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Why the west is losing the battle for Arab hearts and minds

We must ignore the siren calls of fence-sitting cynics and forge a foreign policy based on our value

The crowds in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia should be holding up replica Statues of Liberty. Instead, the west is losing the battle for Arab hearts and minds at the very moment they are winning their battle for democracy and freedom. I blame Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. I remember complaining to Jack Straw, when he was foreign secretary, about Cheney's extremism. Jack's riposte stayed with me: "If you think Cheney is bad, you should hear Scooter Libby."

Scooter Libby, Cheney's (very) right-hand man, became the most senior American official to be convicted of a government scandal since John Poindexter in the Iran-Contra affair. He then benefited from probably the most extraordinary use of a presidential pardon when Bush commuted his 30-month prison sentence. This vignette of Bush-life is a microcosm of why the demonstrators aren't pro-American: because you cannot impose democracy and good government on other countries while abusing them yourself. A foreign policy based on values needs legitimacy.

Allies of weasel

Irving Kristol defined the neoconservatives as liberals who had "been mugged by reality". But Cheney and Rumsfeld weren't neocons. They were American hegemonists, dedicated to expanding American power by whatever means necessary. "Neo-heges", if you like. And those means included propping up anti-democrats abroad and cutting democratic corners at home.

Democracy caught up with them in the end. But then something odd happened. The world could have said that Bush's goal was right but his methods wrong, yet we seem to have retreated into a realist mush. I winced when Barack Obama failed publicly to back the "Green Revolution" in Iran - very pragmatic, but an uncomfortable contradiction of the idealism that makes him such a compelling leader.

In Britain, the Conservatives still seem traumatised by having to share the blame for Blair's war in Iraq (which I supported). They have retreated to the default realist Conservative foreign-policy stance that justified the Major government's refusal to intervene in Bosnia. The only concrete goal of our foreign policy now seems to be trade promotion.

This realist consensus tells us it is naive to want a foreign policy based on values. But Egypt and Tunisia give the lie to that - isn't it in fact naive to think despots can guarantee stability? We're told we can't risk the Muslim Brotherhood winning an election, but how do we generalise that rule? That no country where the Brotherhood exists can become a democracy?

In the Egyptian convulsion, the most depressing manifestation of US pragmatism came from an unnamed state department official who despaired that they didn't know who their candidate was now. But their candidate is staring them in the face. It's called democracy.Let me be clear: I'm not saying the revolution in Egypt justifies the war in Iraq. You can be for democracy but against war. It does, however, remove the worst arguments of each side. The worst part of the pro-war argument was its inconsistency: fighting for democracy in Iraq while refusing to recognise Hamas's victory in Gaza. If we want a foreign policy based on values, then we should promote democracy among our despotic "friends", among the allies of weasel as much as in the axis of evil.

The worst part of the anti-war argument was saying that we shouldn't champion democracy; that democracy and freedom were western values; that Muslims don't want to vote. Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen all give the lie to that. Can we clear a space between those two extremes? Can we find a "direction of travel" policy where progress towards democracy is explicitly rewarded, and a drift away punished? That wouldn't entail invading every non-democracy. But it would mean that military intervention should be an option, in extreme circumstances.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has written of how, at the height of the Liberian civil war, four US warships appeared off the coast of the capital, Monrovia, raising the hopes of ordinary people: "Not only was Uncle Sam coming to save the day, he was there, in sight! Surely, he'd stop the bloodshed, they cried."

But the US government's policy in 1990 was that the resolution of this civil war was a Lib­erian responsibility. The warships passed by. A few days later, 600 civilians were massacred at a Lutheran church in the city being used as a Red Cross shelter.

Iraq and ruin

A direction-of-travel policy would mean protecting democracies. The development economist Paul Collier makes a simple proposal. "Should a government that has committed itself to international standards of elections be ousted by a coup d'état", he suggests, the US, France and Britain "would ensure that the government was reinstated, by military intervention if necessary".

Again, I'm not saying that Liberia or Sierra Leone is the same as Iraq, but they do shine a light on what was wrong in Iraq. It wasn't the desire for regime change. It wasn't the goal of promoting democracy. Nor was it UN resolutions - if we make the United Nations the sole judge of what is legal, we are making Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Communist Party our global appeal judges. Nor was it postwar planning, disastrous though that was. What was wrong in Iraq was legitimacy. We didn't convince the world, unlike in Kosovo or Sierra Leone. As a consequence, Iraq has weakened the case for liberal interventionism.

But events in Egypt have in turn weakened foreign policy realism. Foreign policy is about interests and compromises. There is, however, a huge difference between a foreign policy based on values, constrained by pragmatism, and one based on interests, sometimes not even constrained by principle.

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The offshore City