Monday, August 08, 2005

Are we becoming a little too "European" in our outlook?

My colleague’s research work that has been presented in his postings and will soon be available in an actual paper are of seminal importance. They chart the way British defence strategy and defence procurement have been deliberately though secretly detached from those of the United States and its allies to be integrated into the European structures (which may or may not work).

Behind it all, though, one can detect a less easily defined air of “European” defeatism in the British attitude to the world outside it. Instead of the spread of democracy and freedom, which is the avowed if somewhat risky American policy, backed by a number of its allies, including, theoretically, this country, the practice appears to be more of a “stability at all costs”, which tends to be the mantra of that great leader, Javier Solana.

Back in June Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a remarkable speech in Cairo. She outlined American policy in the Middle East, which was to focus on giving help to the people of the various countries to develop their own versions of freedom and democracy.

The stunned European media inquired where the ideas had come from but, had they been paying some attention, they would have realized that as Rice said, the ideas had been there in President Bush’s second inaugural address:

“As President Bush said in his Second Inaugural Address: "America will not impose our style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, to attain their own freedom, and to make their own way."”

One never quite knows who writes the speeches of top politicians (well, sometimes we do) and how many hands it goes through before it is delivered. But my guess is that this one came from the Secretary’s own cabinet and by passed most of the State Department’s panjandrums. Not only it laid emphasis on freedom and democracy, citing examples from various countries in the Middle East, but it acknowledged that traditional US policy in the region was wrong and had to be changed:

“We should all look to a future when every government respects the will of its citizens -- because the ideal of democracy is universal. For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East -- and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

Stability, however, remains the cry of many a diplomat and many a bureaucrat and is the cornerstone of EU common foreign policy, such as it is. As one reads Secretary of State Rice’s stirring cry of freedom – her remarks also emphasised the long road the United States had to travel before achieving freedom for all – one cannot help wondering where Britain stands in this great fight.

In theory, we are there, supporting our allies, fighting for freedom and democracy in Iraq and supporting the Iraqi efforts to put together a constitution (for which an Assembly was elected unlike the Convention in the European Union, incidentally). The practice, however, remains somewhat short of that theory.

Some months ago I heard a talk given by an Iraqi American analyst of the situation in the country. Among other things he casually mentioned that Basra was acquiring the name of the Islamic Republic of Basra, as the Shi’ite extremists, often from Iran, were acquiring power.
This was one of the great fears of what might happen after the toppling of the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein but the fears have not materialized in any part of the country except in Basra.

The speaker, a courteous Anglophile, when questioned, talked vaguely of the proximity of the Iranian border and of certain local difficulties, though even he could not hide the fact that traditionally that town has not been a seat of Islamic fundamentalism. He did not dwell too much on one of the most important facts – Basra is under British control.

When the British troops rolled in they were greeted as liberators. The Shi’ite Arabs of southern Iraq had suffered from Saddam’s oppression and were overjoyed at his overthrow. They hardly expected to have another tyranny foisted on them so quickly under the benign gaze of the British military authorities.

Since my first hearing of the Islamic Republic of Basra I have read several ever more disturbing accounts of unofficial Shi’ite militias attacking young people who happen to be out walking with their friends of both sexes; demanding that women hide themselves under scarves; closing down places of “unsuitable” entertainment and even murdering those they considered to be defiling the purity of Islam.

None of these stories appeared in the British media but in American newspapers and on American and Iraqi websites.

A week of so ago an article was published in the New York Times and International Herald Tribune by the free-lance journalist Steven Vincent, which described the way Shi’ite militias had infiltrated the Basra police force, imposed a reign of terror and had, it seems, been responsible for a number of kidnappings and murders.

Two days later Vincent himself was kidnapped and murdered, though there is probably more to that crime than seemed obvious. After all, with the notorious exception of Danny Pearle, American journalists, no matter how much digging they may have been doing, have not been kidnapped - no ransom was going to be paid – or murdered.

There is a possibility that the murder had to do with his relationship with his female interpreter but, whichever way one looks at it, the place is seething with lawlessness combined with serious oppression beyond most other parts of Iraq.

Still, the British media refuses to discuss the problem. More than that, the somewhat incoherent leader of yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph implied that the fault lay with the Americans, whom Steven Vincent, it is said, had criticized in his article.

Ahem, no. I read the article and Mr Vincent made it quite clear that it was the British military who were in Basra. He even described what their reaction was when he went to discuss his findings: Not our job, mate. He must have been quoting directly, as the expression is not American.

That raises two questions immediately: whose job is it and what is the job the British troops are supposed to be doing there.

Several other questions crowd in. Whose decision was it to look the other way as Basra not so slowly succumbed to Islamic extremism? Was it the local military commanders who took the view that “stability” is more important than democracy? Was it the MoD or the benighted Foreign Office?

What exactly is the reasoning behind it? For this is not only creating an intolerable situation for the people of Basra now but is laying up many problems for any future Iraqi government. In other words, the whole idea of helping Iraq to come to some sort of a democratic arrangement is being sabotaged in the name, one must assume, of local stability and in order not to face the sort of problems the Americans are having to deal with in Baghdad and Tikrit.

And still, the British media refuses to pursue the story.

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