By Robert Asketill
British Foreign Secretary William Hague is increasingly on the defensive over his continuing policy of backing the ‘Arab Spring’ with military force now that the situation both in the Middle East and Africa needs him to take great care.
Over the centuries where the British through their Foreign Secretaries have made many friends, it has been by tackling overseas problems with scrupulous analysis based on the experience of their predecessors as recorded in that great office of state and the contributions of those with relevant personal experience and a reputation as unbiased observers. In those days, too, Britain led a great empire and had the resources to back up any agreed policy.
The term ‘Arab Spring,’ which seems to have originated from Radio Mosaic in Tunisia, has an increasingly ironic ring and foreign intervention is more suspect and increasingly criticised on one hand for doing too much and on the other for doing too little. Today we hear only voices of hatred against Britain. The “Arab Spring” has and is without a solution. On Friday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, we saw street vendors selling, of all things, gas masks to the mass of protestors who by now should be celebrating. As Hague put it: “The recent revolts against authoritarian leaders in countries including Libya and Egypt will have a greater historic significance than the 9/11 attacks on the United States or the recent financial crisis.”
Seemingly in Cairo this weekend, there was nothing to celebrate and it is easy to see why when the population of Cairo alone is over 30 million. There may have been that number building the Pyramids but today the people of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez need work and food. Mr Hague is right to believe that, all things being equal, democratic government is best and that it is a duty to help people overthrow tyrannies to achieve it.
He cannot threaten military intervention against any other dictators having committed the unenthusiastic British to the now stalemate intervention in Libya but declares: “The inspiring scenes of people taking the future of their country into their own hands will ignite greater demands for good governance and political reform elsewhere in the world, including Asia and Africa.”
We do not know what Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in a Saudi hospital looking like death itself, thinks of Hague’s dreams. He, together with officials and civilians, was brought down by explosives in the name of the ‘Arab Spring’; perhaps not quite what Hague had in mind with his optimistic hope of people taking the future of their country into their own hands.
The Foreign Secretary has warned repressive African regimes that they will also face challenges from the population and from the international community: “Demands for freedom will spread and undemocratic governments elsewhere should take heed.” He was heard by the Ugandans who came out on the streets thinking they would get support from London. What happened? There was tear gas, rubber bullets, some dead in the streets and the hospitals crowded with injured.
In Britain the case for and against intervention in Libya, or in the affairs of any foreign country, goes on and on. Apart from the dangerous economic situation in that country, there are dire problems in the world; gun running into poor countries, shortage of water, mass starvation, lack of education and medical services. It is not a good time to have a tyro foreign secretary, of a country no longer entirely independent itself, telling other countries what to do.
Anthony Brenton, a long serving officer of Britain’s Foreign Office refers to the ‘Arab Spring’ as “a rolling sequence of popular revolts which have already felled the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, brought foreign troops to Bahrain, a civil war and now Western intervention to Libya and unprecedented popular pressure for changes in Yemen, Syria and Morocco. It has also brought the biggest tide of political change since the fall of the Berlin wall.
The world’s key nations are both struggling to stay astride of events and having to adjust to their longer term implications. Thus in the West, we have seen a series of untidy skirmishes between two tendencies. On the one hand have stood the “realists” who rightly fear the consequences of the replacement of a series of reliably pro-Western regimes by who knows what in a region significant for its political fractiousness, its propensity to Islamism, and its centrality for global energy markets. And, on the other, have stood the “liberal internationalists” who (equally rightly) have welcomed what we all hope will be a giant stride towards more representative and less repressive government in a region which has hitherto been conspicuous for their almost complete absence, The Western involvement in Libya suggests that, so far, the liberal internationalists have the upper hand, at least until you get as far east (and close to the key oil wells) as Bahrain.”
Foreign Secretary Hague justifies his policy on two grounds. One is the UN Resolution but two powerful countries now insist it has been stretched far beyond its meaning. The other is the request for action by the Arab League. But the outgoing head of the Arab League and a front runner to become president of a democratic Egypt, who played a central role in securing Arab support for Nato air strikes, has voiced reservations about Nato’s bombing campaign in Libya, calling for a cease fire and talks on a political settlement while Gaddafi remains in power.
Whose judgment would you back—Brenton or Hague?