The two faces of Britain’s foreign policy

Published in The Guardian (September 14th, 2011)

The air in Tripoli is heady with optimism. After 42 years of repressive and rapacious rule by Muammar Gaddafi, there is a mood of exhilaration despite the water shortages and power cuts that have plagued the city since the collapse of the dictator’s regime.

There is good cause for hope, even as the search for Gaddafi continues. The sensitive note struck by the country’s new leader on Monday night in Martyrs’ Square underlines the widespread desire for a better future. Mustafa Abdul Jalil spoke in the place where his predecessor delivered many of his most notorious rants, but the tone could not have been more different, nor the sentiments more encouraging.

Problems abound, not least the need to disarm militias with regional loyalties and the difficulties of reviving a resource-rich economy desecrated by one family’s kleptocracy without corruption and the creation of a new oligarchy. But for now, Libya has the best chance of emerging the biggest winner from the recent events that have swept north Africa and the Middle East.

Britain, along with France and their Nato allies, can take pride in a timely and restrained intervention that prevented a massacre and helped ensure the success of a popular uprising. This is endorsed by graffiti found in towns across Libya thanking David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy for their support; both leaders are probably more popular there than in their native lands at present. And they have rescued the cause of liberal interventionism from the morass of Iraq.

Given the coalition government’s stance on Libya, it is disappointing to witness its myopia over Bahrain. First, the prime minister rolls out the red carpet for the crown prince, welcoming him to Downing Street shortly after Saudi tanks rolled in to help quash protests against his family’s 200-year rule. Now a country that was recently shooting unarmed protesters in the streets is entertained at an arms fair in London, with an official delegation invited to cast its eye over the latest guns, communications and crowd control devices.

This makes no sense. Since the crackdown began six months ago, the Bahraini government has sought to promote itself as a reformist regime. But any positive steps it has taken have been undermined by its campaign of arbitrary arrests and the dismissal of protesters from their jobs, while there have been allegations of systematic abuse in prisons and a series of show trials before military courts. This is the place, remember, that persecuted doctors who went to the aid of injured protesters.

The situation in Bahrain is muddied by sectarian divisions and the proximity of Iran and Saudi Arabia. But such complications do not excuse Britain from abandoning its support for those seeking to overthrow oppression in the region. After all, we have seen what happens when principles in foreign policy are sacrificed for shady deals with despots, leaving our nation embroiled in torture and appeasing a dictator.

Britain presents an unpredictable face to the world, colluding in Gaddafi’s brutality one moment then bombing him the next. Now the mixed messages sent to those seeking fundamental human rights sow further confusion. It can only serve to fuel cynicism that our stance towards the Arab spring is based more on commerce than ethics.

The coalition government must rescue British foreign policy from the legacy of its predecessor. It showed courage and foresight over Libya – which makes it all the more disappointing to see its encouragement for the monarchy of Bahrain. People fighting for dignity and democracy deserve the same support, whether in Tripoli or Manama.

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