Boris Johnson doesn't deserve our mockery for calling out Saudi Arabia – he deserves our admiration

For the liberal critics of Boris Johnson the hypocrisy is astonishing; our Foreign Secretary is merely saying exactly what they have been urging every representative of HMG to say since time immemorial

Sean O'Grady
Thursday 08 December 2016 14:09 GMT
Boris Johnson: Saudi Arabia is playing proxy wars

Look everybody – we’ve got an ethical foreign policy run by a liberal Foreign Secretary. Instead of dropping real bombs, he’s dropping truth bombs. Surely that’s good news?

OK, everyone’s laughing at Boris again. This time his “undiplomatic” language has been directed at the Saudis (also the Iranians, though no one seems as exercised about that), who, as we keep getting told, are a major trade partner and military ally. He’s accused them of “puppeteering” in proxy wars, in effect allowing the innocent civilians in other countries to lay down their lives, unwillingly, for the House of Saud (just as others have to lay down their lives for the benefit of the ayatollahs of Tehran). Cue the outrage, the tut-tutting from the “camel corps” of old Middle East hands, and some opportunistic mickey-taking by Bozza’s enemies, of which there are many.

Well, we shouldn’t mock Boris for telling a few home truths about the nature of politics in that part of the world. As it happens, these things do need to be said, and why not in public (or at least, in this case, semi-public)? After all, the traditional approach – quiet words in regal ears, “behind-the-scenes” lobbying, men of the world getting frank with each other over a lavish banquet – hasn’t done much good for the orphans of Yemen or the refugees of Syria. For the liberal critics of Boris Johnson the hypocrisy is astonishing; our Foreign Secretary is merely saying exactly what they have been urging every representative of HMG to declare since time immemorial.

When New Labour came to power in 1997, the prickly but principled then-Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, made vast trouble for himself by calling for an “ethical dimension” to British foreign policy. The approach did not survive his departure from office, and he didn’t make that much headway when he was still running foreign policy because the British never lived up to the ethical dimension anyway, so we ended up with the worst of all worlds. Oddly enough the neo-cons in the George W Bush administration also wanted to tilt American policy towards a more democratic and liberal approach – hinting to the Saudis that they’d rather they went in for a little reform. The old US approach to client state dictators from Fulgencio Batista to Mobutu Sese Seko to Nguyen Van Diem, and, embarrassingly enough for a time, Saddam Hussein was simple: “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

The Bush-Cheney view was that this was futile and self-defeating, as well as undesirable. Once again that approach, intelligently applied as it was by Condi Rice, did not last long. The Saudis continued to do what they have always done, and now they have overreached themselves dangerously in the region, threatening the very stability they crave.

So someone needs to tell them where they are going wrong, and it may as well be Boris Johnson. We should be impressed and supportive of his efforts, not use them to make fun of the poor chap. No one else in his sort of position talks about the Sunni-Shia issue, and how Iran and Saudi Arabia use it for their own regional ends; in the end, only by doing so will both those regional powers, the smaller countries used as battlefields, and the wider world, see some peace for a change. What’s funny about that?

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