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