing their lives. There has been some whining among wishy-washy moderates that regime-change was carried out under cover of a UN mandate to prevent massacre, and that consequently Western leaders have made it more difficult to obtain international support for humanitarian intervention in future. Nonsense: even the propaganda catastrophe of Iraq did not prevent the intervention in Libya, so the successful intervention in Libya will be far from discouraging future interventions. In fact, like the Kosova intervention before it, Libya shows how humanitarian intervention can work, as did the international intervention that helped bring about the fall of Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast, followed by his arrest and deportation to the International Criminal Court where, we hope, more of his fellow tyrants will end up.
3. The rise in the West of protests at the abuses of capitalism.
For much of the past fifteen years or so of my life, I felt I was gradually becoming more right-wing (from an admittedly extreme-left-wing starting-point), to the point where, at the last British general election, I adopted a bi-partisan standpoint vis-a-vis Labour and the Conservatives. I have seen, and continue to see myself, as a centrist rather than a leftist. Well, the events in the UK, the rest of Europe and the US have certainly served as a wake-up call to me, as the mainstream political right and the super-rich – not to put too fine a point on it – are simply taking the piss. Here in the UK, public services are being massacred while those in the corporate and financial sectors pay themselves vast and unearned bonuses, and the authorities turn a blind eye to their blatant tax-evasion. We’re supposed to believe that cutting the incomes of ordinary working- and middle-class people is necessary in the name of deficit-reduction, while cutting taxes for the rich and for corporations is necessary in the name of economic stimulus ! Well, you can’t have it both ways. In the US, the Republicans have gone so far to the right in their support of selfish and irresponsible tax-cuts for the rich that they’ve gone completely off the rails, seriously jeopardising their government’s ability to navigate the economic crisis. With mainstream centre-left leaders like Barack Obama and Ed Miliband failing to show any backbone over this, it is left to grass-roots activist movements to do so. So three cheers for Los Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, 38 Degrees, UK Uncut and all such movements, for doing what our elected representatives are failing to do. I never thought I’d say that, but there it is.
4. The fall of Silvio Berlusconi and popular protests in Greece.
The fall of the corrupt sleazeball is a bittersweet triumph, given that it occurred in the context of the EU’s imposition of brutal austerity programmes across the Eurozone, accompanied by creeping integration that violates both the national sovereignty and democratic will of member states. The cause of deeper EU integration has revealed itself to be a deeply undemocratic, anti-people cause. I have been very critical of the Greek political classes for their criminal regional policies, vis-a-vis Milosevic, Macedonia, etc.; the Greek people, by contrast, in the ferocious fight they are putting up against the EU-imposed austerity measures, have set an example to us all. Let the costs of the economic crisis be born by the bankers and politicians who caused it, not by ordinary people and future generations.
5. The phone-hacking scandal in the UK.
All my life in the UK, I have lived in the belief that the tabloid newspapers and particularly the Murdoch media empire are a great incubus on British politics and society, encouraging everything that is worst in our country: xenophobia, small-mindedness, vulgarity, philistinism, voyeurism and sleaze. So how refreshing and liberating it is, to see them being taken down a peg or two. There is no reason why people’s private lives and feelings should be constantly violated, and intimate personal details splashed all over newspapers, by hack reporters pandering to the worst public instincts; it is time that the UK passed some serious privacy laws, to put an end to the permanent national scandal and embarrassment of our tabloid press. However uninspiring Ed Miliband may be as Labour Party leader, he deserves credit for bravely taking on the Murdoch empire. Let’s hope the Daily Mail goes the way of the News of the World - that would go a long way toward solving our supposed ‘immigration crisis’ !
6. Independence for South Sudan.
What a sad day it is for democracy, when a genocidal dictatorship accomplishes what various flawed democracies seem unable to do, and negotiates the independence from it of an oppressed region. In July, South Sudan formally became an independent state and joined the UN. Congratulations to its people, who have shown that even the most brutal struggle for freedom can have a happy ending ! Meanwhile, Turkey is escalating its terror and repression of its Kurdish population; Serbia continues to block and disrupt Kosova’s independence, with Serb extremists creating chaos in northern Kosova and undermining Serbia’s EU aspirations; and Israel continues to obstruct peace with the Palestinians through its settlement-building programme and Apartheid-style occupation regime in the West Bank – to which its apologists turn a blind eye, while they try to blame the Palestinians for wanting to join the UN and UNESCO ! Shame on the democratic world.
7. Macedonia’s victory over Greece at the International Court of Justice and Palestinian membership of UNESCO.
Were the democratic world to apply liberal and democratic principles fairly and consistently, it would be extremely easy to bring about solutions to the Macedonian-Greek and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, that would respect and safeguard the rights of all four nations in question. Unfortunately, the EU over Greece and Macedonia and the US over Israel and Palestine, far from acting as honest brokers in negotiations to end these conflicts, are simply supporting the hardline nationalist agendas of the stronger sides. They hypocritically talk of ‘negotiated settlements’ while ensuring that pressure is only put on the weaker sides, never on the stronger. When they say they want both sides to negotiate, what they really mean is that they want one side to surrender. The Macedonians would have to be stark, raving mad if they followed advice over what’s in their national interest from EU apparatchiks, just as the Palestinians would have to be stark, raving mad if they followed advice from craven US officials. Do they really want their countries to end up like Bosnia, whose leaders in the 1990s were unwise enough to follow ‘advice’ of this kind ?? So what an inspiring example these nations are setting when they refuse to follow the advice of hypocrites, and pursue justice in a dignified, civilised manner through international institutions. Palestine’s admission to UNESCO in October followed by Macedonia’s victory over Greece at the ICJ in December are two blows struck for democracy and human rights that Western leaders seem unable to uphold.
8. The fall of Dominique Strauss-Khan and the acquittal of Amanda Knox.
At one level, the collapse of the sexual assault case in New York against Dominique Strauss-Khan suggests that even in the US, it may be legal for a rich sexually to assault a hotel maid, provided the maid in question has a personal history that’s marginally less unblemished by sin than that of the Virgin Mary, and has done something satanically evil like telling a lie during her asylum application. As has long been said, in rape cases it’s often the victim rather than the rapist who is on trial. For all that, Nafissatou Diallo’s accusation against Strauss-Khan did succeed in ending the political career of a violent misogynist with a history of attacking women, forcing his resignation as IMF chief and wrecking his French presidential bid. And in encouraging other female victims of sexual assault, at the hands of him and of others, to come forward. Another spectacular victory over misogyny was won in October, when Amanda Knox was acquitted by an Italian court on appeal of murdering her flatmate, having been originally convicted in something resembling a medieval witch-trial. Again, she was convicted not on the basis of the evidence against her, since there wasn’t any, but because she was good looking and sexually active, pursued what was in conservative Italian eyes an unorthodox lifestyle, and did not behave like a tearful female stereotype after her flatmate’s murder. Soon after, an apparently respectable boy-next-door, Vincent Tabak, was convicted of murdering his neighbour, Joanna Yeates. Initially overlooked by police until he incriminated himself, he turned out to have a secret fixation with strangling women. So there you have it.
9. The killing of Osama bin Laden and the arrest of Ratko Mladic.
Justice finally caught up in 2011 with two mass-murderers whose long evasion of justice made them symbols of ‘resistance’ for the worst kind of extremists. Mladic turned out not to be as brave as he had been when he was directing the genocidal massacre of defenceless Bosniak civilians at Srebrenica, and surrendered quietly to the Serbian police. Bin Laden was, by contrast, whacked in Pakistan by US special forces, as was his follower Anwar al-Awlaki by a US drone attack in Yemen later in the year, in both cases prompting much hand-wringing by wishy-washy liberal types of the Yasmin Alibhai-Brown variety, who seem to be under the impression that it’s possible for the US peacefully to arrest terrorists based in countries like Pakistan and Yemen, in the middle of an ongoing armed conflict with those terrorists, as if the latter were pickpockets in New York. They would do well to remember the Allied assassination of Holocaust-architect Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, and of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbour, the following year – we certainly didn’t try to arrest them ! And of course, based on what happened to former Republika Srpska vice-president Biljana Plavsic, an international court might have just sentenced bin Laden to a few years in prison, then let him out early.
10. The referendum defeat for the ‘Alternative Vote’ in the UK.
Not as significant as the above events, but it made me happy anyway.
Happy New Year !
Contre nous de la tyrannie, L’étendard sanglant est levé
- La Marseillaise
The sight of the democratic world standing back and watching while a particularly murderous but not especially militarily formidable dictator drowned a popular uprising in blood, after its representatives begged for our help, while his own neighbours demanded military action against him, on the doorstep of Europe, was too heartbreaking to bear. However little it would have taken to stop him, the West appeared to have insufficent will. The whining of the Cassandras was incessant – from ‘Arabs are not fit for democracy’ t0 ‘we’ll be sucked into the quagmire’ to ‘we don’t have the money for another war’. Yet in the end, it proved too much for Western leaders as well.
The credit goes above all to David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, Alain Juppe, Susan Rice, the wonderful Samantha Power and, perhaps, Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama has proven himself a vacillator in the mould of Bill Clinton, but this time the US president’s European allies pushed him forward instead of holding him back. Clinton came to office at the start of 1993 correctly inclined to intervene to stop the slaughter in Bosnia, but was rapidly deflected by the British and French and sent down the dishonourable path of appeasement; conversely, Obama was initially opposed to intervention in Libya, but was led down the right path by the current leaders of the very same nations. Britain is not an irrelevant poodle of the Americans; its voice does count. Though I disagree with almost all Cameron’s domestic policies, he has already made a tremendous positive difference on the world stage . And though I have been repeatedly horrified by Sarkozy’s policies in the past – toward Turkey, Macedonia, Georgia, gypsies – he has redeemed himself on this occasion. Some have suggested that he has been motivated by the desire to boost his flagging ratings before forthcoming elections, but it is actions, not purity of motives, that matter.
It is twenty years since Western and Arab states came together with UN backing to resist Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. That was a legitimate and justified intervention to defend a small nation from aggression, but it was waged in the most reactionary manner possible. The Emir of Kuwait’s undemocratic regime was restored to power without any requirement to democratise, and the Iraqi people, whom President Bush had called upon to rise up against Saddam, were betrayed when they followed his advice. Bush actually preferred the survival of Saddam’s dictatorship to his overthrow by Kurds, Shias and other Iraqis. But the West has come along way since then. Even today, plenty of voices have been heard of people who apparently dislike Arabs and Muslims so much that they would prefer even a murderous, racist, genocide-promoting and terrorism-sponsoring tyrant like Gaddafi to stay in power to keep them down. Yet unlike in the days of Bush Sr, it is no longer possible for the West openly to side with a Gaddafi or a Saddam against a popular uprising.
The success of the international intervention against Gaddafi is crucial to encourage the pro-democracy movements in the Arab world, to reassure their followers that the West is with them, and to strengthen those Western currents that are on their side, against those who prefer the dictators. But inevitably, there has been plenty of whataboutery from the usual suspects. Cameron effectively dealt with one such in the House of Commons on Friday:
Jeremy Corbyn: ‘Is the Prime Minister now suggesting we should develop a foreign policy that would be prepared to countenance intervention elsewhere where there are attacks on civilians, such as Saudi Arabia, Oman or Bahrain ? I hope he has thought this whole thing through.’
David Cameron: ‘Just because you can’t do the right thing everywhere doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the right thing somewhere.’
Corbyn’s argument was disingenuous; if Cameron had simultaneously argued for intervening in all those places and Libya at once, he would have been accused by various Corbyns of being a crazy warmonger who wanted to fight the whole world, but if he concentrates on Libya he’s accused of being inconsistent. That is the way these people operate; they banged on about how the Iraq war was ‘illegal’ because it wasn’t supported by a UN Security Council resolution, but now that this intervention is supported by such a resolution, they’re still opposed. There is a certain type of leftist whose sole raison d’etre is to rubbish and sabotage every positive initiative that Western leaders try to take on the world stage, purely as an end in itself. Leftists of this kind are, quite simply, a scourge.
In fact, the West’s intervention in defence of the Libyan rebels will put us in a much stronger position to exercise leverage over the despots of the Gulf, and prod them away from repression. The repression in Bahrain and the Saudi intervention should be seen as a direct consequence of the Obama Administration’s prior demonstrable lack of enthusiasm for the pro-democracy agitation in the Arab world; Obama dithered over Libya, and the Gulf despots took the hint. But credit where it’s due; Obama came down on the right side in the end (though the thought that the West would have left the Libyan rebels to their fate if Russia or China had vetoed the UN Security Council resolution is a worrying one). Our next step should be to follow through with the Libyan intervention by applying heavy pressure on Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to lift their repression, and vocally to support the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain. Libya is just a stage in a long struggle for freedom in the Arab world that isn’t going to be concluded tomorrow.
The biggest danger is that Libya will remain messy. Western leaders have correctly rejected the possibility of deploying ground troops, so this is not a danger of an Afghanistan-style military quagmire. Rather, the danger is that a combination of resiliance among the Gaddafi camp and fragmentation, division and Islamist currents among the rebels will combine to render Libya a failed state suffering perpetual instability – in that respect, like Afghanistan, Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo. The longer the civil war in Libya goes on, the more difficult it will be for the country to recover – something that will demoralise both the region and the West.
Western leaders cannot engage in statebuilding in Libya, but they can engage in a concerted diplomatic effort aimed at resolving the Libyan civil war. The emphasis should be on pressurising Gaddafi and his family to leave Libya, while arming and supplying the Benghazi-based rebels. But the aim should be simultaneously to prepare the ground for a negotiated end to the conflict between Gaddafi’s former supporters and the rebels, which could take effect once the tyrant has gone. Such a strategy would, hopefully, encourage further defections from the Gaddafi camp, possibly even a palace coup against him.
The immediate aim of the intervention was to save Benghazi, Misurata and other rebel-held towns. But now that the basic military task appears to have been achieved, there will be a lot of hard work ahead.
The democratic order that has reigned in Western Europe since World War II, and that has since expanded to include the Iberian Peninsula, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, owes its existence to our wartime alliance with one of the most murderous totalitarian regimes in human history. It was Stalin’s Soviet Union, heavily supported militarily and economically by the US and Britain, that bore the brunt of the fighting that destroyed Hitler’s Third Reich, thereby enabling the liberation of Western Europe from Nazism. In the cause of this war-effort, Allied leaders Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt befriended Stalin and hobnobbed with him; their medias extolled the virtues of his regime. It was not a pretty thing to do, as Stalin’s Western-backed forces carried out genocidal crimes of their own against Chechens, Crimean Tartars and other Soviet subject nationalities during and after the war. It defeated one mortal enemy of the democratic world, only to raise another in its place; one that took nearly another half-century to bring down. Yet history has generally looked favourably upon our wartime alliance with Stalin, as one born of necessity.
In the sixty-six years that have followed the defeat of Hitler, the dilemma has been posed again and again, as successive Western leaders have felt compelled to ally with one monster to contain or defeat another. Nixon brokered a rapprochement with Mao Zedong’s China so as better to contain the Soviet Union. Henry Scoop Jackson quashed a Congressional motion directed against Marcelo Caetano’s Portuguese dictatorship as the price for the use of a base in Portugal’s Azores Islands to transport military supplies to Israel during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Margaret Thatcher enjoyed crucial support from Chile’s Augusto Pinochet during the Falklands War of 1982 against Argentina’s Galtieri dictatorship.
These dealings with dictators often burn the hands of the Western statesmen who engage in them, or return to haunt them.The US tilted in favour of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against Khomenei’s Iran during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s; Donald Rumsfeld’s handshake with the Iraqi tyrant during his 1983 visit to Baghdad was widely publicised by his enemies during the 2000s. The US’s alliance with Islam Karimov’s Uzbekistan collapsed following US criticism of Karimov’s massacre of protesters at Andijan in 2005. Most recently, Tony Blair’s dealings with the now-embattled Muammar Gaddafi are being loudly trumpeted by his critics, despite the benefits they brought to Britain and the US in the War on Terror.
Those ready to condemn Blair over Gaddafi should ask themselves whether they would equally have condemned Churchill for his support for Stalin in the 1940s. Or whether Britain was wrong to go to the aid of Ioannis Metaxas’s fascist dictatorship in Greece, when it was attacked by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy in 1940. Or whether we would have done better to have left undemocratic Kuwait to Saddam Hussein in 1990. The reality is that, so long as the world is largely made up of tyrannical regimes, the West will be forced to collaborate with some of them. The alternative would be for the US and Britain to abandon foreign policy altogether and become like Switzerland or Sweden. Nobody should need pointing out that it was the US and Britain, not Switzerland or Sweden, that defeated first Nazi Germany, then the Soviet Union.
There is, however, no getting away from the fact that collaboration with dictatorships is discrediting and morally corrupting for the Western statesmen who engage in it. It may be imposed by necessity, but it should not be chosen by preference. Nor do such alliances work well in the long run. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab tyrannies may be long-standing allies of the US, but it was they that spawned al-Qaeda – led by the Saudi Osama bin Laden and the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. Pakistan, with its dysfunctional parliamentary system and history of periodic military rule, may be a traditional US ally, but its weakness in the face of Islamic extremism and the collusion of parts of its security forces with the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan makes it a much graver security risk for the West today than traditionally pro-Moscow but stable democratic India.
Conversely, though the US may have prickly relations with some of the world’s democratic states, most notably in Latin America, these states do not pose any major security risk. Hostile president Daniel Ortega of democratic Nigaragua may cause annoyance with his support for Russia’s dismemberment of Georgia, but this cannot be compared with the security threat posed by some of our own ‘allies’. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez may be more of a threat, with his collaboration with Russia and Iran, but he is the exception that proves the rule, since he is an authoritarian demagogue who has eroded Venezuelan democracy since coming to power. Even so, it is not Venezuela, any more than Brazil or Argentina, that is generating a global jihad directed against the West. Authoritarian Latin America did generate radical anti-Western movements (or radical movements perceived as anti-Western), from Fidel Castro’s 26 July Movement to FARC, the Shining Path and the Sandinistas; the region has ceased to do so as it has democratised. And at the end of the day, we can live with the hostility of an Ortega or even a Chavez, but God save us from allies such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan !
The current upheavals in the Arab world have been variously described in terms of the fall of America’s Middle Eastern empire, or the revival of Arab self-determination. Yet ‘empire’ – if that is indeed what the US exercises in the region – is a burden not a privilege, and should be relinquished just as a soon as there are Arab democracies capable of assuming responsibility for the region, even if we do not always agree with how they do it. Nor should Israel fear this change; it was dictatorships that attacked it in 1973, as it was a dictatorship that attacked our Falkland Islands in 1982. Today, democratic Argentina pursues its dispute over our ownership of the islands by peaceful means. Israel’s best chance for permanent security lies in the democratisation of the region – even if a democratic Egypt proves to be at times less straightforward to deal with than was Mubarak’s dictatorship.
Better hostile democracies than friendly dictatorships. Yet Arab democracies do not have to be hostile. We would do well to assist the Arab struggle against the ancien regime as best we can, so as best to ensure good relations with the Arab leaders who will emerge from this struggle. In Libya, this means doing our best to hasten the complete defeat of Gaddafi’s already moribund tyranny and restricting its ability to slaughter its own citizens, through the imposition of a no-fly zone. We cannot ensure that the battle for democracy in the Arab world will be won, but we can stop fearing its victory. For its victory would represent for us a burden lifted, not privileges lost.
This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.
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