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Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

Posted by Helen Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Is it a conference? Is it a meeting? Is it a summit? Who knows. It all started with Tony Blair going to visit President Bush soon after the November re-election. At the time, Bush was being advised by all sorts of well-meaning people, such as the Heritage Foundation, that he should acknowledge Blair’s support in the war against terror and agree to hold a conference on the Middle East in London.

Bush’s own instincts were more sound, as anyone who has had to sit through tedious, endless and pointless conferences would agree. He said no, no conferences unless there was a point to them.

Later, he relented. But, as predicted, in the meantime events in the Gulf and the Middle East have moved on and this non-conference, non-summit has been left high and dry.

In the first place, Israel, wary of international gatherings and statements they produce, decided not to attend. Then Mahmoud Abbas was told in no uncertain terms that there is no more money available just for the asking. This seems unfair, as the EU came up with $2 billion over ten years for Abbas’s predecessor, the late unlamented Chairman Arafat without once asking what happened to that money.

In any case, the problem of Palestine will be moved forward by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. At present, the omens are good but all hope must be tampered by caution.

The United States will send a group to help improve Palestinian security structures and Abbas has promised to improve governance. Since the latter is in his own interests, he may well do his very best. The EU is left to come up with the aid, yet again. Alas, we know what is the likely result of that will be.

Otherwise, there have been general statements of support for the peace process, the road map and other suchlike matters. President Bush’s first response had been the correct one: no conferences unless they achieve something.

Regardless of this event in London (don’t know what else I can call it), there have been many developments on the ground.

In what may have been the best film of 2004, The Incredibles, there is a fine moment, when Mr Incredible, still at the height of his fame and power, before the superheroes are sued by all those whose lives they had saved, is giving in an interview. Sighing deeply, he compares saving the world with housework. As soon as he has done it, the world gets itself into another mess. Just once, he pleads, just once, let the world stay saved for a little while.

Well, we have all been there, in a sense (and not just with housework). There are many moments in history, when the world looks like moving towards some kind of salvation. Then things go wrong but each time there is an indication that the movement is in the right direction.

There was such a moment at the end of the eighties, when the Berlin Wall collapsed, the Soviet Union ceased to exist and Eastern Europe re-emerged after its long ordeal.

It was obvious that there would be no smooth development but it was also obvious to many, though not to those enamoured of the European project, that history had taken a completely different route. The ramifications of the Soviet collapse would take some time to work their way out, but it signified the beginning of the end of the post-1945 settlement.

Fifteen years on, another of the waves that started in that period has come crashing to the shore. The Middle East is on the move. The tyrannical settlement that had kept so many people submerged in poverty and submission was shattered by the war in Iraq and not all Chirac’s horses or Chirac’s men can put it together again.

Egypt is to have elections with opposition parties participating. No big deal, you might say, but it has not happened for some time. Saudi Arabia has had its first, very limited, election. Those who sneer that only men voted might like to recall that Britain with its proud tradition of political freedom did not have women voting till after the First World War.

Lebanon is boiling over and the great hidden wrong, the Syrian occupation, may well come to an end. Sensing his weakness, President-for-Life Assad has suddenly found that yes, as a matter of fact, there are Ba'athists and Al-Qaeda terrorists in Syria. That being so, he may as well hand them over to the Iraqi and American authorities. Whether this sudden recognition of reality will help him to preserve his power remains to be seen.

And wonder of wonders, France and the United States have issued a joint statement calling on Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon. Whatever happened to the European policy? Should it not have been Solana instead of Michel Barnier signing that statement with Condoleezza Rice?

While we are at it, whatever happened to the French ability to run its own, stupendously sophisticated policy in the Middle East? It seems that the French government does not have a special relationship with the Arabs after all.

That leaves the great monstrosity of Iran and the ongoing completely fruitless discussions that Britain, France and Germany are conducting, still hoping that the United States will throw their lot in with them and give the Iranians whatever they want. But in the new Middle East, Hezbollah, backed by Iran, and possible nuclear weapons in the hands of the Mullahs become serious problems that cannot be left to European grandstanding.

Nobody has any clear idea where we go from here and the chances are that developments will not be decided at non-conferences in London or anywhere else, much as the European governments love that.

The people of the Gulf and the Middle East will make their own moves, with one eye on American reaction. But one thing is clear: the supposed European (for which read Franco-German) policy of leaving sleeping dogs lie, making chummy deals with tyrants and terrorists and hoping that nothing too bad will come you way is on its way out.

The “crude”, “unsophisticated”, “black and white” policy of the United States and its allies seems to reaping rewards. Apparently the ideas of freedom and democracy can be exported after all.