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Oil, blood and the wests double standards

By Philip Stephens
Daniel Pudles

The Middle East is a graveyard for ethical foreign policies. Whenever American and European leaders speak in lofty tones of an unflinching commitment to political pluralism, the rule of law or human dignity, this benighted region turns around to shame them. Local people habitually talk of the wests double standards. This is not new. Even if one puts aside colonisation, recent history has been littered with grim examples of the elevation of selfish interests above declared values. One good starting point is 1953 and the toppling by the US at British incitement of Mohammed Mossadegh. The then Iranian prime ministers embrace of economic modernisation and social reform promised a shining model for the region. He made the mistake of thinking Iran rather than Britain should own its oil industry. The archives of western foreign ministries bulge with evidence of the contradictions and hypocrisies. Diplomats stationed in the region American and European have for decades crafted eloquent dispatches questioning whether support for Arab autocrats sat easily with the espousal of universal values; or if one-sided support for Israel did not ignore the legitimate rights of Palestinians. The telegrams went unread. The tyrants had the oil and the Palestinians were powerless. More than half a century later the tensions have surfaced again in the reaction to the Arab spring. After some hesitation, western leaders have decided that popular demand for representative government is by and large a good thing. Listening to some of these politicians one could almost imagine that they had always carried a torch for Arab democracy. Thats until you get to the caveats. Democracy is all very well as long as it does not threaten western interests. Elections are fine except when voters seem likely to embrace Islamists. Support for the uprisings has been selective and conditional. Sure, Nato lent its military to the overthrow of Libyas Muammer Gaddafi. But mention repression of the Shia majority in Bahrain and silence descends. Privately, policy makers criticise the kingdoms ruling al-Khalifa family for resisting reform. Privately. As I have

heard one European diplomat observe, much of the worlds oil passes through Bahraini waters; and Shia Iran sits menacingly across the Gulf. Saudi Arabia is a no-go area. Much of the Islamist extremism within and without the Middle East has its roots in the Wahhabi fundamentalism that flourishes under the House of Saud. But Saudi Arabia is the worlds largest oil exporter. The Saudis also buy hugely expensive military kit and, since the war in Iraq, serve as a vital Sunni counterweight to Iran. I recall a conversation with Tony Blair during George W. Bushs ill-fated campaign to bomb the Middle East into democracy. The march of freedom, the then British prime minister said, was unstoppable. So why had he just returned from a mission to sell advanced fighter jets to the Saudi regime? For once Mr Blair seemed lost for words. Governments are not alone in their double standards. The other day Mr Blair was confronted in London by a demonstrator calling him a war criminal. It has become an article of faith among the liberal intelligentsia that Mr Blairs support for Mr Bushs war in Iraq was at very best an act of vainglorious imperialism and more likely a criminal conspiracy. Yet as Syria descends into ever more bloody civil war, critics of the toppling of Saddam Hussein are among those complaining that the international community is standing idly by while Bashar al-Assad continues to slaughter his people. Never mind that Saddam had massacred the Shia of southern Iraq and used chemical weapons to murder Kurds in the north. As it happens, the carnage in Syria throws up a dilemma that reaches beyond the familiar cynical choices between realism and idealism. Western leaders share international outrage at the wanton killing of civilians by Mr Assads regime. They want to see him removed from office. But to suggest that there is an easy option by way of military intervention is to abandon intelligent analysis to understandable anger. Syria is not Libya. Mr Assads military is armed with sophisticated Russian weaponry and large stocks of chemical weapons. Would bombing save Syrian lives? I suspect that the combination of the particularly brutal killings in Houla and Russian intransigence at the UN will eventually push the west into arming the insurgents. But no one should suppose that this will bring a happy ending.

Confronted with charges of double standards, western policy makers tend to shrug their shoulders and reply this is the world as it is. As far as, say, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are concerned, they will take the criticism on the chin. What the realpolitik misses, I think, is the deeply corrosive effect of the accumulated hypocrisies on the wests standing and influence. During the cold war, the US and its allies could cite the need to fight against Soviet communism. They could make a cold calculation that for all the occasional agitation, the Arab street was not a threat to the status quo. Satellite television, the web and social networking lay somewhere in a deep distant future. Now Barack Obama, Franois Hollande, David Cameron and the rest confront a painful paradox. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the political awakening in the Arab world have greatly weakened their capacity to effect change in the Middle East. Yet the instant transmission around the world of images of bloody repression demands that they act. The west cannot win. Given the sorry record of the past half-century, it