You cannot promote democracy in Iraq and tyrannies elsewhere, Mr Blair

If the House of Saud are our representatives to the people of Saudi Arabia, we cannot be surprised they choose Bin Laden as a way to resist
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The Independent Online

This week Tony Blair, confronted with problems in Iraq, chose not retreat but a dramatic upping of the stakes. We are engaged, he said, in "the battle of seminal importance for the early 21st century". He defined it as a fight to "give Iraq democracy, set it on a path to prosperity, leave it in the sole charge of the Iraqi people, its oil its own, its citizens free to worship in the way they wish".

This is the war that we leftish hawks always wanted Britain to fight: not to eradicate mythical weapons but for democracy at the heart of the Arab world. It is the antithesis of the "clash of civilisation" thesis popular on the US and Israeli right. We define this not as a fight between a democratic Western civilisation and a totalitarian Islamic civilisation. No; it is a clash within the Muslim world, between those who seek democracy - the Iraqi people, supported by Britain and the United States - and those who oppose it - Saddam, his Baathists and assorted jihadist groups. Britain, Mr Blair argues, is not against Arab people. We are on their side against the dictators who suppress them.

And yet... Mr Blair, after this compelling call for Arab democracy, made an astonishing passing reference to "our Saudi friends". The use of this phrase reveals that we still have some way to go in persuading the Prime Minister that his democratic idealism - used to life-saving effect in Kosovo and Sierra Leone - cannot be selective.

Mr Blair stressed the potential of a reconstructed Iraq to transform the way the West is viewed by Muslims across the globe. If we were to be shown to have brought freedom, at least once - if the Baathists and jihadists are blowing up polling stations on the day of Iraq's first democratic election, making it clear which side they are on - the demonology spread by Osama bin Laden will be undermined.

Yet the Saudi government runs - along with the Burmese junta and the Stalinist tyranny in North Korea - one of the worst regimes on earth. Its staggeringly corrupt royal family (all 7,000 of them) treat the population as private property, chattels to be tortured, mutilated or murdered for the most trivial of crimes. What does Mr Blair imagine ordinary Arabs feel when they hear the House of Saud described as "our friends"? How does our championing of Turkey's desire to join the EU, our liberation of Iraq or our advocacy of a Palestinian state sound then?

Now that the House of Saud is under siege from al-Qa'ida, the enemy of us all, many people will instinctively rally to the Saudi royals. This would be madness. If the House of Saud are our representatives to the 20 million people in Saudi Arabia, we cannot be surprised if they choose Osama bin Laden as a way to resist. Although there is a small and heroic Saudi human rights movement, most young Saudis still see jihadism as the only alternative to the House of Saud. If we don't change our policy - if we don't show that we detest what the House of Saud stands for just as much as they do - this can only get worse.

Blairites argue privately that establishing a model of democracy in Iraq will spread the democratic virus throughout the Arab world. We can't do everything at once, they explain. It might be acceptable that we are doing nothing about the people languishing in Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Uzbekistan, to name just three - if we really were just doing nothing. Yet Mr Blair is not only acquiescing in tyrannies suppressing Muslims, biding his time until Iraq works; in some cases, he is actively supporting them.

Not just in his rhetoric about Saudi Arabia this week, either: we equip this foul regime with its weaponry. Mr Blair has been at the forefront of whitewashing Vladimir Putin's butchery in Chechnya as a legitimate contribution to the war on terror , and he even, as John Kampfner's new book Blair's Wars reveals, tried to persuade President Clinton to tone down his own criticisms. He has deliberately silenced our ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, because of his outspoken criticisms of horrific Uzbeki human rights abuses, and Mr Blair has given Islam Karimov, the Uzbek dictator, as many weapons as he can buy with the money he has stolen from his bitterly poor people.

No amount of good in Iraq will win the Muslim world round so long as we are actively backing tyrants elsewhere. Mr Blair needs to draw a much sharper distinction between the two factors that determine US foreign policy - US values and US interests - and argue that the former should be its only true motive.

Saudi Arabia is a textbook example. It is run in a way that is antithetical to American values. It is an absolutist feudal monarchy - a form of government that America itself was founded to overthrow - which savagely denies its people any freedom of speech or thought. If a US president behaved for just an hour in the way the Saudi princes act every day, he would be impeached and jailed. But because there is an American interest involved - getting oil from the vast Saudi reserves - US presidents have cast aside American values. American money has been poured into a form of government that could not be less American, in order to keep oil on tap. This is a desecration of the American revolution.

As in Iraq a few years ago, the fight in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world isn't to get America out, but to turn America around. An America that changes its policy and spreads its values will be far better than no America at all.

British people should not just shrug our shoulders and dismiss the political transformation of the Middle East as too hard. We can argue that the West should tie its purchases and arms sales to liberalisation and democratisation and, if the House of Saud refuses to do this, we can find other, more democratically minded forces to foster.

We can force our leaders to stop backing the Uzbeki tyrant and the Saudis, just as we forced our leaders to stop backing apartheid. We can make our Prime Minister shout from the Kremlin rooftops about his contempt for the murder of Chechens. Mr Blair needs to be held to his highest ideals. His speech to the joint session of Congress earlier this year was a radical, dazzling call for all human beings to live under democracy. Public pressure needs to be directed at Mr Blair to put these inconsistencies right, not to sneer and seize upon them as evidence that our government is irretrievably terrible and can only be a force for evil.

So Tony: if our soldiers can fight and die for democracy in Iraq, you can consistently promote democracy across the Muslim world in non-military ways too. You can stop offering warm words and arms sales to the House of Saud and the butcher of Uzbekistan, and fund democratic liberation movements rather than the people who torture democrats. If you really want to kill "the poisonous propaganda monster about America" unleashed by Islamic fundamentalists, as you said on Monday night, then you have a lot more work to do in turning around both British and American foreign policy.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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