The president of the most populous and “most powerful” Arab country and the prime ministers of Britain and Spain, two former imperial powers, have been conspicuous supporters of Uncle Sam’s imperial ambitions. These have been reflected in George W Bush’s “doctrine of pre-emptive strike”, which was translated into action on March 20, only eight months after the declaration of the unprecedented ‘doctrine’. All three men share the ambition of enhancing their local power-bases and of being seen as credible operators on the international stage by proving that they are on the side of ‘the only superpower left in the world’. Their argument is that, as its allies, they are more likely to be able to influence the ‘New Empire’ to act according to international law and bring justice to the people of the Middle East, especially the Palestinians.
Yet they have been publicly humiliated by the new emperor, who insists that the US alone will be in charge of Iraq’s reconstruction, and that the United Nations will be allowed only a secondary role, if any. Bush also insists that his much-touted ‘road-map’ to a Palestinian state will not be published unless the Palestinians replace Yasser Arafat’s ‘dictatorial regime’ with a ‘democratic government’ prepared to implement Israel’s “conditions for peace”.
But none of this appears to have discouraged the deluded trio, who, with the war now over, have turned their attention to Palestine and Syria, claiming that they will use their influence to help deliver a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian ‘conflict’, and to deal with Syria less aggressively, while in fact exerting great pressure on Damascus and the Palestinians to comply with US demands. Washington wants Syria to crack down on Hizbullah, withdraw its army from Lebanon, and expel all Islamic groups on its territory, as well as any Iraqi leaders or members of the Ba’ath Party that might have fled there after Iraq’s occupation.
As soon as it became apparent that Syria was probably the next victim of US pre-emptive action, Jose Maria Aznar, the Spanish prime minister, announced that the US would never attack Syria and that he was a friend of the Syrians. Tony Blair, the British prime minister, despatched Jack Straw, his foreign secretary, to Damascus and telephoned Hafiz al-Asad, Syria’s president, whom he claims to consider a personal friend. President Hosni Mubarak flew to Damascus to persuade Asad that defying the US was sheer folly. The combined pressure appears to have worked, and it was no accident that, on the last day of Mubarak’s visit to Damascus, Bush announced that Syria was ready to do a deal.
All three men went about their dirty work against strong domestic opposition. More than 90 percent of Spaniards, for instance, opposed the war, yet their prime minister chose to ignore them, travelling to the US in late February to confer with Bush at his ranch in Texas, and offer backing for his invasion of Iraq. In Britain Blair’s messianic support for Bush’s crusade led to large demonstrations in several cities. In March it provoked the biggest parliamentary rebellion in British political history: 139 Labour MPs voted for an anti-war amendment to the government’s Iraq policy; Robin Cook, a senior Labour politician, and a junior minister resigned. Cook issued a public statement that was deemed at the time to be severely damaging to Blair. In Egypt, where Mubarak has ruled by decree for more than 20 years, a wave of public protests broke out against the war, and against Israel and the US. The protestors called on Mubarak to reject US aid to Egypt (the largest recipient of such aid after Israel) and to break off diplomatic ties with the Zionist state. But not only did he ignore the protestors’ demands, he also, unlike Aznar and Blair, moved vigorously against the demonstrators, with many being arrested and tortured.
Mubarak has turned the pretence of having great influence on US foreign policy into an art form, attributing Cairo’s presumed clout to its ‘undoubted position’ as leader of the Arab world. Even his highly embarrassing decision to invite Ariel Sharon to a summit at Sharm al-Sheikh has been justified on the grounds that hostility to Tel Aviv would dent his influence in Washington and not serve the Palestinian cause. He recently sent a large team of Al-Ahram journalists and a political delegation, led by his son Jamal, to Washington to interview senior Bush-administration officials on how closely the two countries are working together in the interests of the Arabs, including Palestinians. The resulting interviews and articles gave the impression of two great powers cooperating to solve the Arab (and indeed Muslim) world’s problems. The Al-Ahram editorial even argued that it was natural for “the only superpower” and the “leader of the Arab world” to “cooperate as close allies”. But when his pledge to prevent a strike against Iraq failed, he put the blame for the war squarely on Saddam Hussein’s shoulders, citing his refusal to get rid of his alleged WMD.
The “leader of the Arab world”, by advising Saddam to disarm, was in fact backing the US strategy that only Israel should possess WMD in the Middle East. He even called for the Arab League constitution to be amended to remove the article providing for common Arab defence. He had been annoyed by public demands that this common defence come to Iraq’s aid against the US. The call by Blair and Aznar for Iraq to disarm, and their support for the war, were not as disgraceful as Mubarak’s, as they are leaders of two western countries. Blair (who, unlike Aznar and Mubarak, sent soldiers to Iraq) feels justified in backing Bush because Britain, unlike Spain, is an English-speaking country and has a “special relationship” with the US, although it claims to value its membership of the EU. Germany and France strongly opposed the war, alienating both London and Washington in the process. Aznar had certainly less reason than Blair to side with Germany and France, because Spain is a member of the EU but not of the Atlantic alliance.
But both Blair and Aznar also backed Bush and his illegal war for strong domestic reasons. Both men face local and parliamentary elections in 2004, and believe that by seeming to be effective players on the world scene they will advance their parties’ fortunes. Aznar is committed to stepping down next year, but is anxious to see his conservative party beat its socialist opposition in the parliamentary poll. He also wants US backing for his campaign against the Basque separatists of the ETA, and believes that if he succeeds in defeating them he will figure prominently in Spanish history. Blair also believes that if he can lead the Labour party to an second term in government, he will go down in British political history as a major figure.
However, there is nothing glorious about posing as world figures while acting in effect as agents for a dangerous and bloodthirsty superpower, so Blair and Aznar may instead go down in history as two clowns who played a major role in encouraging the “born-again Christians” and conservative maniacs in power in Washington to destroy international institutions. Before Muslims berate the British and Spanish leaders, they should perhaps direct their ire to the greater threats to Muslim interests, i.e.. president Husni Mubarak and his counterparts in other Muslim countries. Unless Uncle Sam’s agents are removed from power, that world will remain vulnerable and divided.