Lord Owen on the Tory government’s “schizophrenic” approach to the Middle East crises

Published in the Daily Mirror Friday, 18 March 2011

If you are watching the crises unfold throughout the Middle East, Britain’s approach might seem ­schizophrenic.

While the UK’s official response to crackdown in Libya was vocal against the Libyan authorities and in favour of the rebels, in Bahrain the response has been almost mute by ­comparison.

In part this is becauseof vested reasons Britain has deep interests in ­maintaining links with some Arab countries and not others.
For instance Gaddafi is Public Enemy Number One, the King of Bahrain is on the Royal Wedding guest list.

Over the last three-and-a-half weeks, on television and in writing, I argued the case for a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace. Had that been done even 10 days ago there is little doubt that Gaddafi would likely be deposed and residing in an African state sheltered by a dictator to whom he had given vast sums of money over the years.

Sadly the divisions within Nato, especially with Turkey opposing a no-fly zone; in the EU with Germany also opposed, and in the UN Security Council with Russia and China threatening to veto, any intervention from the air now can only be a last minute attempt to rescue Benghazi. At best it could result in a temporary partition of Libya.

Even as I write, Italy is still opposing extending sanctions to oil and gas companies operating in Libya for the simple reason that they have large investments and also are the ex-colonial power.

We can bewail these differences but they are the realities of international politics. Unless there is a wave of public horror in America because Gaddafi uses horrific violence in attacking Benghazi – which forces President Obama to act – Gaddafi will be celebrating there within weeks.

Obama can however act very quickly as part of a humanitarian imperative to prevent carnage, for he has sophisticated US carrier-borne aircraft on patrol in the ­Mediterranean at instant readiness. Unlike Britain, he does not need major airfields.

So poor Britain, now with no aircraft carrier to patrol alongside the US fleet, is sounding more and more like a paper tiger while advocating a no-fly zone.

What a tragedy it is that we no longer have HMS Ark Royal and jump jet Harriers ­operating off the coast of Libya and instead they are in the ­knacker’s yard.

The choices facing President Obama are however hugely complex, much more so because of the Japanese earthquake, the tsunami, and the worst-case scenario of having toface consequences of an evacuation of Tokyo if a nuclear meltdown intheir power stations causes a ­Chernobyl-like radiation hazard.

The Mediterranean may seem a long way from Japan but nothing in international politics exists on its own.

We also face a further complication – the crackdown in Bahrain with Saudi Arabian forces coming in, and signs that the clash with civilian protesters is getting out of control. America has to balance ongoing ­military commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq with undertaking new military commitments in the Arab world.

What appears to be behind US reluctance to be involved militarily in Libya is that they judge that they must do so with active Egyptian involvement, but they fear that to divert the military from their crucial task of presiding over a successful transition to civilian power will be too demanding and put atrisk this vital political objective.

It is also understandable that the US military machine fears embarking militarily in a no-fly zone in Libya, while refusing any military involvement in either Bahrain or perhaps later in Saudi Arabia. It looks as if Obama has decided that it is wiser to stand as a matter of principle on having no military ­interference from America in any of these political struggles in Arab countries.

It is almost certain that America tried hard to stopSaudi Arabia getting involved in Bahrain and they believed that the Bahrain government should ­negotiate with the civilian protesters. ­Unfortunately that option is now closed.

Saudis are on the ground in Bahrain. What we must hope is that this military confrontation does not develop into a much deeper Shia-Sunni religious battle and militarily involve Iran.

As for the other Arab states, Oman looks likely to remain stable although hazarding even that prediction is problematic since the pace of change in the Arab world is intensifying.

So far Jordan has escaped destabilising protests but no one can be sure this will last. Protesters are focussing more and more not on King Abdullah, who is a popular leader with the armed forces, but on his beautiful wife, herlifestyle, and alleged corruption amongst relatives.

Yemen looks likely to go on harbouring al-Qaeda terrorists ­whatever we in the West do.

Tunisia may make a peaceful ­transition but they like Egypt ­probably judge they have enough problems on their hands without provoking their neighbour Libya.

Morocco as yet has only small scale demonstrations and is largely ­unaffected.

We are watching a massive shift in the politics of the Arab world where civilian protests, predominantly secular, are being taken with the courage of their own convictions. They will not settle back underthe rule of kings, sovereigns and minority groups.

Cool heads are needed but – and it is a big but – Gaddafi remaining in power will be a destructive and destabilising force throughout the Arab world.

He has amassed considerable undeclared gold reserves and he will use that money to create trouble not just for immediate neighbours but further afield.

Hitherto he has not embraced al-Qaeda but the man that supplied Semtex to the IRA is quite capable of changing course and ­opportunistically working with them.

For all of these reasons, I hope Obama will not allow understandable caution to let Gaddafi win back power in Libya. But to prevent that, America has to act within days – and maybe within hours – with Britain and France to draw a line in the sand outside Benghazi.