The Middle East can be a policy graveyard for principled leaders because nowhere is there a more marked tension between, on the one hand, Western notions of tolerance and individual freedom, and on the other, the need for political stability and wealthy trading partners. The popular uprisings since 2011 have only served to throw the disconnect between principle and pragmatism into even sharper focus. How does one reconcile active NATO support for the overthrow of the reprehensible Qadhafi regime and yet virtual silence over the discrimination and persecution of the Shi'a majority in Bahrain by the minority Sunni government? Totally different autocracies certainly, but autocracies nonetheless.
The truth is that we don't attempt to reconcile thsee double standards, because the unfortunate reality is that we need allies in the region. And if we only allied ourselves with secular liberal democracies like ourselves, we would be friendless in the region.
But at least there should be some public acknowledgment by Western leaders of the lack of political, religious and personal freedom practiced by our allies and the fact that this is one of the main causes of the ongoing turmoil in the region. President Obama said it in a nice way during his 2009 Cairo University speech, while then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was more direct at the American University of Cairo in 2005 when she said that 'for 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.' The US is still achieving neither after 70 years, but at least its leaders occasionally have the gumption to highlight the West's collective dilemma and reasoned hypocrisy.
Which is what made a recent speech by ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair rile so many observers of the region. Entitled 'Why the Middle East Matters', it is a pretty simplistic view of the need to combat Islamism (as opposed to Islam) and to promote 'our' humanist values. However, one bit sticks out for its 'what is he thinking?' impact (emphasis mine):
Elsewhere across the region we should be standing steadfast by our friends and allies as they try to change their own countries in the direction of reform. Whether in Jordan or the Gulf where they're promoting the values of religious tolerance and open, rule based economies, or taking on the forces of reaction in the shape of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, we should be supporting and assisting them.
Hang on a sec: is this the same Gulf where, in Saudi Arabia, non-Muslim expatriate workers are not allowed to build a single house of worship? Where Bahraini Shi'a are kept out of political power and effectively blocked from joining the security forces? Where Kuwaiti middlemen finance Salafist jihadists in Syria? Where Qatar supports the anti-Shi'a invective of the Arabic version of al Jazeera? At least Blair didn't have the nerve to claim that these countries were promoting democratic values.
Blair has been criticised from pillar to post for his speech. Besides being poorly constructed, it is revealing for what it says about the mindset of some who look at the region from without and try to selectively judge 'good' and 'bad' autocrats.
Realpolitik dictates that we make friends with countries which may share our interests but not the political and societal values that we in the West cherish most. There is not necessarily anything wrong with that. But when dealing with the region, and the Gulf in particular, we shouldn't confuse shared interests with shared values, and we certainly shouldn't give praise when it is not deserved. To do so is to make our values as negotiable as our interests. The US has on occasion sought to differentiate between the two; Blair's speech encourages the feeling that there are many current and former leaders who don't.
Photo by Flickr user Chatham House.