libya and the middle east

It is two in the morning. The House of Commons debate today was on Libya and the UN resolution passed three hours ago. There is talk of planes flying tonight. On the radio, Gaddafi’s spokesman rattles off UN jargon in English: ‘the technical aspects of the cease-fire’, ‘some concerns over the text’. The spokesman – who is an Arab himself – uses a translator to turn his English into Arabic. Perhaps his audience is in the Gulf and he wants to use only the most formal speech. But the translator, confident with the normal totalitarian phrases like ‘the peaceful intention of the national security forces’, struggles with the UN jargon and has to be corrected by his boss. Gaddafi is presenting himself as a neutral participant, engaging with a UN process – when he is in fact the target of a resolution, from people who want to depose him. After ten minutes of this the BBC commentator sounds more than a little confused. So am I.

I will be in home this coming morning visiting Plumpton School, an uplands meeting and a flood protection scheme at Eamont Bridge, so I will miss the Prime-Minister’s statements in the House. But the whole day’s debate was on Libya, and Parliament struggled  – as it did with Bosnia, with Kosovo, with Iraq and Afghanistan to find the words and arguments to apply to modern war. Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson made the most formal and polished speech on the future of the Middle East. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour MP from Islington, focused on arms sales. Some members were unable to resist focusing almost entirely on Israel-Palestine. The shadows of previous conflicts were present – but barely mentioned.

There was an element of pantomime in the debate – most people, I think, assumed that the Russians would never approve a no-fly zone in Libya, so all the talk of intervention was almost make-believe. It is suddenly no longer. The Russians didn’t veto and it is now our job to make this no-fly zone work. But all this is still largely symbolic. A no-fly zone on its own will not topple Gaddafi: it may not even stop him from taking the rebel cities. Gaddafi might still be in power in three years’ time: still threaten his own people, and us. I tried to use my speech to argue that despite all the risk and threat, we need an optimistic long-term vision for the Middle East. Rather than getting caught up in exactly what is happening hour by hour in Libya, we must remember what the region will mean to us in twenty years’ time. It is not just that they are on the other side of the Mediterranean. It is not just that they have an incredible young, unemployed population who are both a potential source of prosperity for their own nations and for us and a potential threat to us. It is that we have much greater leverage there than on nations much further away, such as Afghanistan. The relationships between France and Morocco and between Italy and Libya—indeed, around the whole Mediterranean littoral—are so close. These countries in demographic, energy, religious and security terms will prove to be far more important than we have acknowledged.

What we are hearing in Egypt and Tunisia is not some accidental, sporadic event that will be constrained by inevitable forces of tyranny or Arabic culture. I believe the Middle East is moving decisively in a more democratic direction: like central and eastern Europe and Latin America over the past 20 years. And, it is in our political and moral interests for this to happen. This is Britain’s opportunity and Europe’s moment, and we need to be clear about this. But not starry-eyed. The language on the streets in the Middle East today is very different from that of Eastern Europe. George W Bush has done a great disservice to words such as liberty, equality and democracy—words that were on the lips of Vaclav Havel—which do not sound so comfortable when we talk to those countries. We need new words. We need a whole new language and it needs to be driven by them, not us. Freedom is not something that is given but something that is taken. But we can, nevertheless, have a constructive role over the next 20 to 30 years in helping the Middle East and North Africa be more stable, more prosperous and more humane. That is our mission. That is what we have to put our weight behind and is where we need to invest.

The truth is important but difficult to communicate to politicians, journalists, and voters. Things can be done. More than we fear. But never in the Middle East, through military occupation. Our example should be Eastern Europe, not Iraq. Almost all the running has to be made by local people. We are only in support. But there are economic structures we can bring, and access to our markets; advice; moments where our diplomats and their human relationships can transform events. It will be bewildering, frustrating. But it is the central international task of our generation, and it will require patience and passionate moderation.



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