Leading Article: The blatant hypocrisy of New Labour's unethical foreign policy

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The Independent Culture
WHAT IS it about power and principles? Must the two really be incompatible? The Labour Party arrived in government with a sounding of ethical trumpets. Two years on, the tone is very different. The Conservatives wore their cynicism on their sleeves. The Labour Government, by contrast, likes the moral high horse - while seemingly doing under-the-table deals with as much enthusiasm as the Tories ever did. In short: no change, except for an added dose of hypocrisy.

Government ministers are keen that we should praise the morality of what they say, instead of taking a hard look at what they do. Certainly, the words are more impressive than the deeds. The ethical foreign policy now looks threadbare, at best.

We know that the Trade Secretary, Stephen Byers, pressed for financial aid to Indonesia, arguing that a pounds 700,000 loan should be underwritten by the UK. In addition, the Government was ready to use pounds 130m of taxpayers' money to guarantee the sale of Hawk jets to Indonesia. Unsurprisingly, the planes have been used to intimidate the population of East Timor. The borderline which the Labour Government itself claims to have demarcated has been crossed again.

Time and again, the Government takes the moral high ground on arms sales only when failure to do so has become embarrassing. Thus, the invitation for Indonesian generals to attend the arms fair that opened in Chertsey this week remained valid till the last; it was the Indonesians themselves who decided to pull out, thus letting Britain off the hook.

The question of arms sales and economic aid to unpleasant regimes is a question of practicality, not just morality. During the Cold War, the dubious philosophy "He's a son-of-a-bitch, but at least he's our son- of-a-bitch" held sway. Pro-Western dictators were lauded. But the policy backfired badly. In Iraq, Western forces found themselves confronting the armed forces of Saddam Hussein - previously seen as a useful bulwark against fundamentalism, but now suddenly perceived as the ultimate Bad Guy. Equally, the UN force arriving in East Timor this week will find the Indonesian armed forces, complicit in mass murder in recent days, in abundant possession of British armour.

The danger of the loss of jobs is still frequently heard as an argument against getting too queasy about arms sales. But the exclusion of morally indefensible governments from arms manufacturers' customer lists is not in itself a prelude to winding down the whole industry. The economy is constantly changing shape; jobs are both lost and created. As workers in many different industries can testify, that process of change is painful. But job losses in one area are no longer the inevitable end of the economic road.

Labour is becoming as fond as the Tories of the idea that pragmatism is a synonym for wisdom. In reality, pragmatism has frequently been a synonym for short-sightedness. Morality in policy-making should be a reality, not just pious words that can be used for cheap jibes against the previous government. Might is not right; right is right. With the end of the Cold War, moralpolitik at last has a chance of defeating realpolitik. Corrupt and criminal governments do not need to add more weapons to their already bulging arsenals. And Britain certainly does not need to sell weapons to such regimes.