On the BBC recently, a reporter interviewed two young Syrian women outside a café in Syria’s capital Damascus, both wore modern, trendy clothes, make-up and had their hair uncovered. One women supported President Assad and said that the presence of government soldiers made her feel safe, the other women supported the rebels and believed that government forces had used the chemical weapons that killed some 1400 people on the 21st August. Neither women had any worries about openly speaking to a BBC journalist and voicing their opinions, despite one of them being highly critical of Assad’s Baathist regime.
This brief interview reminded me of similar ones I saw conducted with young students and women in Baghdad, Iraq in 2003, just before the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ blew much of the city to pieces as part of the West’s attack on Saddam Hussein in the cause of regime change and, as it transpired, a pointless search for weapons of mass destruction. Young, educated and intelligent Western style men and women were also interviewed in Tunisia prior to their Arab Spring moment, and in Gaddafi’s Libya and Mubarak’s Egypt, with some of the women in particular being noticeably free of the usual veils and other trappings of Islamic culture that one often expects to see worn. This is perhaps because a by-product of arab dictatorships and Baathist states, was that any dissent or movements like radical Islam or  other forms of religious zealotry which might challenge the existing status quo were ruthlessly crushed. This was bad for democracy, civil rights, and kurdish tribesmen but ironically good for women, order and preserving the nation state.

Now those women and young men are mainly silent, the women in particular are donning headscarfs and veils again, and the young men are joining armed militias, or have become radicalised as they see their once stable country descend into a mix of social chaos, car bombings, social breakdown and anarchy. Their only other option being to get out of the country and start a new life somewhere else. For many the hope and euphoria offered by an ‘Arab Spring’ has given way to despair and disappointment, with ideas and dreams of democracy now replaced by ideologues and mob rule.

For nearly twenty years the West has chastised and lambasted the dictatorships of Mubarak and Gaddafi and the quasi fascist Baathist regimes of Hussein and Assad, while ignoring the ills of undemocratic fiefdoms like Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the basis that they supply the West with oil, have copious amounts of money and often act as Middle Eastern power brokers when we need some quiet, behind the scenes diplomacy to smooth things over arab style. 

These, undemocratic regimes, whilst not ideal, suited the arab peoples, and would perhaps, with time, have evolved in their own way to be more ‘democratic’ and ‘western’, or equally, given the current climes, have become less democratic and more ‘Islamic’, again depending on the which direction the winds of change were blowing, The Shah of Iran, was famously pro Western, but also like Assad, and Mubarak, a bit of a dictator with a reputation for being harsh with dissenters and critics. So for the Shah, change came wearing black robes, a long beard and a good line in religious zealotry. 

When the Shah and his family fled Iran he also found that the West’s friendship is pretty much worthless with many countries simply slamming the door shut in his face when he came to seek shelter. Equally Iran’s highly educated female students, doctors and academics suddenly found that their Persian beauty and luscious locks really upset the Ayatollah’s fanatical fans and were forced to stop what they doing, act dumb, cover up, and literally burqa-off! 

Indeed ever since the Shah’s hasty exit from Iran the West has seemed to stumble from one ill-advised debacle to another, from Reagan’s sending of US troops to Lebanon in 1982, an act of folly that resulted in the deaths of 241 US marines in a single day,  to Operation Desert Storm in 1991 – a war that disastrously failed to finish what it had started and consequently paved the way  for the chaotic state of Western involvement in the Middle East ever since.

Two decades of well-intentioned military and diplomatic manoeuvring has followed, some good, but most disruptive and ineffectual at best, and at worst, alienating and sowing the seeds of further conflict. This period heralded in a new kind of Western military approach where political correctness and a desire to do the right things has resulted in a kind of war-engagement lite with Western forces desperate not to be seen as imperialist or anti-Islamic. 
Military commanders are now often as wary of human rights lawyers and sexual equality violations in the ranks as they are about roadside bombs and snipers. 

Indeed, no sooner had the world seen the US and their Allies go into Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003, then everyone involved wanted out as fast as possible. The fact that ten years later the Allies have made little real progress in bringing the war to a proper conclusion based on a definable victory and are instead desperately trying to extract themselves fully from Iraq and Afghanistan is made even worse with the knowledge that as soon as the last Western soldier leaves that both countries tenuous grip on order will go and chaos will ensue. 

The other legacy of Afghanistan and Iraq is that both wars have not only made the Allies timid and scared when it comes to further involvement in the Middle East generally but have created an almost phobic reaction when it comes to ‘boots on the ground’, a mindset that led directly to the Allied enforced no-fly zone over Libya in 2011 as that way the West could be seen to be doing something but without any real risk to Western lifes. It was also a perfect example of the West’s increasing obsession with being seen to be doing the right thing, not just by ourselves, but by our enemies as well. 

Nolonger can we fight a war to defeat an enemy and win the peace, now Allied forces must win hearts and minds as well. Enemy culture and religions must be respected and the horrors of war hidden by ‘surgical strikes’, ‘precision bombing’ and drones, and amongst all this targeted killing, wars that used to take days or weeks to resolve now drag on for years, with, bar a few selected deaths and the occasional ‘collateral damage’, deaths, particularly Allied deaths, kept to ‘acceptable’ levels.  It is as if the Middle East were some grotesque video game in which players ‘take out’ opponents but lose points if they whack a civilian and at each level of the game the difficulties increase and the rules change slightly. The players also don’t know how many levels there are or what they have to do to win? So as games go this one could go on and on.

It is telling that after George Bush’s much maligned ‘War on Terror’ and numerous verbal faux pas’s, that President Obama has been acutely careful not only to do the absolute right thing, always, but to take no risks either, in case the risk also proves to be wrong. President Obama’s choice of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State has been equally safe, as in effect by spending her time flying around the world she has been championing Obama’s world view that the American President, and by extension the American people, represent ‘like’ rather than ‘might’. As Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton has effectively shaken lots of hands and clocked up lots of air miles, but in terms of foreign policy, she, and by extension, President Obama, have done nothing other than pursue the ‘like me’ agenda.

This emphasis on being liked also explains the US’s embracing of the Arab Spring from the outset, firstly in Tunisia, then as it was fanned by Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites, in Egypt and Libya. Both Obama and Clinton could see that the bad guys in this populist scenario were Mubarak and Gaddafi, and despite Mubarak’s previous pro Western stance, he was, like the Shah before him, unceremoniously dumped by the US and UK.  This was X-factor politics writ large, the people wanted Mubarak and Gaddafi out and the West, seeing a chance to be both popular and populist at the same time, obliged. What the West hadn’t thought through, as they hadn’t with Iraq and Afghanistan either, was
happens next?  

The US and the West’s championing of the Arab Spring had allowed the Arab peoples to became intoxicated by the idea that change was not only possible but desirable and that if the old regimes resisted and fought back then the US and the West, as they did in Libya, would step in to make change happen. Indeed the West’s intelligentsia and politicians really should have known better, but they were so caught up with creating a new arab style “I Have a Dream” moment that reality was put on hold for the duration. Or at least until Gaddafi was dragged out of a storm drain and shot in the head and Christopher Stephens, the US ambassador in Benghazi, Libya, was murdered by a militia led mob. By the time Egypt and Libya began to collapse into violence and anarchy and Syria’s arab spring moment had gone from street protest to all-out civil war the West knew that they had messed up. In computer game terms, they were back at the beginning with the highest difficult level possible imposed. Not a good place to be.

Syria, in fact, had ruined everything in the ‘nice’ stakes. Up until recently the West was somehow managing to avoid the elephant in the room that is Egypt, and the US’s illustrious Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, had conveniently stepped down to prepare for a run at the Presidency in 2016 thereby avoiding anything too unpleasant in the way of questions as to why Ambassador Stephens had been left unprotected in Libya… Then civilians started being gassed in Syria and the West finally had to face up to the mess they had inadvertently done so much to create.

Syria’s crisis is too extreme to be ignored for there is no disputing the ghastliness of a gas attack or, horrifically, a napalm bomb in a school playground. Yet with no concrete evidence that it was Assad’s troops that were responsible for the gas attack and the legacy of two decades of misadventure in the Middle East the West is naturally reluctant to get involved and to take action against Syria. Yet having said that it would and should get involved and bomb ‘selected’ Assad targets, the West’s consensus driven political leaders are now showing democracy and leadership at its worst, and back-tracking as fast as they can. Now damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

In the UK having rushed to get a vote for an, in my opinion, ill-advised attack on Syrian military targets as a way of punishing Assad and his regime for allegedly using chemical weapons, UK MPs have now effectively lost their nerve and rejected any possibility of war. In the US, President Obama, ever mindful of doing the right thing and conversely of not doing the wrong thing, has skilfully absolved himself of responsibility and put it to congress who can now vote for or against military action against Syria. 

A great hurrah has greeted this Presidential act of smoke and mirrors, while in the UK MPs are saving face by congratulating themselves that they have reinvigorated the constitution and stood up for democracy and peace. Yet this is not democracy, it is a kind of dumbmockracy, in which fear of making and taking an unpopular decision has made weak and fallacious men present themselves to the world as strong and resolute when in fact they are neither. Democracy is about doing and standing up for what you believe to be right even if they are unpopular, or in this instance possibly wrong. Better to have said they would do nothing. 

For the last twenty years the West’s foreign policy has struggled to balance its new values of political correctness and anti imperialism with both its past and the growing threat of radical Islam within a volatile Middle East. In this the West has been helped considerably by the weakness of a Russia struggling to adapt to its post communist self, and a China where communist orthodoxy was being sublimated by a rush to embrace wealth and capitalism. 

Both countries transformational difficulties ensured that the West has had almost twenty years of being top dog and to establish its new power base and adapt its evolved democratic doctrine to the needs of a 21st Century world. Instead it has frittered away its years of strength by worrying about enforcing and championing issues of sexual politics, political correctness and climatic change and being liked rather than concentrating and consolidating itself as the doctrine of power regardless of whether that made them ‘liked’. 

In the background, while the West has been agonising and theorising about governing and exercising its power in a consensual way, other countries have been adapting and growing in strength. Now a reinvigorated Russia and China, along with an empowered Iran, sit behind President Assad’s Syria and watch as the West’s key countries and  the world’s current superpower try to avoid doing what they think is right in order to avoid, effectively, making an unpopular decision. This is niceness at any price and by pursuing this option the West is creating not a safer and fairer world, but are showing off their weaknesses. By doing so they are potentially heralding in a darker and more fractious world. A world in which new old powers will soon re-assert themselves and the established ones will rue the day that they chose to be Mr Nice over Mr Nasty.

© Nigel Wingrove, 2013