Global Britain Must Remain Engaged With the Middle East | Adam Bruton
“Intervention” has become something of a dirty word in mainstream political discourse. Politicians of the left and right rail against Western presence in the Middle East, and any military action that occurs beyond timid increases of troop numbers is usually limited to ineffectual, civilian-killing drone strikes and pointless sanctions. However, if we were to take the demands of many libertarians (with whom I usually am aligned) to their logical end-point – a total disengagement from the Middle East – it would be a disaster of untold magnitude. Global Britain must not succumb to the temptations of isolation, and should be firmly engaged with the Middle East.
No, this is not a call for that disastrously high-minded crusader mentality that led to the invasion of Iraq. Not only is the spread of ‘kittens-and-fudge based democracy’, as Jon Stewart put it, not the responsibility of Great Britain, or any Western power, it is not a sensible or practicable way to achieve the goal of liberation for those oppressed by dictatorship. Nor is this a call for a weak, yet popular ‘limited interventionism’ – drone strikes, funding of opposition forces etc. – as this tends to do nothing but prolong a conflict and put civilian lives at risk. However, total disengagement, especially in the Middle East of today, will lead to the West facing far larger crises in the future.
Take Egypt: despite controlling one of the world’s most important waterways, and being blessed with some of the most fertile land on Earth, the country is falling apart. Over 30% of its population live in extreme poverty, the military is spread thin fighting a losing war with the Islamic State in Sinai and propping up Khalifa Haftar’s rebel government in Libya, and its public administration is perhaps the worst it has been since before the colonial era, setting the scene for a nation on the verge of collapse. And the proverbial straw that will snap Egypt’s spine is the Renaissance Dam being built by Ethiopia. Not widely known among Britons, this levee on the Blue Nile will indeed provide East Africa with masses of hydroelectric power, but will also be a death knell to Egypt’s agricultural industry, employing 23% of the nation’s population. Some estimates suggest nearly 50% of Egypt’s agricultural land could be lost, which would cause starvation and deprivation on a scale unimaginable in modern times. Couple this with the fact that Egypt could, as has been discussed openly by the Egyptian government, invade Ethiopia to prevent this dam from being built, and realistically be militarily humiliated by the Ethiopian army, what you have on your hands is potentially one of the largest refugee crises since the War. Given how poorly the West has handled the Syrian refugee crisis, despite that country’s far smaller population, the collapse of the Egyptian state bodes serious consequences for Europe that they most likely will not be able to handle. In addition, one of the leading exporters of global Islamic terror, Erdoğan’s Turkey, is sure to take advantage of Egypt’s instability to support a Muslim Brotherhood-style coup to expand its sphere of influence further into the Mediterranean.
Or perhaps you prefer your jihads with a slice of Imamiyah? The Zulm-e Moallayan in Iran are increasingly flexing their muscles in the Middle East, and without a firmer Western response will dominate much of the region. Iraq, already weak and war-torn, is increasingly at the beck-and-call of Tehran, thanks to a spineless political elite and an ossified political system. Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebel group, in control of most of the major population centres in the country, are set to carry out a genocide of one of the oldest continuously-settled Jewish communities on Earth, and despite (or perhaps because of) a brutal and relentless Saudi terror bombing campaign, they show no signs of capitulating. Bashar al-Assad’s pro-Iranian regime seems set to hold power in Syria, leaving the anti-Iranian alliance of Gulf Arab states and Israel increasingly isolated. In a straight fight, Saudi Arabia, the main bulwark of anti-Iranian sentiment in the region, would most likely be annihilated – the Iranian army is better trained, fiercely nationalistic, and can use the horrific oppression of the Saudis to their Shi’ite citizens to its advantage. Indeed, the greatest weakness of Iran – its regime’s massive unpopularity domestically – might encourage more bellicosity on the part of the Ayatollah, by virtue of the fact that going down fighting is a greater honour than being replaced by a secular Şahist regime the Islamic Revolution owes its life to.
I hope I do not need to explain how a collapse of the Saudi state due to an Iranian invasion would be disastrous for the West, given that five of the seven most oil-rich countries, as well as the Straits of Hormuz, would lie within Iran’s control. What’s more, with the atrocious handling of Afghanistan’s civil war, the shifty nature of Pakistan, and no real opportunity for rapprochement with Russia, there would be no real means through which Iran could be encircled by Western forces. In essence, it would be a secure citadel of savagery and suffering.
Having elucidated the problems we face, I’m sure many would respond that Western intervention would not only fail to solve these problems, but often has laid the groundwork for these crises in the first place. I do not deny that Western action in the Middle East since Sykes-Picot has largely been a disaster, and a healthy degree of scepticism of anyone calling for Britain or the West to get involved yet again in another proxy war or civil conflict is perfectly understandable. However, it would be wrong to write off the principle of intervening based on the incompetence of actions past: Harold Shipman did not invalidate the principles of medicine, Game of Thrones Season 8 did not invalidate the principles of good television, and the Iraq War should not invalidate the principles of intervention. The West, with Britain at the helm, should remain engaged with the Middle East, and with some changes to how we approach intervention, we can ensure peace, stability, and prosperity for a region that desperately needs it.
The first change we must make is pursuing pragmatism in our dealings. The gravest error of the interventions of the early 21st Century was its idealism; that overnight we could turn a fascist dictatorship into a democracy run by the Iraqi or Afghan equivalent of Tim Farron. It was this that led to the United States rejecting the restoration of the Islamic Monarchy of M. Zaher Şah of Afghanistan, despite his overwhelming popularity with the Afghan people and his genuinely moderate approach to Islamic governance. Needless to say, their decision to establish an unpopular republic led by U.S.-approved puppet rulers has left Afghanistan so weak that the Taliban is arguably more powerful now than 20 years ago. Our goal should not be to establish liberal democracies, but merely safeguard regimes that respect the sovereignty of their neighbours and do not hold their people as slaves.
Secondly, we must pursue a more open policy to Middle Easterners more generally, to demonstrate the benefits of friendship with the West, and by extension, Western values. This means significant investment should be diverted to developing infrastructure, schools, hospitals, and other basic amenities, rather than purely military aid. In addition, where we do intervene militarily, we should act more in an advisory capacity, and act with much less unilateral abandon. This means abandoning the use of drone strikes, perhaps the singularly least-popular military tactic used by our forces abroad, as well as other military action done without the consent of the local government (as with the Soleymani killing). We should also be offering more in the way of scholarships and access to British universities, easing of work permits where appropriate, and friendship programmes between British and Middle Eastern schools, to ensure people ‘look West’ when seeking hope and opportunity.
Thirdly, we have to stand more steadfastly with our values. This might seem to contradict the point about pragmatism, but it actually goes hand-in-hand with it: the values of tolerance, voluntary association and personal liberty are not at odds with that of the principles of Islam, or Islamic governance of some form. However, they are greatly at odds with openly disregarding the horrific human rights abuses of the Saudi government, for example. The Saudi royals owe everything to us for not having befallen the same fate as the Iraqi monarchy (who were lynched and mutilated in the streets of Baghdad), and so we should not excuse their barbarity when it comes to their Shi’ite citizens, Lujayn al-Hađlul, Raif Badawi, and all others that they treat with such cruelty. We similarly should not lay out red lines we do not intend to follow-up on, as with the Syrian use of chemical weapons. It reeks of cowardice, as well as duplicity, and the people of the Middle East will not readily fight for us and our allies if they see us as a perfidious actor out to bleed the region dry.
The coming years present some of the greatest dangers to the stability of the Middle East, and if we do not act now Europe will face the consequences. It is time for Britain to stand firm as a friend of peace, freedom, and security in the Middle East.