Monday, 2 March 2009

British Conservatives and the Middle East

The Daily Star
Tuesday 3 March 2009
By Michael Glackin

Gordon Brown's government is in its death throes, propelled there by a recession, rising unemployment and a succession of revelations highlighting ministerial sleaze. The odds on Brown being prime minister after an election, which he must call before May 2010, are long indeed.

The latest opinion polls reveal the government is trailing the opposition Conservative Party by 16 points and is now just three points ahead of the much smaller Liberal Democrats.

So what can the Middle East expect from a future Conservative government?

Speaking to me earlier this month David Lidington, the Conservative shadow minister for foreign affairs and the party's Middle East spokesperson, outlined what the region could expect from a Conservative government, and made it clear that lofty ideals such as democracy will no longer be the yardstick for measuring political progress in the region.

"The experience of Iraq and Afghanistan has given us a more sober assessment about how difficult it is to introduce political reform," Lidington told me. "I think we've learned that it is very difficult to impose democracy by force, particularly by foreign force, and that democracy in terms of votes and competing political parties is not enough."

Lidington said a Conservative government would remain "very interested" in human rights and democratic reform, but it is clear that stability, not democracy, will be the guiding principle of Conservative Middle East policy. "We are not starry eyed about the ability of Britain or even a country as powerful as the United States simply to snap its fingers and impose such a system on places with their own cultures and histories," he explained. "I would hope that we will see the development of democratic and plural institutions in the Middle East in different countries, but in each country it will have to be in a fashion that takes account of the particular history and culture of that nation."

On one level this "more sober assessment" is a reflection of the policy shift in the corridors of power of Washington and London. But this sort of realpolitik in Middle East affairs has never been far from the surface of Conservative policy. When the American and British government, along with France, cold shouldered Syria in the wake of the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, the Conservative Party continued to talk to President Bashar Assad's regime.

Lidington has long believed Western attempts to isolate Syria have failed. Britain and France have already undergone a Damascene conversion and the obvious desire of US President Barack Obama to bury the hatchet that his predecessor waved over Assad's head is the latest vindication of his party's policy of maintaining a dialogue with Damascus.

But you get nothing for nothing in international diplomacy, and as the West rushes to bring Syria in from the cold, many people in the Middle East, particularly the Lebanese, wonder what price will be paid for this rapprochement? Many wonder whether the Hariri Tribunal, which begins operating this week but will not hear testimony before next year, might now grind to a halt as Syria's international rehabilitation gathers pace.

No says Lidington. "We haven't moved from our position supporting the Hariri Tribunal. But, we do take the view that you need to talk to governments even when you have the most profound differences with them. I certainly take the view that efforts to isolate a government are rarely effective and probably breed greater risk of misunderstanding. That doesn't mean you take on trust everything that another government says to you, you have to sup with long spoons."

But why stop at Damascus? If you can use a long spoon to sup with a regime that the UN has implicated in a terror attack on another state then why not use it to sup with Hamas, or Hizbullah? Both groups have successfully contested elections that were more open and democratic than those won by Assad and the Baath Party in Syria. Both groups are also crucial to any hopes of stability in the region. Do they not fall into the "more sober assessment" category?

Lidington agrees both groups are central to creating a stable Middle East, but insists the United Kingdom must distinguish between the governments of a sovereign nation, in this case Assad and Syria, and a group which "openly advocates violence."

"I would accept that Hamas has electoral support and it does represent a significant strand of Palestinian opinion," he said. "But I think that if we are going to deal with it as a party to Middle East diplomacy that can only be on the basis that it has committed itself to being a political movement rather than a movement based on violence."

Lidington concedes his party has what he calls "channels of communication" with Hamas through some of its backbench MPs and contacts in various NGOs, but insists no direct talks will take place until Hamas renounces violence for good and formally recognizes Israel.

Despite this there is strong support within the Conservative Party for direct talks with Hamas. Former Conservative ministers Michael Ancram and Chris Patten, both of whom were involved in the Northern Ireland peace process, recently called for the scrapping of preconditions on talks with Hamas, insisting the group should only be required to halt its violence, not renounce it entirely, to join peace negotiations.

Bearing in mind the Conservatives' willingness to cock a snoot at both the US and UK government over Syria, it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to see a situation where a Conservative government would be prepared to break bread with Hamas or indeed Hizbullah if it felt it was in the UK's wider interests. While describing Hizbullah as a terror group on the one hand, Lidington also insists it is "an authentic movement," because of its strong electoral support, and as such would have to be part of any Middle East peace settlement.

"You cannot disentangle Hizbullah from broader questions of the Middle East. If you think about prospects of a deal between Israel and Syria over the Golan you can sketch quite easily the territorial demarcation lines; but I cannot see any Israeli government finalizing a deal without some firm assurances concerning the supply of arms to Hizbullah across Syrian territory. When you start getting into that discussion you're immediately talking about the relationship of Hizbullah to Iran as well. These are all part of a broader regional picture."

Whether you see the Conservative Party's "more sober assessment" of the region's future as a long overdue correction or a contradictory and indeed dangerous policy, one thing is certain: The West now appears to view the idea of Middle East democracy with the same disdain it once had for Soviet Communism. It is fast becoming the doctrine that can no longer speak its name in this part of the world.
Michael Glackin is former manging editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star

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