With Friends Like These,
Who Needs Enemies…!
There is an old saying that you should keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer. Looking at global foreign policy these days, it might be time to re-evaluate that principle. Sometimes it can be hard to understand the rationale behind foreign policy actions in a rapidly changing world, for those of us who are just ordinary citizens. Then again, judging by the "effectiveness" of some recent policies, it could be worthwhile for the global powers to re-think things as well…
Obviously, foreign policy is based on the idea of giving support to friends and taking punitive action towards enemies. But, despite what the hawks in the White House would have you think, it's rarely that simple. For one thing, friends can be less than reliable.
Or is it that, for all their sophisticated analysis, some Western powers just seemed to display incredibly bad judgment? How else would you explain the monotonous regularity with which one-time friends suddenly become public enemy number one? For example, Saddam Hussein has been categorised as a dictator responsible for the deaths of thousands of his own people, including the horrifying gas attacks on the Kurds at Halabjah.
So why is it that at that time, the "evil tyrant and dictator" was not held to account for his actions? Because he was a friend and ally of the West! And he was particularly important because he was seen as the counterweight to the perceived threat of the theocracy in Iran. So much so, that Western nations helped to arm and support him, even contributing to his capacity to develop what would later be the great (alleged) Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) - which would in turn be misused to justify the invasion of Iraq…
Confused? Don't be. It's all quite simple, though the hypocrisy involved is enough to confuse anyone. It's effectively summed up in the remark usually attributed to Kissinger (referring to some foreign tyrant who was being supported by the Americans), "He's a bastard, but he's our bastard". In other words, no matter how undemocratic or oppressive the ruler of a foreign country might be, as long as he contributes to some wider strategic policy goal for the US - e.g. securing oil supplies - he will not only be tolerated, but actively supported. Indeed, the US government will be apologists for his regime!
Alternatively, repressive or undemocratic governments will also be allowed to get on with the business of abusing their own populations, as long as they don't interfere with US interests. So the Taliban was allowed to pass laws forbidding women to work even if the consequence of that was poverty and starvation, for as long as they were not a strategic blip on the radar screen of American foreign policy.
But when September the 11th brought the consequences - in the most awful way, to America's doorstep - the situation changed. And now we are expected to believe that one of the primary reasons for US intervention in Afghanistan was to free its people, particularly women, from the oppression of the Taliban? The target audience outside the US certainly don't seem to believe it! Perhaps they are confused by the ongoing contradiction of US support for Saudi Arabia, whose record on democracy and women's rights, speaks for itself…
Politics may certainly make strange bedfellows, but foreign policy "friends" do not always deliver. An example is provided in the current US-Pakistan relationship, which fails to address the strange contradiction between a country that is spawning large numbers of extremists, and its government, which is the best friend of the West. And it's even worse when your friends double-cross you. For example, when you find out that not only has their chief nuclear scientist been selling nuclear technology secrets to all and sundry (including your enemies e.g. North Korea), but you are prevented from interrogating him directly by your friend! And to add insult to injury, you just have to pretend that that's okay with you…
Sometimes your friends let you down at the most awkward times, as the UK is currently finding out. With the G8 meeting taking place in July, Tony Blair is pushing hard to raise the profile, and the aid provided, to Africa. Doing this in an environment where questions are frequently asked about the effectiveness of aid which has already been provided, and the lack of good governance within African nations, is not always easy. So it is certainly not a good time for high-profile African allies to do anything other than provide good publicity for their Western supporters.
And yet, the Ethiopian government of Meles Zenawi is floundering at this critical time. In recent weeks, Addis Ababa has been in a state of emergency, after Ethiopian police killed 22 people, and arrested 600 anti-government demonstrators. For this to be happening in one of Africa's most stable countries, led by one of Tony Blair's Africa Commissioners, is potentially highly damaging. And yet, precisely because of the delicate state of negotiations, Ethiopia's Western allies have been wary of condemning the government's actions. It is left to Bob Geldof (political activist+musician), to question why someone as intelligent as Zenawi is allowing the situation to deteriorate so terribly, and to put the responsibility for the deaths and arrests squarely on the government's shoulders.
Condoning double standards can also come back to haunt you. While Britain and the US have been forced to reluctantly condemn atrocities committed by the Uzbek government, which recently unleashed its security forces and death squads on civilian protesters, they could not have been unaware of the nature of their Uzbek ally.
After all, the UK Ambassador there, Craig Murray, was withdrawn in 2004 for making known his deep disquiet over the Uzbek leadership's routine use of torture. But the regime's repressive actions were quietly overlooked because of the Uzbek govt's support for the "war against terror". Presumably referring only to anti-western terrorism, since internal terror appears to be a commonly-used government weapon against the Uzbek population! "This dismal record…made it clear from the start that Uzbekistan was never going to be a useful ally against terrorism" (the Independent). Many feel that Murray, penalised for his refusal to remain silent at the time, has been more than vindicated in his brave stance in taking on his own government's double standards.
And finally, while punitive action in foreign policy terms can involve confrontation at close quarters - as in Iraq - that may not always be the best policy, as the US is currently finding out. It seems that 60 percent of the American public now think that the war was not a good idea. Perhaps it would have been wiser to focus on long-distance measures such as targeted sanctions (rather than the blanket sanctions responsible for the deaths of so many Iraqi children), to make whatever point the US was trying to make.
Anyway, I suggest we update our original saying for foreign policy application in the 21st century. It could read - "Keep a close eye on your friends, and stay as far away as you can from your enemies!" Judging from the recent events, the West would do well to consider doing precisely that…
(R) thedailystar.net 2005