The violent death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of US forces on the first day of the month in some respects neatly closes the final chapter of a decade-long story.
Journalistic speculation aside, it is impossible yet to grasp the wider consequences. Bin Laden’s potency may for some years have been symbolic rather than operational. But his death provides an equally symbolic victory to the United States as a pictorial counterpart to the iconic image of passenger jets piercing the Twin Towers.
Beyond symbolism, however, where does it leave us?
As we consider the road ahead, we should seize this moment as a fresh opportunity for reflection at this crucial juncture in our relationship with the wider Arab and Islamic world. The spasm of triumphalism following Sunday’s news (with scenes of American crowds rejoicing not dissimilar to footage of an impassioned Arab street) betrayed a growing anxiety about what we now stand for, how far the West’s original mission has spread and to what extent we should involve ourselves in the direction of the Islamic world. For a decade now the gut desire for vengeance after 9/11 has mixed uncomfortably with the notion of a moral mission to spread democracy and advance humanity. So too have some ostensibly ethical raisons d’être for intervention rubbed awkwardly against real politik.
Engaged in an ill-defined mission in Libya, unsure of how to balance old alliances in the Middle East with the encouragement of democratic seeds, doubtful of our continuing relationship with Pakistan, and bearing the scars of Iraq and Afghanistan, many have been left wondering what values the West still purports to project and the veracity of our relationships.
Most recently, we confronted some of these questions with our intervention in Libya. Like many of the huge parliamentary majority who supported UK military action in that country on 21 March, I was not blind to some central inconsistencies. Indeed on the eve of that Commons debate I observed on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour that:-
The glaring difficulty is that it is nigh-on impossible to see how the UN’s stated objectives under Resolution 1973 can be achieved without the brutal dictator Gaddafi being ousted. Yet ‘regime change’ per se would be illegal under international law and Gaddafi has over these past 42 years proved himself a great survivor. More worryingly still, many of the most likely successors to this regime have either been murdered or forced into exile. The terrible, if unpalatable, truth is that Gaddafi still enjoys substantial popular support in Libya.
The risk of subsequently making ‘regime change’ an explicit precondition of humanitarian assistance in Libya (or elsewhere in the region) was that the high ethical ground that NATO painstakingly sought to occupy at the outset was lost and an essentially moral case for military intervention ceded.
By contrast in unequivocally supporting one side in what is increasingly evidently a civil war in Libya it would surely not be simply a matter of notorious British diplomatic cynicism to conclude that we had better make sure we back the winners.
Six weeks on there are already worrying signs that Arab League opinion (admittedly disunited and less than entirely reliable at the best of times) is being alienated by the conduct of military operations in that nation. We should never forget that there is profound distrust of the West (and in particular the US and UK) in much of this region. In fact many of these sovereign Arab states deal with us only out of necessity. In recent months many senior Western politicians have trotted out platitudes about the need to promote democratic reform in North Africa and the Middle East. Yet in Egypt (to name but one) we had happily propped up President Mubarak for almost three decades, turning a wilful blind eye to internal repression, torture and a culture of cronyism and corruption for so long as it remained a loyal trading partner and an ally (of sorts) to Israel.
Indeed the widely accepted narrative since 9/11 has been that Islamic fundamentalism has been borne out of economic despair. But it is just as likely that militant Islam spread primarily as a reaction to political repression which we have had a hand in perpetuating. The autocratic rulers of Arab states for years persuaded the West that the development of democracy represented too great a risk as it offered a route to power for Islamists. In accepting this analysis, however, we implicitly endorsed Arab rulers’ strategies of repression and control which stifled economic reform (always a difficult thing to promote in states where financial concessions and economic patronage offer the autocrat a means of maintaining power) and drove people into the arms of radical Islamists who appeared to offer solutions and an outlet to express dissatisfaction with the world.
Our failure over recent decades to encourage even rudimentary democratic institutions to take hold in much of this region may be something we have cause to regret in the years ahead. History teaches us that democratic freedoms need to be developed carefully and tend to flower only over a prolonged period. The rapt attention of the global media has already moved swiftly on from where the Jasmine Revolutions began in Tunisia and Egypt. To the political class in these countries democracy still means the holding of elections – and reaping the benefits of exercising power and patronage. Yet elections can only ever be a starting point. To the general population in this region democracy needs to be underpinned by the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free press and a political culture that enables the individual to hold government and state institutions to account once the voting is over. Indeed when we pronounce airily of ‘universal human rights’ it would be wise to remember that the democratic freedoms we enjoy here in the United Kingdom arise exclusively from the constitutional settlement won by previous generations of Britons.
Let’s be under no illusion, the West has an incredibly long and tough path ahead in restoring trust and credibility in this key region for international stability. History has shown that our past attempts at pre-empting and manipulating events have had a habit of producing unintended consequences and undermining our claims to any moral leadership. As we take stock of our relationship with the Islamic world, we might do well to wonder how we might best avoid creating any future causes of regret.