Europe and the Middle East are not condemned to fight
From Pax Romana to the universal Islamic caliphate, from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana: It is a constant feature of great powers throughout history to believe that their greatness entitles them, if not creates a duty, to impose their ways and beliefs on others.
None, however, succeeded in imprinting their DNA upon those they subjugated. This was and is the lesson of history but we still refuse to learn it.
The broader Middle East only became of direct concern to the West as the Ottoman empire declined and the demand for oil exploded.
The West grasped it, exploited it and blew it. From North Africa to Afghanistan, people know from bitter experience that when they have trusted us, we — the French and the British till the 1950s, the United States thereafter — have too often betrayed that trust.
There is something deep within the Western psyche that mistrusts Islam and Islamic nations. Alexis de Tocqueville and Karl Marx shared such views. The former was lucid but explained that France must project its power in Africa to regain international prestige lost in the collapse of Napoleon’s empire.
The broader Middle East was thus set to become the stage upon which European fantasies would play out until the disastrous 1956 Suez campaign destroyed French and British influence in the region.
Arguably, the most single failure of Western policy in the late 20th century has been our reluctance to criticise Israel when that country’s behaviour merited it. That is central to the local perception of Western foreign policy in the Middle East.
The West loves to lecture the region on democracy, human rights and the rule of law only to discard such lofty principles when the shoe does not fit. When it sells chemical weapons to Iraq in the 1980s and uses drones, it shows utter contempt for Arab lives.
Twenty-five years ago, Operation Desert Storm successfully evicted Iraqi occupying forces from Kuwait. The US-led coalition was large, comprised many Arab countries and mandated by the United Nations. It was legitimate but only effective in the short term because it allowed Saddam Hussein to turn on the Shias and denied the Iraqi people the opportunity to overthrow the dictator.
Fifteen years ago, the US-led operation in Afghanistan was legally legitimate but not effective.
The United States and the United Kingdom were justified in removing the Taliban from power but what happened in the 14 years that followed defies rational explanation.
In 2003, the US-British invasion of Iraq failed on all counts. It was premised on a lie and badly damaged transatlantic relations. Iraq’s army, civil service and oil industry were destroyed.
Handing power to the repressed Shias turned out to be disastrous. The regional consequences have been catastrophic.
In 2011, the West “stayed until the job was done” in Libya without defining what the job was. Our intervention was legal but the authority of NATO, which backed it, was not and it was illegal to support regime change. This severely undermined NATO’s constitutional credibility and was the beginning of the continuing signing up to alternative governments that have no credibility or durability. This made the West look foolish.
In Bahrain and in Yemen, we are backing the Saudis against Shias. We know that Sunni Saudi Arabia is the spiritual, if not the actual, home of Wahhabi extremism but wring our hands and say there is nothing we can do about it. The intensely sectarian civil war into which the region has descended will be long-lasting.
The bitter stalemated Israeli- Palestine dispute has lost none of its power to inspire hatred but has been joined by other conflicts of equal or greater intensity. Western involvement will invite reaction from either or both sides of this civil war, reaction on the ground but also reactions within the Muslim communities in various European countries.
For better or worse, the states of the region have seized control of their own destiny. Tolerance is almost everywhere in retreat. Passionate divisions favour extremism and the continuation of conflict.
One of the first lessons that European leaders must learn is that you do not have to go to war to be a great leader. The recent agreement between the West and Iran offers a glimmer of hope. It is worth recalling the Chinese classic the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which opens with these words: “Empires wax and wane; states cleave asunder and coalesce”.
The United States and Europe are implicated in many of the current conflicts but in none of them do they play a decisive role. More than the United States, Europe must be mindful of the unintended consequences for its own security of intervening in southern rim Mediterranean countries. It is already bearing the consequences of the conflicts in the region because of the mass migration to our shores of refugees fleeing war or their iniquitous states. Europe and the Middle East are not condemned to fight.