Joyce McMillan: Fight for moral high ground is over

Foreign policy disasters in the Middle East have left the UK naked in the negotiating chamber, writes Joyce McMillan
Gordon Brown, then prime minister, on a visit to Afghanistan in 2008. Picture: GettyGordon Brown, then prime minister, on a visit to Afghanistan in 2008. Picture: Getty
Gordon Brown, then prime minister, on a visit to Afghanistan in 2008. Picture: Getty

THE IMAGE IS a simple one, and beautifully drawn by the Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson. It shows a narrow street somewhere in the Middle East, a few palm trees, a burned-out car; and dangling into the picture from the sky above, a big, intrusive drone aircraft, its blunt and pilot-less nose pointing down towards the pavement. In front of it, though, stands a sturdy female figure in a headscarf, looking defiant. “You’re going to lose,” she says. “It’s only you against many.”

And although it was published more than 15 months ago, in May 2013, it’s this image that still haunts me, whenever I think about the growing firestorm of instability and conflict in the Middle East, now dominating discussion at this weekend’s Nato summit in South Wales. It’s true, of course, that the western powers have never carried much moral authority and credibility in large parts of the Middle East; ever since the British and American-engineered overthrow of Iran’s Mossadeq government, back in 1953, postwar US and UK governments have stood accused of always acting to defend major western commercial interests, regardless of the basic rights of the people of the region.

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For many across the Arab and Islamic world, though, it was the unauthorised invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the colossal disruption and suffering which followed, which finally destroyed any conceivable western claim to be acting as an impartial “global policeman”, or an upholder of international law. Yesterday morning, on the BBC Today programme, Prime Minister David Cameron talked well enough about the threat now posed by the increasingly powerful Islamic State movement across northern Iraq and war-torn Syria, pointing out how failed governments in both countries created opportunities for this new brand of murderous radicalism.

What he could not bring himself to acknowledge, though – and this he shares with every other leading US and British politician – is the role played by the western powers themselves in creating the instability they now mourn, and in installing, arming and supporting the failed or corrupt governments which have failed to keep the forces of fundamentalism at bay. The very response of the British and US governments over the past fortnight – when the online beheading of two American journalists, with a further threat to a third British hostage, has provoked far more fear and outrage than the slaughter of thousands across northern Iraq – betrays the lingering colonial attitude, and the lack of real moral principle, that constantly undermines western policy.

And so it is that we face this conflict from a position of profound strategic and moral weakness, armed to the teeth with weapons which we have also been quick to sell to some of the most oppressive regimes in the region, but lacking any credible means of de-escalating the conflict; or, for that matter, of preventing it from spreading to the streets of Britain. It was moving, this week, to hear the parents of Glasgow girl Aqsa Mahmood, who has run away to marry an ISIS fighter, say how they felt she had betrayed both her family and the people of Scotland. The truth is, though, that in any population there are likely to be a few young people drawn to this kind of extreme and forbidden ideology; and a society’s capacity to resist and marginalise it depends more on its own strong sense of shared values and purpose, than on any amount of political grandstanding or anti-terror legislation.

All of which makes it particularly difficult for the British government to deal with the lusty “something must be done” bellowing now coming from the UK press. To his credit, David Cameron has so far resisted calls for action by British troops, for major new anti-terror legislation, or for a sudden building of new alliances on the basis that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. Yet his commitment to working with partners in the region is weakened by the near-absence of obvious credible candidates; the elected governments of Iran and Turkey now look like the best bets, even though the Iranian regime was until recently the American security establishment’s preferred choice of evil empire, and leading Islamic threat.

For all the British establishment’s self-righteous bluster, in other words, the truth is that the conduct of western foreign policy since the late 1990s – above all in the Middle East – has been so chaotic, so reckless, and so lacking in any credible foundation of principle or law, that it is now difficult for the people of many western countries to believe a single word uttered by their government about who their enemies really are, and how high a level of threat they pose. Since the 9/11 attacks of 2001, allegations of terrorist threat have been so ruthlessly used to strip away civil liberties and to invade the privacy of citizens that they have come to seem more like a pretext for authoritarianism, and a massive marketing opportunity for global security corporations, than a genuine strategy for national defence.

And if these do – as now seems just possible – turn out to be the final weeks of the UK as we have known it, then that collapse of trust between government and people will surely be one of the major reasons for its breakdown. This week, Gordon Brown flew briefly into a rage when a journalist tried to ask him about Iraq, and the impact of that war on the Scottish referendum campaign. Yet once a people has seen its leaders tell such a blatant series of untruths in pursuit of a war that would cost so much in human suffering, trust become very difficult to rebuild, particularly in the context where society is itself becoming steadily more unequal and divided. And as for bringing the nation together to make the sacrifices entailed in fighting another round of new wars – I think David Cameron knows that he can forget it. Which is why both he and Barack Obama go almost naked into the conference-chamber at Newport this weekend; not short of wealth or weaponry, but – as Rowson’s brilliant cartoon makes clear – bereft of the spirit, the faith and the basic social solidarity that matters, when people set out to fight a war, and to win it.