Saturday, June 20, 2015

Whatocracy

Q:  If the army of Madeupistan overthrew its elected government, machine-gunned hundreds of protesters in the streets, hurled its opponents into prison and issued mass death warrants, would the UK Government a) denounce the army or b) welcome its leader to Downing Street for tea and biscuits?

A:  It depends on whether the leader of Madeupistan is our bastard, or theirs.

This question is prompted by the leader in yesterday's Times - the full text of it is in comments below, since it's paywalled on their website.

It's a barnstormer of an article really, filled with compensatory coughs and mumbles about human rights and democracy, while in fact pushing precisely the kind of self-important Realpolitik that made Dr Kissinger the beloved figure that he is today.

And to a certain extent, this is fine - I can entirely get down with sentiments like "(we) need to work with the political order as it exists in the Arab world and not as (we) wish it to be", since this is exactly the kind of thing that I've been saying about e.g. Iraq and Syria for years*.  It's hilariously obvious that this form of peace, love and understanding is extended only to allied nations of course, but let's accept that statement as a mild outbreak of common sense for now.

Nonetheless, let's also note that the main message of the piece is - let's suck up to this particular blood-soaked killer, because he can give us lots of things that we want.  This, to put it mildly, is not the message that either the Times or many of the nation's titans of morality in foreign policy typically push.

Let me pluck out a few sentences, just for pointing-and-booing purposes:

"There is no more apt time for David Cameron to press Mr Sisi to respect human rights than in a meeting, face to face.  It is essential that the prime minister do so, lest reformers in Egypt and the wider Arab world infer that they are on their own".

Now, I can think of a few reasons why "reformers in Egypt and the wider Arab world infer that they are on their own" - the recent UK-Egypt investment figures alone suggest that we're entirely happy as a nation for the Egyptian military to crush democratic movements in perpetuity, I think.  The fact that our major political figures have made next to no attempt to restrain the Egyptian dictatorship sends a far stronger message than anything that Cameron is likely to say.

Nor do I believe that a Cameron-Sisi photo-op, with all of the diplomatic kissy-face and joint statements on common interests and co-operation that such things entail, is going to convince "Arab reformers" that the prime minister is just hurting like a motherfucker for their trampled rights.

"If Britain does not have a strategic relationship with Mr Sisi, it will forgo any opportunity to put pressure on him to restore democracy".  

You'll notice that this too departs from the paper's traditional attitude towards engagement with despotic regimes.  The pretence that Sisi might have a passing interest in "restoring democracy", or that David Cameron might put him in a chokehold until he develops one, strikes me as fairly insulting to the public's intelligence. 

Other highlights include boos and hisses for the elected government that Sisi deposed and is now having executed:

"...He unquestionably (deposed an elected leader) with immense popular support against a regime that had abused its authority and driven Egypt close to collapse."

Now, Ayatollah Khomeini's insane medieval revolution overthrew a nasty regime, but you'll seldom hear similar citations of its immense popularity, nor criticisms of the Shah's democratic failings, and for good reason.

We can also note that e.g. Bad Vladimir Putin is very popular indeed domestically, but you don't often hear it said in Times editorials, and you'll never hear that fact used as justification for positive engagement.  Hugo Chavez's party have won election after election for more than a decade in Venezuela, but their proven popularity doesn't discourage the Times from regularly addressing them as if they were a political amalgamation of the great train robbers and the Khmer Rouge. 

"Mohammed Morsi, or the Muslim Brotherhood, won a narrow victory in presidential elections...  (he) should have negotiated a compromise or called fresh elections.  Amid discontent and huge protests, Mr Sisi and the army deposed a plainly failing government...  Large sections of Egyptian society believe that Mr Sisi has preserved the country from civil war and theocratic oppression". 

...Which is an idiosyncratic take on the concept of democracy, and one that would have interesting results if it were applied more broadly around the globe: God help any political party that has the temerity to "win a narrow victory", for example.  I also look forward to the Times' take on future anti-government protestors in the UK and elsewhere, since it tends to treat anyone who so much as waves a placard at Westminster like they're the blackshirts reborn.

Anyway, you get the gist.  I raise this mainly to note - yet again - the bizarre situation whereby any minor celebrity or unknown political activist who so much as sneezes in the direction of unpleasant foreign autocrats or political movements can expect to be pilloried now and for all time for it, but it's perfectly fine and even sensible for the President of the United States to publicly blow the King of Saudi Arabia's corpse.  

We might think of this as the Tony Blair principle - that is, it's actually laudible for Tony Blair to hug Colonel Gaddafi, but any other human being caught making a favourable comment about the mad colonel's haircut will have the offending quote splashed all over any article that mentions their name forever more, including in their eventual obituary.

Well, I know that I have a bit of an obsession with bitching at the Times, but I'd say there's an important distinction to be made here.  Whenever, say, a minor Guardian writer makes some horrifying statement along the lines of "Any final negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians is probably going to have to involve Hamas, since they're a major combatant party", the wails and screams of terror and outrage shake your windows and rattle your walls for weeks...

...But the Guardian and all who sail in her are, at best, speaking on behalf of the nation's cultural elite and for the dying rump of middle class British socialism.

The Times, on the other hand, is effectively the UK's ruling class addressing itself.  If it has a purpose, its role is to clarify and reinforce the views of the government of the day.  If it has any criticism of government policy, it'll always be restricted to encouraging the Prime Minister to just keep doing whatever he's doing, to either a slightly greater or lesser extent.

I'd say that Sisi and his lieutenants are considerably worse human beings than any of the bogeymen who traditionally bedevil the nightmares of Times writers - Chavez, Gerry Adams, Che Guevara and so on.  And here's the nation's paper of record, wagging a finger at us for daring to consider the possibility of giving the Egyptian dictator the cold shoulder.  You can take that as the official position of the British Government, because it is**.

But as with our nation's relationship with Saudi Arabia, you'll wait a long, long time for any of this to provoke the kind of enraged condemnations that we generally reserve for comedians and authors who are incautious enough to use an overwrought metaphor or to back the wrong boycott.

----

*Although unlike the Times, I've been saying it to discourage further idiotic bombing campaigns and occupations.  

**Again, the simplest solution here isn't so much for Cameron to give Sisi the bum's rush, although I wouldn't weep if he did.  

The easiest and most honest tactic would be for statesmen to drop all pretence that their foreign policies are motivated by morality, human rights or love of democracy, and to admit once and for all that they're moved instead by ignoble expediency at best and rampant, cynical greed at worst.

8 comments:

flyingrodent said...

Autocratic Ally

The Prime Minister is right to invite Egypt's military ruler to Downing Street

The democratic sentiment that flowered in the Arab Spring proved sadly ephemeral and brief. Now western nations need to work with the political order as it exists in the Arab world and not as they wish it to be. It is entirely proper for the British government to invite President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt's military ruler, for talks in Downing Street despite his draconian suppression of domestic opposition.

There is no more apt time for David Cameron to press Mr Sisi to respect human rights than in a meeting, face to face. It is essential that the prime minister do so, lest reformers in Egypt and the wider Arab world infer that they are on their own. Yet they are not in office and Mr Sisi is, and while that brute diplomatic fact exists Britain has many areas of common concern that it should pursue with Egypt.

It is true that Mr Sisi deposed an elected leader. He unquestionably did so with immense popular support against a regime that had abused its authority and driven Egypt close to collapse. Mohamed Morsi, for the Muslim Brotherhood, won a narrow victory in presidential elections in June 2012. Instead of embracing constitutionalism, Mr Morsi speedily asserted his absolute executive power in a constitutional amendment.

Instead Mr Morsi should have negotiated a compromise or called fresh elections. Amid discontent and huge protests, Mr Sisi and the army deposed a plainly failing government. There is no doubting, however, that large sections of Egyptian society believe that Mr Sisi has preserved the country from civil war and theocratic repression.

That is the context in which Mr Cameron will meet the Egyptian leader. Western democracies' diplomacy with Egypt has been inconstant and myopic ever since their unforeseen triumph when President Anwar Sadat abandoned his country's alliance with the Soviet Union in the 1970s. America's sponsorship of Sadat and his successor, Hosni Mubarak, underpinned by its concern for peace with Israel, was largely indifferent to Egypt's autocratic leadership.

When Mr Sisi took power, the Obama administration initially withheld part of America's $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt. It was a futile gesture that has had no effect in making Egypt a more pluralist and democratic state. Mr Cameron has taken note of this and drawn the appropriate lesson.

Egypt is this country's ally in crucial respects. First, it is taking the fight, a just and necessary one, direct to the jihadists. The Sinai peninsula is no longer safe territory for groups that seek the establishment of a theocratic caliphate and the overthrow of western civilisation. Second, Hamas is no longer sponsored by Egypt, as it was under Mr Morsi, in its aggression against Israel. Third, Egypt is a regional power opposed to the nuclear expansionism of Iran.

These are all concerns of Britain and its allies. Egypt is the most populous state in the region. If Britain does not have a strategic relationship with Mr Sisi, it will forgo any opportunity to put pressure on him to restore democracy and open the country's institutions. It will be abandoning a ruler whose interests are those of Britain's and whose enemies are a mortal threat.

septicisle said...

"Now western nations need to work with the political order as it exists in the Arab world and not as they wish it to be."

I'm looking forward to Assad being invited round to Number 10 for tea and biscuits on that logic. Or perhaps Dave might even stretch to al-Baghdadi.

"Second, Hamas is no longer sponsored by Egypt, as it was under Mr Morsi, in its aggression against Israel."

Except of course Hamas was never sponsored by Morsi; even more of a blind eye might have been turned to the tunnels into Gaza than under Mubarak, but not by much. Those same tunnels as well as admittedly bringing in weapons/materials for make life slightly more bearable for Gazans. But then when did the Times care about little things like that when it comes to the Palestinians?

Anonymous said...

"Mr" Sisi.

Um I believe he's General Sisi. Good gods could they be more transparent?

Anonymous said...

"The easiest and most honest tactic would be for statesmen to drop all pretence that their foreign policies are motivated by morality, human rights or love of democracy, and to admit once and for all that they're moved instead by ignoble expediency at best and rampant, cynical greed at worst."

I find this analysis unduly dyspeptic. The UK's relationships with other sovereign states are exactly that - relationships - and are of course often driven by expediency. They would be, wouldn't they? As you say, we have to deal with the political order as it exists, and not as we would wish it to be. There'd be no point in pursuing inexpedient policies.

That doesn't mean to say that our foreign policies can't be informed by values the UK holds dear. Unfortunately reality has a habit of intruding. And when the choice is between evils, it follows that from time to time the UK will end up on the same side as some pretty unpleasant individuals and regimes.

You mention the invasion of Iraq. I myself don't doubt that Tony Blair's personal support was to large extent motivated by morality, human rights and the love of democracy. And look where that got us. If only expediency, which you dismiss as "ignoble", had ruled.

flyingrodent said...

And when the choice is between evils, it follows that from time to time the UK will end up on the same side as some pretty unpleasant individuals and regimes.

Yes, this has been and is going to be the case pretty much indefinitely, so I'm not surprised in the least to see it happening with Egypt.

That being so, it's probably better to admit it, rather than trying to do what the Times is doing in the piece quoted above i.e. trying very hard to turn an obvious vice into a virtue. It's not much of a difference, but it's probably better to just be a bastard than to be a hypocritical, lying bastard.

(Also, I note that there hasn't been one insane bombing campaign, doomed occupation or bloody drone strike this last 15 years that we haven't somehow managed to accommodate within our much-vaunted ethical foreign policy, which probably tells you how deeply committed to it we were all along).

You mention the invasion of Iraq. I myself don't doubt that Tony Blair's personal support was to large extent motivated by morality, human rights and the love of democracy. And look where that got us.

Maybe for Tony Blair personally, although given subsequent events I'll opt for "ego-driven lunacy" rather than love of human rights and democracy. You'll notice that Blair's position on Egypt is indistinguishable from the current government's, for instance, and that his supposed aversion to tyranny falters whenever large cheques are introduced into the equation.

I'd also note that the political calculus for most MPs re: invading and occupying both Afghanistan and Iraq went something like this - "The Americans are going to invade these countries with or without our assistance; there's nothing that we can do to stop it, and anyone who says these wars are bad ideas is getting murdered in the press. How will I vote?".

Laban Tall said...

It's rarely that I agree with you about anything, but I find the relative quiescence of our political class about Egypt unbelievable, given the way they emoted about freedom and democracy (and the 24/7 news coverage) when Egyptians were demonstrating against Mubarak.

Military coup, thousands killed, former government party proscribed, journalists and supporters put on trial - why isn't the place treated like the former South Africa?

But I guess Sri Lanka is a bit of a precedent, although at least they had the excuse of a major and bloody civil war.

Btw what's your view on our brilliant interventions in Libya and Syria (partial - just think that 2 years back we nearly joined the war on the head-choppers side)? I've concluded that they can't be so stupid that they've failed to notice the lessons of Iraq, and that for some reason a bloody basket-case of a result is actually considered a feature not a bug.

Laban Tall said...

Just noticed. That Times leader is very Oliver Kamm.

flyingrodent said...

Military coup, thousands killed, former government party proscribed, journalists and supporters put on trial - why isn't the place treated like the former South Africa?

Because most of the human rights waffle associated with military hijinks is just flim-flam used as cover for whatever they wanted to do in the first place, or whatever is politically convenient, and even the parts that are genuinely held are quickly cast aside when push comes to shove. At a guess.

what's your view on our brilliant interventions in Libya and Syria (partial - just think that 2 years back we nearly joined the war on the head-choppers side)?

I spent the whole thing waving my arms and screeching about how Cameron clearly didn't have a damn clue what he was doing; how the entire thing was incredibly risky, and pointing out that the people we were helping were engaged in what we'd definitely call ethnic cleansing, if it had been the other side doing it. I wasn't alone in this, but it felt quite lonely at the time.

Just noticed. That Times leader is very Oliver Kamm.

It is indeed - the same Kamm that's so prone to hysterics of the "All this death is your fault" genus, whenever he isn't counselling us to suck up to our more malleable dictator friends. Also prone to bleating about Realpolitik and Kissinger, hilariously.