x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

West claims moral purpose to justify its interventions

Western governments often intervene in the affairs of others. In this they are not alone. But the West is unique in wrapping such actions in the cloak of morality.

In May, President Barack Obama signed a little-reported executive order authorising sanctions against anyone who interfered in Yemen's transition.

The move was widely thought to have been aimed at Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president who remains in Yemen, trying to exert influence and maintain his family's privileges.

Mr Obama's Yemen order was simultaneous with another example of western involvement in Middle Eastern countries, namely the open call by the US and UK and other western governments for the removal of Syria's Bashar Al Assad.

The Yemen order, however, was not diplomacy by brickbat, but a rather subtle use of power.

Intervention is not always bad, but it is best when it is most open. Why then is the West, especially the US, so silent over Egypt?

The world community has now been involved openly in three of the five Arab Spring uprisings. Western and Arab fighter jets patrolled the skies over Libya; the GCC, with US backing, led negotiations on a political transition in Yemen; and now Arab countries, with the West and Turkey, aspire to bring an end to the conflict in Syria.

Yet over Egypt, the US has been curiously quiet. One could justify this by saying that Egypt is a sovereign country that ought to make its own decisions. But the US has no compunction over calling for changes in other sovereign nations. In recent weeks, it has made clear what it believes Greece, China and even Germany ought to do. And it has no problem dictating what type of government others should have: witness its support for the punishment of Palestinians after Gaza voted for Hamas, of which the US does not approve.

This is doubly mystifying because the US has significant leverage over the generals in Egypt: a public statement from their largest supplier of military aid - to the effect of the US expects a genuine transfer of power to a civilian government - would send a clear message to the junta that the days of military rule are coming to an end. It would also make clear to ordinary Egyptians, and the outside world, that the US is genuinely on the side of democracy. But don't expect it.

The reasons why go to the heart of our confusion over intervention and particularly the difficulty in formulating a coherent policy of outside intervention. American reasons for speaking, or not speaking, are inherently political - wanting to defend their interests and maintain influence - but need to be framed in moral language. It's the moral part that is the problem.

The real question about intervention is not whether it ought to occur, but about its degree and intention. Outside powers are always going to intervene in some way, through military force, or diplomacy, or alliances, diplomatic recognition, trade policy …

The West, with some of the largest militaries and, crucially, a historic propensity to use force for political gain, is often blamed for intervening. Yet the problem is not intervention per se, but its selective usage. Western interventions are usually amoral, but justified in moral terms.

Amoral intervention is common around the world. But the West is peculiar in trying to justify nakedly political actions on moral grounds.

One can read that as a way of creating "soft power" legitimacy for hard power, an attempt to argue for the use of might only when it is right. That is a canny position to take in a world of competing military powers, because it allows the West to appropriate morality as a cover for politics - a process that can be traced to the Cold War, when it was important to prove one's policies were right.

The problem with moral justifications overlaid onto political decisions is that it's very obvious when the morality is spurious.

This was the case with the second Iraq war. Those who wanted to invade Iraq without sufficient cause kept asking opponents: "So do you want Saddam Hussein's regime to continue?" The answer, of course, was no. But the world had lots of political problems requiring urgent solutions: Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe, endless wars in central Africa, the brutal Israeli occupation, the treatment of minorities in China, and on and on. Was the US planning to use its military to end all of those? If not, why choose merely one? The insincere underpinning of the policy was quickly revealed.

That's what makes the Egyptian omission so glaring. America and other countries decide on intervention largely for political, rather than moral, reasons. But appeals to morality are used to support either conclusion.

Countries that want to intervene argue that the situation on the ground is so bad they must act, to protect civilians, promote democracy, uphold the rule of law, or for a myriad of other reasons that they are happy to abandon in the case of other, friendlier, countries.

When, on the other hand, intervention is not politically important, the justification is that "we could not possibly intervene in another country's sovereign affairs".

The way out of this hypocrisy is more openness in policy. By doing away with talk of morality and opening up the decision-making to real scrutiny, citizens could evaluate each potential intervention. This would also halt the hypocritical policies that have so damaged the West's credibility. It wouldn't be popular: who wants to hear "We have to support Hosni Mubarak because we need him to keep ordinary people quiet and torture the occasional bad guy for us"?

But in the long-run it would be better. War doesn't have to be just to be justified, and intervention is often not just about war.

 

falyafai@thenational.ae

Follow on Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai