Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Nations Must Know When to Cringe and Crawl—But for the West It’s Becoming Routine

By Barry Rubin

Sometimes selective appeasement is necessary in foreign policy. But when and just how far should a democratic country go in such behavior? Here’s a brilliant defense of giving in at times—which doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with it, but I do respect it—and a recent example of how it’s overdone and mistakenly carried out nowadays.

The Times of London article is by George Walden, a former British diplomat and Conservative member of parliament with a lot of international experience. Let’s consider what he says and how we should interpret it.
The title tells a great deal: “We can’t afford the moral high ground: "In tough economic times, Britain cannot be too picky about whom it does business with.” In other words, the West is much weaker than it used to be and is often the beggar in these relationships with Third World dictatorships.

At times this is true, but at other times craven behavior is unnecessary and dangerous. Indeed, as I’ve often pointed out, the sense of Western weakness (the West cannot do anything) and cowardice (it won’t do anything) is Viagra for aggressive regimes—from Venezuela through Russia and the Middle East to North Korea--and revolutionary groups.

Here are Walden’s vivid examples:

1. The British government had to persuade an enraged Saudi king that the showing on television of a program about his government’s nasty beheading of a princess did not reflect official British views. He writes: “Being careful not to apologize for something over which the Government had no control, in the hope of reversing a devastating trade ban and other sanctions.” This is the right way to handle it, explaining without apologizing and also, one might add, without censoring. Note, however, how often this line has been crossed more recently by the United States and European governments.

2. A cordial meeting with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, “Despite what we knew of Saddam’s crimes, not just against his own people but in London, where his goons were busy poisoning dissidents.” In this case the action was strategic as well as trade-oriented. The British government did it, “Because he was at war with Iran, because the Russians were in Afghanistan and — who knew? — en route for the Gulf; and because, for historical reasons, our exports to Iraq were rather large.”

Supporting Iraq against Iran during the 1980-1988 war was a correct decision. The great mistake though, as I have argued in great detail elsewhere (Cauldron of Turmoil; The Tragedy of the Middle East) was to continue that behavior after 1988, errors that helped produce Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In other words, strategic appeasement has to be carefully limited and, of course, used only with countries which are actually doing something useful to you, not your enemies (Iran) or those who promise benefits and never deliver (Syria).
3. The British government also “countenanced with little more than a noisy protest the barbarously sophisticated assassination of a British citizen in London, Alexander Litvinenko. Why? Partly because to have taken it farther would have jeopardized our exports to a fast-growing market, where the largest company in Britain, BP, had extensive investments.” The same thing happened in the case of a Libyan embassy employee murdering a British policewoman in cold blood.

I’d say this is going too far. Looking the other way while one of your citizens—and especially one of your own civil servants--is murdered on your territory out of purely commercial considerations seems too craven and a violation of the government’s promise to protect its own people.

4. Prime Minister Tony Blair overrode, “The law of the land in unprecedented fashion to protect the Saudi Royal Family from a corruption investigation in connection with a BAE deal. Legally it was a scandal, but to do otherwise would have put a huge defense contract at risk (you could hear the French salivating), not to speak of the incidental disadvantage of severing anti-terrorist cooperation with Riyadh, which the Saudis had blatantly threatened.”

I think this was a mistake, though perhaps the investigation might have been slowed or reduced in scope. When dictatorships get you to break your own laws like that it is subverting your own society. As for anti-terrorist cooperation, I suspect reasonably that this was more a Saudi than a British benefit. Beware of letting a dictatorship charge you for a service which is more useful to them than to you.

5. The deal allowing a Libyan terrorist in the Lockerbie plane incident go free in exchange for an oil deal with Libya. This is a serious error because not only does it make clear you can be bought and sold but also encourages future terrorist attacks. This—not the attack on Iraq—is the real blood for oil scandal.

Ironically, of course, when once Western states conducted gunboat diplomacy to protect investments and citizens while also to open markets, today the exact opposite occurs. (Is a terrorist attack the equivalent of a modern gunboat?) Walden rightly notes, “We would do well to understand this, because the international moral climate seems destined to become more brutal at roughly the same rate as our economic vulnerability increases.”

One should ask if Western imperialism has been replaced by Third World imperialism. Wow, that’s a good subject to study, isn’t it? Let’s get the academics , journalists, and intellectuals on it right away: Once upon a time North America and Europe were at times aggressive bullies but now that torch has been passed to a variety of radical dictatorships in the Third World. They are guilty of Westophobia, anti-Western racism, opposition to diversity, and a variety of other sins. I hope you can see the potential in this line of inquiry for turning the contemporary Western debate upside down.

But I digress. Walden makes clear regarding his examples: “I am not talking about wars, so much as how sovereign nations deal with one another in conditions of formal peace. “ But I’d go further than this: one can justify concessions or even what seems like appeasement in exchange for something tangible provided by an ally, even if somewhat odious and temporary. (The prime example is the alliance with Stalin’s USSR during World War Two.)

Yet such gifts should never be given to enemies—even in conditions of formal peace—who are trying to destroy the friends and influence of one’s own countries. The reason is that given the most practical considerations, such steps will strengthen the enemies and make them redouble their efforts to attack and undermine.

While acknowledging that Great Britain and America have done wrong things themselves, Walden explains—this should be obvious but unfortunately isn’t:

“Those who look forward eagerly (pop stars and theatre folk very much included) to the demise of the Anglo-American model and the emergence of a multipolar world should pause and consider where exactly these new poles of power are to be located, and how they are likely to behave when they feel the post-colonial boot transferring to the other foot.”

He also notes that some Western countries will merely step in even if others engage in sanctions. Of course, this is a problem in the Iran case with Russia and China.

One error I think Walden makes is to attribute the demand for more moralism as coming from pop stars and cosmopolitan elitists. Yet while such groups may find a cause like saving the whales or freeing Tibet congenial, it seems that nowadays they are more often on the other side, demanding kindness to dictatorships and tolerance of terrorists.

Indeed, given the five cases he cites above, I cannot identity a single one of the “beautiful people” who were outraged and demanded tougher action against Saddam, the Saudis, Libya, or for that matter Venezuela, Russia (over its attack on Georgia, for instance), Iran, or Syria (given its terrorist intimidation of Lebanon.

Tellingly he concludes:

“I am not suggesting we ease our moral joints in preparation to incline the knee in multiple directions. I simply draw attention to the widening gap between our predilection for national outrage and our power for action, and inquire how we propose to bridge it….Above all ask yourself how you would explain your ethical one-upmanship to an-out-of-work aviation technician/oil man/fork lift truck driver in the North of England.”

This made me think of the impoverished British mill workers who demanded sanctions against the Confederacy during the American Civil War because they opposed slavery, even though refusing to buy Southern cotton made them unemployed. Are today's workers made of the same stuff as their ancestors, even if the elite doesn't live up to its forbears?

So often we see that what is going on, though, is not dictated by clever strategy but a belief system in which “my country right or wrong” (yes I know the rest of the quote about putting it right if it isn’t) becomes “my country always wrong.” This is what the late J.B. Kelly called the “preemptive cringe” as policy.

And so State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley who never apologized to undermining a democratic friend of the United States did so to Libya. After that country’s daffy dictator Muammar Qadhafi threatened jihad against Switzerland because that country merely wanted to sustain its rule of law against his son’s criminal behavior while on a visit, Crowley made some mildly derogatory remarks.

But once Libya threatened actions against U.S. businesses he backed down. So let’s get this straight. Switzerland briefly arrested one of Qadhafi’s sons on the charge of beating up hotel workers, Libya then kidnapped two Swiss businessmen, imposed a trade embargo on Switzerland, and barred EU citizens from visiting but the United States is apologizing to Libya.

Shouldn’t the United States be backing up brave little Switzerland? Apologizing, crawling, and appeasing should be reserved for those times when it is really required by a compelling national interest. Doing it too often can be habit-forming; teaching others that they can walk all over you to their profit.

Optional footnotes:

I resisted the temptation to make some reference about Walden's pond being turned into a swamp by excessive appeasement.

I also resisted the temptation to quip that P.J. O'Rourke would certainly make a better--certainly a more entertaining--State Department spokesman than P.J. Crowley. For those who don't know, O'Rourke is a bitterly acerbic and funny satirical writer.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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