The pursuit of freedom, democracy and peace in the Middle East is an objective shared by all and in the interests of all. But, says former UK foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, in the disagreement and misunderstanding about how to achieve these aims lies the potential for even greater conflict. –

We are living through a time of unusually intense discussion on the nature of peace and the rights and wrongs of war. Whether one describes this as a debate with a rich intellectual and ethical content or as a confused muddle depends on one’s point of entry.

As usual, considerations of power weigh heavily on the discussion of ideas. We shall continue to live in a world dominated by one giant superpower. On September 11 the giant was wounded, and the result has been an extraordinary outburst of American energy that has transformed the discussion. Because our superpower is a liberal democracy, this discussion is out in the open, and we can all take part.

In this world of nation states, war has been easy to justify as a means of reversing aggression either against oneself or against a friend whom one was committed to defend.

Hence the two world wars, then Korea and the Gulf War of 1991. Under this same heading the emphasis is now on self-defence from terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda, or from rogue states developing weapons of mass destruction such as Iraq or North Korea.

Can such self-defence legitimately take the form of a pre-emptive strike? That may well depend on whether the evidence of an intended attack is irrefutable and whether the outcome of a pre-emptive strike is carefully planned to improve the situation rather than simply to relieve angry feelings, two quite heavy qualifications.

To this concept of defence against aggression has been added in the past 10 years the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Hence the conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor.

Hence also much of the argument about Saddam Hussein, whose removal is urged in order to establish freedom and democracy in Iraq as well as to protect us all from his weapons of mass destruction.

But it is at this point that, as regards the Middle East, the argument can become confused.

Certainly it is true, as a recent United Nations Development Programme report pointed out, that apart from Turkey and Israel the countries of the Middle East suffer from a lack of democracy and from the weakness of their civil society.

Compared with the recent uneven but definite progress of southeast Asia and Latin America towards more liberal systems, the Arab Middle East has stood still, with the small, though significant, exceptions of Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar.

In other places political stagnation might be explained by economic poverty, but not in the Arab world. Indeed it can be argued that abundant oil has acted as a political soporific, enabling people who live in tolerable comfort to forget that they cannot elect a government or enjoy a free press.

Elsewhere, for example South Africa, Chile and Brazil, ruling elites have felt the flow of the tide against them and abandoned undemocratic systems without bloodshed before they were swept away. I do not believe that the governments of the Middle East are less perceptive or more greedy to cling to power than those others. But there are particular reasons for their relative political stagnation.

One of these presents an unwelcome and therefore rarely recognized paradox to the west. Arab governments fear that a quick move to free elections and a free press would make it impossible to continue the broadly pro-western policies with which they are identified.

This fear is of course closely connection with western, and in particular American, support for Israel. There is some evidence to support their fear. Until a few years ago news bulletins on Arab television consisted largely of kings, princes and presidents making anodyne statements at airports and conferring with each other in deep armchairs.

Now freedom has come to the airwaves. Arabs watch on the Al Jazeera news channel not the suicide attacks on Israel but Israeli tanks trundling through Palestinian villages, the bodies of Palestinian children killed by Israelis and the bitter tears of their parents.

As a result the room for manoeuvre in making peace with Israel that was enjoyed once by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and then king Hussein of Jordan has become more limited for their successors.

Is it the very existence of Israel or the policy of the present Israeli government that creates the difficulty? If it is the existence of Israel, then the case is hopeless, for the west is rightly committed to sustaining its existence.

If the Israeli policy of settlements and occupation is the obstacle, then that can be changed in negotiation, if only the west and in particular the US would use their undoubted leverage on the parties concerned. The US is unlikely to exert itself adequately until it sees more clearly than now the intimate connection between a just peace settlement between the Arabs and Israel and American hopes for a democratic and friendly Middle East.

Meanwhile, the danger grows that the welcome disappearance of Saddam Hussein might be followed by a period of sullen humiliation through the Arab world, leading to instability and periodic acts of violence.

There is no contradiction between on the one hand admiration of the US, indeed a keen desire to go there to live, on the part of many Arabs and on the other a misunderstanding, or fierce resentment, of American foreign policy.

We in the west are not engaged in a struggle against Islam; we watch a struggle within Islam. In some countries this concerns the relationship between the Muslim faith and the political economic and social decisions of Muslim governments. In others, for example Iraq and Syria, it concerns the replacement of non-sectarian tyrannies.

It is overwhelmingly in our interest that one day, and at their own pace, such countries as Egypt, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq should find their own versions of the Turkish achievement of effective democracy in a Muslim country.

We in the west are not merely spectators; what we say and do or neglect to say and do can crucially influence the outcome. We should not be afraid to intervene with diplomatic and, in the last resort, military energy provided that we understand the background and work intelligently with Arabs and with the grain of their history.

Lord Hurd
From 1984 to 1995 Lord Hurd of Westwell (Douglas Hurd) served in the UK government as secretary of state for Northern Ireland, home secretary and foreign secretary.