Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008. Follow Garvan on Twitter.
What do they put in the tea at King Charles Street? In January, as Syria’s civil war got bloodier, and Egypt’s constitutional crisis worsened, William Hague was persuaded to tell the Americans that a two state solution should be “highest priority” for foreign policy. Now, as Egypt stands on the brink of its own civil war, the same substance must have been deposited in State Department’s urns, spurring John Kerry to pile up untold air miles as he superintend s negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la politique étrangère.
Unlike the excellent and courageous staff in the field, diplomats at foreign ministry headquarters remain inexplicably attached Israeli-Palestinian peace not merely as good in itself, but also of the highest strategically importance. This is a grave mistake. It’s not the peace process, but the chaos in Egypt and Syria, that should be the highest priority in the Middle East.
In the United States, the diplomats must contend with an assertive senate populated by men like John McCain, who has rightly demanded American military aid be cut off, and a powerful National Security Adviser. In Britain, the Foreign Office has a virtual monopoly. Number 10 would be wise to let the astute Daniel Korski, recently been appointed to work on the rather fatuous “global race,” use his serious foreign policy chops to make the balance a little less unequal.
During the last week, events in Egypt have taken a decidedly dangerous turn. In a revival of Mubarak era intimidation, a private prosecution of Mohammed el-Baradei has been launched. The Army’s repeated massacres of Brotherhood supporters (and what appear to be deliberate killings of the children of the Brotherhood’s leaders) only make sense as an attempt to provoke the Brothers to violence. Perhaps they are betting that their superior manpower and equipment will allow them to win. If so they’re in error. That superiority only guarantees that the violence will take the form of guerilla war, waged perhaps by the Brothers themselves, or else by more extreme Islamists who will soon start paying unemployed young Egyptian men to plant roadside bombs and drive trucks packed with explosives through Cairo. General al-Sisi says he’s fighting a war against terrorism. It looks like he’s going to get one.
Foreign policy can’t make new Egyptian politicians, but it could have, if focused, changed the circumstances in which they work. Though the collapse of Arab dictatorships is as important a strategic event as the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, the West has failed to respond on the same scale or with the same strategic clarity. First of all scale: it hasn’t redirected its aid programmes and trade policy not only to give practical support to reform and ease the post-revolutionary economic crisis, but to give itself clout. It missed the opportunity to give Egypt’s power brokers a direct interest in progress. Now, seeking to influence Egypt’s generals, Washington, Brussels and London find they have few taps to turn off. Then strategic clarity: in defiance of our values and history, we’ve provided little practical support for representative democracy, human rights and the rule of law, while Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been resolute in undermining them. Qatar’s has chosen as its ally the anti-democratic Leninists of the Muslim Brotherhood, while Riyadh behaves like a latter-day Tsarist Russia, sending troops to crush the uprising in Bahrain, and treasure to revive Egypt’s military dictatorship. Words asking the generals to stick to the “roadmap for transition” count rather less than cold hard cash. Promises to “do something” for the Palestinians count even less.
In Syria, of course, Qatar’s and Saudi’s proxies fight more or less together against the increasingly Iran-dependent Assad. There, unlike in Libya, the West missed its opportunity to intervene when limited military force might have had some effect, and won it credibility and effective allies. The consequences are strategic as well as humanitarian – as today's atrocious news of the use of chemical weapons reminds us. A victorious Assad wouldn’t merely wage a war of punishment against those of his subjects that survived the war; it would also entrench Tehran’s hegemony, through Hezbollah, to the Mediterranean sea. Meanwhile the more successful rebels have become so extreme that should they succeed, the consequences would scarcely be better, either for Syrians or the rest of the world.
Yet our Middle East policy remains stuck in 1991, obsessed with the peace process. Though obstacles shouldn’t be put in the way of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, in today’s Middle East, with the civil war in Syria — having killed over a hundred thousand — spilling over into Lebanon; with political violence returning to Iraq, and now with Egypt on the brink of disaster, it’s a distraction.