I debated Clare Short yesterday evening at the National Theatre. We were discussing Western policy in the Middle East. Ms Short was arguing that Western policy does more harm than good, and I was arguing the opposite case. This, roughly, is what I said.
One proposition about Western policy in the Middle East is, or ought to be, incontestable. Whereas during the Cold War the region was considered peripheral to western democracies’ principal foreign policy goal – containing Communism – it is now central to our ideas on grand strategy. Our national security is tied to an area stretching from Northern Africa to Pakistan, and from Afghanistan to the southern end of the Persian Gulf, whether we like it or not. There is no plausible isolationist position.
The reason for this is not 9/11. The terrorist atrocities of that date, while terrible, were a symptom of a storm that had been gathering for some time. It dates in our consciousness at least from the day in 1989 when the theocratic despot of Iran attempted to procure the murder of a British citizen, Salman Rushdie, for writing a book. In the decade after the Cold War, the United States fought three wars: in Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo. Each was fought in defence of a captive or threatened Muslim population. The decade concluded with a US-brokered attempt to secure a two-state settlement between a secure Israel and a sovereign Palestine. The Clinton offer, accepted by the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, would have created a Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, in Gaza and 97 per cent of the West Bank. It fell because of the obduracy of the duplicitous and astonishingly corrupt figure of Yassir Arafat. Yet through this decade, Islamist terrorism was steadily advancing, with the bombing of the USS Cole, the bombing of the East African embassies, and the initiation of planning for 9/11.
Western foreign policy was no catalyst for such acts. The proper criticism of Western foreign policy in that decade was not that we did more harm than good – for we did not – but that the good we did was belated or thwarted. The explanation for terrorism directed against us was in fact an aggressive, xenophobic totalitarianism, as expounded by Osama bin Laden in his 1998 injunction to his followers (“The Nuclear Bomb of Islam”) to “prepare as much force as possible to terrorise the enemies of God”. The attacks on 9/11 demonstrated that we were in a war that previously only our enemies had realised was being fought.
Western foreign policy in the Middle East therefore needed to respond. The immediate and necessary step was to overthrow a regime in Afghanistan that was itself the creature of a transplanted Islamist group, al-Qaeda. There was a direct connection between that regime and the terrorists of 9/11. Senior al-Qaeda figures in Afghanistan had recruited some of the hijackers (the ‘muscle’ hijackers, who subdued the passengers, rather than those who flew the planes), and the Taliban regime remained an incubus for terrorism directed against Western civilians. It was a just war of self-defence to intervene against the Taliban. It was also, strictly speaking, a war for the liberation of Afghanistan’s people.
I supported, and still support, the intervention in Iraq as part of a similar and necessary strategy. There was no direct link between Saddam Hussein and the terrorists of 9/11, but there were certainly links between the perpetuation of the grotesque Baathist despotism and the burgeoning of the type of movement that threatened us directly. Saddam himself was an enduring sponsor of terrorism, dating from the early 1980s. While he had no stockpile of WMDs, as late as March 2003 he was seeking to procure North Korean weaponry using the money he had stolen. He was not an imminent threat, but was an inevitable one. While I would not dispute the characterisation of the occupation of Iraq as disastrous in terms of security (though not politics), and hold the Bush administration responsible, allowing Saddam to remain in place and the containment policy to unravel was not a responsible or ethical course. Iraq would have either persisted in its malevolence and sponsorship of terrorism, or imploded.
With the overthrow of Saddam, there have been enormous costs but also important gains. The number of states in the region that violated UN Security Council Resolutions on WMD has been reduced by two (Iraq and Libya); the A.Q. Khan network has been identified and interdicted; and there has been some force of democratic encouragement for reform movements in the region.
Western policy in the Middle East has achievements and credit. Defending the right of Israel to protect her citizens from suicide terrorism or missiles launched by private armies in neighbouring territories is a just cause, and is allied with (not balanced by) the just cause of seeking a negotiated two-state settlement between Israel and Palestine. While our approach to Iran and Syria has been hesitant, the fault for tension lies exclusively with those states. Iran has lied to the EU and the UN about its uranium enrichment programme, and has threatened the stability of the region through its aggression by proxies in Iraq and Lebanon. I do not believe there is any viable military option to counter Iran’s ambitions, but a policy of more skilful diplomatic countering of its aggressive ideology, and speaking directly to Iran’s people, has more prospect of being effective than any such strategy would have been in Baathist Iraq. Syria is a derivative case, in that its callow and intellectually nugatory ruler, Bashar al-Assad, is a blusterer and demonstrably susceptible to diplomatic pressure. Turkey found that the regime, even under Assad’s father, stepped back quite quickly from supporting the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party when given a forceful enough ultimatum. A similar approach should govern our relations with a regime that operates death squads to murder political leaders in Lebanon, a country whose sovereignty Syria refuses to recognise.
There are immense failings in Western policy, of planning and resolution, and sometimes of gross negligence. They are, however, dwarfed by the failings of the ‘realist’ approach advocated and pursued by that least imaginative and principled of US Secretaries of State, James Baker. The failure of a policy of seeking a stable balance of power in the Middle East, as opposed to supporting democratic change and the overthrow of tyranny, may be discerned in the fact that at one time its embrace extended even to Saddam Hussein. It is extraordinary to me that sophisticated liberal Europeans might find merit in that approach, as opposed to the policies for the Middle East expounded and pursued by the Prime Minister whom Clare Short used to support.
UPDATE: "A similar approach should govern our relations with a regime that operates death squads to murder political leaders in Lebanon...."
This story has just appeared on the BBC:
Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, a Maronite Christian leader, has been killed in the capital Beirut. Mr Gemayel, a leading anti-Syrian politician, was reportedly shot in the street in a Christian suburb and rushed to hospital, where he died. His death comes amid a political crisis in Lebanon, following the resignation of six pro-Syrian cabinet members.
Any suggestion of who might be responsible would be pure guesswork on my part.