The West's Missing Backbone

SCMP August 25, 2013

The West has become afraid of its own shadow. The past few days have seen events which at first sight appear unconnected but are linked, both to fear of the unknown and lack of commitment to publicly espoused principles.

There was the lack of reaction to the Egyptian army's bloody suppression of mostly peaceful demonstrators protesting at the overthrow of President Mohammed Mursi and his elected Muslim Brotherhood government. In practice, therefore, the US and many of its allies have put themselves in the same position as the more overt supporters of the military intervention, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The massacres were on a vast scale compared with those perpetrated by the Burmese military which refused to give up power following the 1990 election. This was followed by two decades of isolation and economic sanctions. Comparison with Tiananmen 1989 is also appropriate.

Meanwhile, in London, the government yet again abuses the monstrous powers it has been given in the name of state security, this time by detaining at Heathrow Airport David Miranda - the Brazilian partner of a journalist from The Guardian who worked with Edward Snowden - on cooked-up anti-terrorism grounds, and seizing his electronic data. This thuggish behaviour, sanctioned by the prime minister, seems at least in part to reflect the bond between US and British spy agencies.

The theory that governments have a right to collect every one of our electronic exchanges on the off chance that somehow they are going to thwart some terrorist is so arrogant and impractical as to justify real anger. One supposedly intelligent US Democrat insisted to me that I was "ignorant and stupid" not to have realised that this went on, and was good for security. Well, clearly the revelations from Snowden and Bradley Manning about the extent of surveillance have come as a shock even to journalists working at the centre of US power in Washington. There is a big difference between knowing one could be spied on if an agency so desired and accepting blanket collection and storage.

The Miranda detention is a minor example of abuse. Part of the anger at Snowden and Manning is that they did indeed reveal to American citizens just how vulnerable they are to eventual abuse of information which has no connection with terrorism.

What is especially stunning is that these intrusions run counter to the traditions of both the US and Britain. The US, in particular, was founded on the principle of suspicion of government, hence its division of powers and decentralised system. At its apogee, Britain was the liberal home of many exiles, not least Karl Marx who wrote Das Kapital in the British Museum and wrote radical reports from London for the New-York Daily Tribune .

The time was at least as much an era of revolution, of plots and assassinations, as today. Now, these societies are so lacking in self-confidence they seem to believe they can be destroyed by a few terrorists, which then provides supposed justification for wholesale snooping.

Making matters worse now is the unholy alliance between spy agencies and the handful of masters of the internet such as Google. They have a commercial interest in co-operating with America's National Security Agency, yet at the same time they - or at least their thousands of employees - are in a position to misuse information through blackmail, theft of commercial secrets and a host of other illegal activities, as well as the sale of personal data, which should be illegal. The hypocrisy in attacking China for doing just that is stunning. For sure, a one-party state is more likely to abuse information for political purposes - but not necessarily for commercial ones.

The thread linking back to Egypt and beyond is Western fear of Muslim hostility. That may seem a justified fear. But the West has been instrumental in feeding that with a series of appallingly judged interventions in the Middle East. The overthrow of the popular Mohammad Mossadeq government in Iran in 1953 to put the Shah back on the throne fired up a whole generation's anti-US sentiment, of which the current Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is an example. The next generation's anti-Western sentiment was fuelled by Western support for Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980, which cost a million lives, indirectly led to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait and then to all the turmoil that followed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is a sorry tale of interventions that backfired.

It is impossible to forecast how events will unfold in Egypt. The army has always had status in the country and the Brotherhood grossly mismanaged its brief period in power. Neither party is committed to democracy other than on its own terms. But there is always a price to be paid for such brutality as events in Iran and in Turkey in 1960 - when the military deposed and later executed prime minister Adnan Menderes - showed.

The West cannot dictate events and should not begin to try, whether in Egypt or Syria. But, for its own good and future relations with whoever wins these conflicts, it does need to show some principles and try to apply them evenly - not least also to Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as Egypt under military rule, and to Syria.








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