Adrian Hamilton: No wonder Hague can't explain himself

International Studies
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How much sympathy should we have for the hapless Foreign Secretary, William Hague, as he thrashes about to avoid the question of whether we're trying to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi on the one hand and why we aren't doing more to intervene in Syria on the other?

His excruciating contortions when asked on the Today programme yesterday whether we were deliberately trying to kill the Libyan leader reflect a real confusion of purpose on the part of the British and other Western governments.

So too do Hague's efforts to explain away the manifest difference in our reactions to President Bashar Assad's violence against his own people in Syria and Colonel Gaddafi's equal brutality against peaceful demonstrations in Libya.

To suggest, as the Foreign Secretary does, that somehow the regime in Damascus is still "at a crossroads" where it can be persuaded by words of condemnation and threats of possible sanctions to follow the path of righteousness and reform, whilst the regime in Tripoli had gone beyond that point and therefore should be removed, is just specious nonsense.

The reality is that we – and one includes the US and the French in this – are taking radically different approaches to the two countries because we see it in our interests to do so.

Libya is on the doorstep of Europe, a big country with a small population and a lot of oil. Regime change would remove an unreliable figure in the Libyan leader and would bring popular credit to the Western leaders who could claim to have made it happen. What is more reprehensible, we thought we could do it easily through a show of force alone.

Syria, on the other hand, is a country where we can't intervene so directly and we fear the instability that might come with regime change. Behind the restrained words and ambiguous threats against the Alawite government is the hope – belief even – that somehow Bashar Assad could continue in power only in a more moderate way.

It is a vain hope. That is not what the clampdown in Syria is all about. It is about a regime which sees itself under real threat and is reacting with the most obvious weapon at hand to stop it – brute force. President Assad is at best a cypher, at worst a prime mover in it.

There is nothing new in this. We saw it all in the revolts of the Soviet satellites in the 1950s and 1960s before the walls finally came tumbling down. And we face the same dilemma in dealing with it today. Do we pursue a policy of Ostpolitik, or "Change through Rapprochement", treating with the regimes in the hope of gradually opening them up and moderating their behaviour, or do we help dissent best by direct confrontation in the expectation that the regimes would eventually implode of their own inherent tensions?

Stirring up resolutions of condemnation in the UN, as Britain and its European allies did yesterday, is an essentially onanistic activity. It makes it look as if you're reacting but achieves nothing, particularly when you seem to be wanting to treat with regime in the future.

Sanctions aren't much better. Indeed they usually serve to entrench regimes rather than undermine them, as we have seen in the case of Saddam Hussein's survival after 1992 and the Burmese government today. You can make them more painful by targeting them more precisely against members of the regime and their ability to move money or themselves about, but if they are determined to hang on to power, they'll do so whatever the outside world thinks or does. Isolation can weaken a country but doesn't necessarily weaken the regime.

This is not a council of despair, just a plea for a degree of honesty about options. We went into Libya because politicians (understandably) didn't want to see another Srebrenica in Benghazi on their television screens. Where we went wrong, and continue to do so, is to muddle this up with a policy of regime change. We should never have mentioned it.

We're not going into Syria partly because we can't practically and partly because we don't want the political and regional consequences. It may be hypocritical. It is certainly naive. But it is not illogical. Where we're going wrong is in trying to pretend we are "doing something" by sound and fury alone.

If only we could concentrate on where we can help: by aiding those countries in change such as Tunisia and Egypt; by being generous in our treatment of refugees and migrants (of course, we're doing the opposite); and by acting as Europe instead of individual nations in our trade and diplomatic relations with oppressive regimes, we might do some good. But wrapping ourselves round in contradictions, as we are, will get us, and those we should be supporting in the Arab world, nowhere.

I'm beginning to feel sorry for William Hague as he tries to make sense of it.

It should have been a private ceremony

The royal wedding was bound to lead to trouble once the guest list was known. The Prince of Bahrain? The ruling family of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia? A right roll call from corrupt and anti-democratic regimes.

But one shouldn't blame the Palace or the Government. One senses the recidivist hand of Prince Charles and his belief in relationships with foreign royalty (Qatar and the Chelsea Barracks intervention and others) behind it. The sadness is for the couple themselves. The Palace believes a state wedding, with a billion viewers worldwide, will do wonders for the contemporary monarchy. It won't. The future of a more modern, modest monarchy would have been better served by a quiet, private wedding with the state aspect projected through a Grand Wedding Ball, when no one would have cared who was invited.