By David Talbot
Not since the Iranian revolution has the Middle East seen anything like this. The demonstrations sweeping the streets of Tunis, Cairo and now Tripoli represent a moment in history that could change the lives and fortunes of millions of people in the Arab world just as the rise of the mullahs upset the Islamic world or the fall of the Berlin wall ushered in a new Europe. As the Arab world shakes off the chains of repression, Western foreign policy must adapt. Cameron, like the Labour government before him, espouses a policy of liberal interventionism anchored in Blair’s seminal 1999 Chicago speech. But as the shockwaves of revolution continue to reverberate amongst the despotic regimes from Algiers to Damascus, foreign policy as usual will no longer do.
It is a mere ten days since the fall of the Egyptian president. For thirty years Hosni Mubarak represented the stale, dark and corrupt way the West did business with Arab leaders. Indeed, as Arabs rose to fight for freedom, Cameron duly touched down in Cairo with British arms dealers in tow. Whilst seeking the downfall of undemocratic regimes round the globe, successive British governments sends these undemocratic regimes copious weapons to suppress any scent of descent. The contradiction is glaring. After days of riots in the streets of Arab cities, the regimes responded in the only way that they know how; by sanctioning mass murder.
The events of the past month have once again drawn attention to the seamier side of the realpolitik that has always shaped Britain’s approach to the Middle East. As the former Labour foreign office minister Kim Howells has argued, the counter to supporting stability in the region is invariably the repression of democracy. And herein lies the problem for Labour. Jim Murphy, Labour’s erudite new Defence spokesman, entered the debate this week with a little known intervention declaring that the UK “has a responsibility beyond its borders”. The fear is that Labour – so paralysed by Iraq and the catastrophic loss of trust that resulted – fears any foray into foreign affairs.
Liberal interventionism had notable successes, countless Kosovars and Sierra Leoneans owe their lives to Blair taking the brave decision to intervene. But it also had cataclysmic failures. We were once told that there were sound strategic reasons for supporting the likes of Mubarak, Saddam, Assad of Syria and “Britain’s good friend” Colonel Gaddafi. All offered a supposed bulwark against Muslim extremism. The only certainty about the events now sweeping the Arab world is that they are led by Arabs and Arabs alone. Far from containing extremism, these regimes seem to have suppressed the manifestly self-generated Arab desire for democracy.
The sight of oppressed people rising should be exhilarating to any democrat. People should be allowed to seek and find their own path to self-empowerment. Egypt, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and perhaps many more besides are all states wrestling with agonies of self-determination. The itch to intervene may be irresistible, but if Iraq is to tell us anything it is that the days of the West having the right and a duty to ordain regime change in foreign countries is over. Labour should not be irrevocably scarred by Iraq, but recognise that the doctrine that took us to that war is fading force.