Writing at a time when religious and civil hatred was tearing England to shreds, and when Europe was caught in a maelstrom of chaos and violence, the great English political thinker Thomas Hobbes told his fellow citizens to fall down on their knees to an almighty sovereign. Order should rule above all, and any religious or sectarian differences should be restricted to the private realm – the alternative was chaos.
Events in Iraq and Egypt bring home both the grim reality and the limits of Hobbes’ conclusions. The Americans, the British, and their cheerleaders made not only the wrong decision in invading Iraq; they compounded it by dismantling the Iraqi state. Both allowed religious and ethnic disputes to rage, with consequences in violence and loss of life that continue to take their toll. A third mistake, a withdrawal of troops without any assurance of stability, has compounded the problem yet again. Theories trump experience.
But as important as security and order are to ensure a modicum of normal life, events in Egypt also show that they are not enough. The tens of thousands languishing in Egypt’s prisons, and the trumped-up charges against journalists and others whose work requires freedom of speech and assembly, point to an important reality: The human spirit craves both stability and liberty. The popularity of the new regime in Cairo has become the justification for a repression that is doing much damage. In a world of instant communication, there are no secret jails – the universal condemnation of the modern show trials in Egypt reaffirms that there is no escaping the glare of publicity and shame.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s recent warning that he wanted to avoid “bullhorn diplomacy” in dealing with the case of Mohamed Fahmy – the Canadian journalist who has been sentenced to seven years in Egyptian prison on trumped-up charges – is somewhat ironic. The Harper government, and Mr. Baird in particular, have hardly been shy in waxing rhetorical whenever they see an easy target. Speechwriters in the Pearson building have almost run out of adjectives to describe the shamefulness of decisions or regimes of which the Harperites disapprove. Mr Baird has long had a megaphone handy by his side, but now he wants to put it away, choosing the test of “effectiveness” as the new yardstick.
Just as their MPs were instructed to embrace their new best friend, Dr. Science, in announcing their support for the Northern Gateway project, we can anticipate that a government previously mesmerized by a range of doctrines and theories will assert the “effectiveness test” in foreign policy. Bluster and wind have apparently been set aside. Let it be applied in all else – the Middle East, Ukraine, the Arctic, and in Canadian foreign and domestic policy more broadly. We would all be better off for it.
Mr. Fahmy and his Al Jazeera colleagues will be released if and when Egypt’s president concludes that the opprobrium of world condemnation is too expensive. Egypt is not a democracy, but it can’t brush aside foreign opinion completely – it is too dependent to go it alone. Keeping up both public and private pressure is a requirement.
As for Iraq, complete disengagement is not an option. President Barack Obama’s condemnation of the original invasion should not blind him to the unacceptable risks of an even deeper descent into disorder.
It is an exaggeration to suggest that the Shia-Sunni conflict owes everything to the invasion of Iraq, but it is surely true that the triumphalist hubris of that time has made things immeasurably worse. Having effectively dismantled the Iraqi state, and then left, the American-British coalition needs to take more responsibility for what is happening.
There’s more than enough blame to go around, but one of the clear lessons of 9/11 is that there are no far-away places “of which we know nothing,” to quote Neville Chamberlain’s phrase in explaining why the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia was not worth the price of war. He spoke those words in 1938, and was the most popular leader in the Western world as a result. He told people what they wanted to hear. But events would prove him wrong, as they have a way of doing. Indiscriminate bombing or a full-scale invasion are not the answer, but neither is disengagement because things are tough and complicated.