Addressing the nation in the run-up to Christmas, Prime Minister David Cameron lamented Britain’s ‘moral collapse’, and called for a revival of traditional values. He might have considered that Britain’s foreign policy, marred by a recent catalogue of failures, was a good place to start.
In three important areas of policy — relations with the Palestinians, with the Islamic Republic of Iran and with the European Union — Britain has displayed a dismaying mix of hypocrisy, ineptitude and bluster.
It is widely recognised that, of all the conflicts in the Middle East, the unresolved Palestine problem is one of the most deserving of urgent international action. But it has been allowed to fester, inflicting great suffering on the captive Palestinian population and poisoning relations between the West and the Arab and Muslim world.
Britain bears a historic responsibility for the problem since, having assumed a Mandate over Palestine after the First World War, it then encouraged and protected Jewish immigration, leading to the creation of the State of Israel. Over the past several decades, the Palestinians have struggled to recover for themselves some small part of historic Palestine. Their failure to do so in the face of Israeli obduracy has unsettled the whole region and been the source of repeated clashes, massacres and full-scale wars, as well as an uncounted number of violent incidents.
Despairing of reaching a negotiated settlement with Israel’s right-wing government and its constituency of violent, land-grabbing colonists — and abandoned by the US, more than ever in thrall to pro-Israeli lobbies — the Palestinians turned in recent months to the UN Security Council. Their aim was to become the UN’s 194th member state, in the belief that this would help free them from Israeli occupation and hasten their long-delayed independence.
Had Britain shown any courage or clarity of vision — let alone a sense of history — it would have taken the lead in supporting the Palestinian bid. Instead, it decided to abstain at the Security Council. In Parliament, Foreign Secretary William Hague repeated the old bankrupt adage that Palestinian statehood “could only be brought about by negotiations with the Israelis”. This is blatant hypocrisy since Israel, by far the stronger power, is totally opposed to Palestinian statehood and to a negotiated peace, which would mean ceding territory. It wants land — and still more Palestinian land. Only serious international pressure, including sanctions, might make Israel yield.
When last November, 107 countries voted to admit Palestine to full membership of the UN’s cultural agency Unesco, Britain abstained, joining, in doing so, with such international movers and shakers as Andorra, Cape Verde, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, San Marino, Togo and Tonga. Such is the company in which Britain evidently finds itself comfortable, rather than with Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, France, Spain, Ireland, Norway and the Arab countries, who all voted in favour of Palestinian membership. Britain’s shameful abstention can only be explained as a ‘moral collapse’ to US and Israeli pressure.
Britain’s hostile policy towards Iran is even more baffling than its abject Palestinian policy. Ahead of other Western hawks, it has ordered British banks and financial institutions to sever relations with Iran’s Central Bank, thereby adding to international tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme. When angry Iranian students stormed the British embassy, Britain closed its mission in Tehran and ordered the closure of the Iranian embassy in London. Relations are now at a 20-year low.
What purpose has been served by Britain’s intemperate action? It has killed Britain’s trade with a leading Gulf economy of close to 80 million people and it has reinforced the image Iranians have of Britain as a bullying and manipulative old fox. If you trip over a stone in the road, warns a Persian proverb, it was put there by an Englishman — as the Financial Times reminded its readers in a recent leader.
Will Britain’s action persuade Iran to give up its nuclear activities? Nothing is less likely. Economic sanctions such as Britain has adopted are unlikely to deflect it from seeking to defend itself in what is a hostile strategic environment. Surrounded by nuclear-armed states and under constant threat of attack by Israel and its US ally, Iran seems determined to acquire a measure of protection, most probably by moving closer to a nuclear-weapons capability — but short of actually building a bomb.
Israel, however, wants no challenge to its regional nuclear monopoly. Backed by the US, it is determined to maintain its local hegemony and its freedom to strike its neighbours at will. Its policy is clear: the West must ratchet up ‘crippling sanctions’ on Iran to put an end to its nuclear ambitions or Israel will itself attack. Britain has, alas, succumbed to this blackmail.
Just as Britain should take the lead in putting serious pressure on Israel to concede Palestinian statehood —- for Israel’s own ultimate good — so it should seek by creative diplomacy to tame the dangerous tensions with Iran, which threaten to lead to war.
Iran’s geographical location, its oil resources and sheer size contribute to making it a major Gulf power. Rather than seeking to sanction and isolate it, Britain and its allies should engage with it, beginning with an admission of its regional importance and its legitimate security concerns.
Saudi Arabia should cooperate with Iran in stabilising this vital region and should not allow outside powers to cast them as rivals. Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council should be encouraged to draw Iran into the region’s security architecture. It is surely time for London to break with the stale and dangerous thinking of the US and Israel on this important subject.
Britain’s European policy is as much of a fiasco as its policies in Palestine and Iran. At a European summit in Brussels in early December, France and Germany proposed to tackle the EU’s sovereign debt crisis and save the euro with a treaty providing for greater economic discipline and closer fiscal integration between EU members. But Cameron, unable to secure the exemptions he wanted for the City of London, cast his veto against the plan. The Eurozone’s 17 members then decided to ignore Britain and press ahead with drafting a ‘fiscal compact’ by next March, outside the EU’s legal framework.
What has ‘bulldog’ Cameron achieved? He has largely excluded Britain from economic decision-making in Europe and diminished its influence in the rest of the world. At home, he has opened up a rift in his governing coalition between euro-sceptics in his Conservative party and pro-European Liberal Democrats. If the euro-sceptics get their way, they could take Britain out of the EU altogether. Above all, Cameron has dealt a major blow to the dream of a united and powerful Europe able to hold its own in a world of emerging giants like China, India and Brazil. So much for the triumphs of British diplomacy!
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs, including Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.