Why the west should keep out of the Middle East
Hypocrisy of Obama's call for democracy in Egypt
By Simon Jenkins
Egypt, Tunisia, Iran and Pakistan are all Muslim states wrestling with agonies of self-determination. The west's sole contribution has been to plunge two of their neighbours, Iraq and Afghanistan, into a bloodbath of insecurity and chaos, says Simon Jenkins. This is not our continent, these are not our countries and none of this is our business. We should leave them alone.
Hands off, we cry. Let them do it their way. It has taken a long time, but let the people get the credit and be strengthened thereby.
We gave no such licence to the Iraqis or Afghans. We presumed it was our job to dictate how they should be governed.
We accused their leaders of crimes and decided to punish them all, massacring thousands. We declared a "freedom agenda", and bombed them to bits.
Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is another Saddam Hussein, a secular dictator ruling a Muslim country with a rod of iron through a kleptocracy of cronies. Less wealthy than Saddam, he had to rely on American support, but he was only a little more subtle in his ruthlessness.
We are told that there were sound strategic reasons for supporting Mubarak – as there once were for supporting the Ba'athists, Assad of Syria and Saddam himself. There were similar reasons for backing the Ben Ali dynasty in Tunisia and "Britain's good friend", the outrageous Colonel Gaddafi of Libya. All offered a supposed bulwark against Muslim extremism, a monster of which Americans and Britons are told to show a pathological, all-consuming and costly terror. Now, apparently, that no longer applies to Egypt.
In reality there is no such thing as an ethical foreign policy. There is something philosophical called ethics and something pragmatic called foreign policy. The art of diplomacy lies in navigating between them. The Blair-Bush "crusade for democracy" failed to do so. It was motivated by the most dangerous thing in politics, religious fervour.
What is happening in Egypt is plainly exhilarating to any lover of civil liberty. So too was Georgia's rose revolution, Ukraine's orange revolution, Burma's saffron revolution, Iran's green revolution and Tunisia's jasmine revolution. Few people scanning the pastel shades of designer Trotskyism will remember which were successful and which not, but they made great television.
In each of these cases people burst out in visceral opposition to dictatorship. Driven beyond endurance, they took the last option available to autonomous individuals and marched down the street. The outcome depended on the security and self-confidence of the regime and its command of the army. It rarely depended on the approval or assistance of outsiders. Indeed the most effective weapon deployed against an uprising in a moment of national crisis is to call it a tool of foreign interests. This was certainly the case in Iran.
To western eyes, watching revolutions is re-enacting our own democratic origins. They remind us, sometimes smugly, that much of the world has yet to find the path to free elections, free speech and freedom of assembly. But they are also the political equivalents of earthquake or flood. Surely these people need our advice, our aid, at least our running commentary. The itch to intervene becomes irresistible.
Britain, with a history of ineptitude in handling Egypt, offered its pennyworth at the weekend. The Foreign Office said: "We don't want to see Egypt fall into the hands of extremists … We want an orderly transition to free and fair elections, and a greater freedom and democracy in Egypt."
Who cares what Britain "wants" in Egypt? Egypt is not Britain's responsibility any more, insofar as it ever was.
The US is in an equally absurd position. Having intervened for three decades, backing Mubarak with $1.5bn a year for armed forces alone, Washington has slithered from declaring him a "force for stability in the region" to "demanding an orderly transition of power". The message to all allies is that an American friend in need is a friend who will vanish at the first sign of trouble.
America could intervene, as Bush and Donald Rumsfeld might have done, with Blair cooing along behind. They could have told Mubarak to reform his regime but hang in there. Since Washington regards the Middle East as a powder keg about to explode in its backyard, it should not allow the Muslim Brotherhood to run Egypt. Bush would have told Egypt to get the "bad guys" off the street. What are tanks for? Why are those F-16s buzzing round the sky? Drop bombs like American and British pilots did on Serbs, Iraqis and Afghans. Retain control or the mad mullahs will be at all our throats. Western security is too important to be left to the mob.
Alternatively Washington might intervene on the other side. It might argue that Mubarak has shot his bolt and "engineer regime change". Don't rely on rioters, half of them probably extremists. America could remove Mubarak as it removed Mullah Omar and Saddam Hussein, by force. Give Cairo a dose of the shock and awe. This is the policy supported elsewhere by Democrats and Republicans, Labour and Conservatives, that the west had a right and a duty to ordain regime change in Muslim countries. What was good for Afghans and Iraqis must be good for Egyptians – and perhaps even Iranians and Pakistanis.
Such interventions would be mad. Had the west not intervened in Iraq and Afghanistan, I bet the Iraqi people would by now have found a way to be rid of Saddam. They or the army would have done what the Tunisians and the Egyptians are doing, and at far less cost in lives, upheaval and chaos. As for the Taliban, as clients of Islamabad they would have come to Pakistani heel. The Afghans would be a threat to nobody but themselves.
What history will call the Wars of 9/11 have killed immeasurably more people than did 9/11 itself. They have cost western taxpayers billions that would have gone far to relieving global disease and famine. American and British governments, for reasons embedded in some imperial paranoia, grotesquely exaggerated the threat posed to them by the Muslim world. They embarked on a campaign of intervention, regime change and nation building far from their shores. The campaign has been inept and counterproductive, as well as in breach of the United Nations charter on self-determination.
Egypt, Tunisia, Iran and Pakistan are all Muslim states wrestling with agonies of self-determination. The west's sole contribution has been to plunge two of their neighbours, Iraq and Afghanistan, into a bloodbath of insecurity and chaos. This is not our continent, these are not our countries and none of this is our business. We should leave them alone.