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It is time for the West to take Middle East seriously

After four decades of dictatorship, Muammar Gaddafi's lasting legacy to his people has been guns, lots of them.

CHANGE OF TACK: The current situation is not what the West hand in mind when Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron had a taste of liberal interventionism in 2011. Picture: Getty Images
CHANGE OF TACK: The current situation is not what the West hand in mind when Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron had a taste of liberal interventionism in 2011. Picture: Getty Images

After the insurrection and the Nato bombing campaign that toppled the Colonel in 2011, Libya's Arab Spring has become as bleak and bloody as it could be.

As the Reuters news agency reported yesterday, the country has descended into an "armed free-for-all, where cities, regions, charismatic individuals, urban neighbourhoods and rural tribes all field their own armed forces". Thanks to the dictator's arsenals "towns fight towns; Islamists oppose nationalists; federalists rise up against central government; ex-Gaddafi units clash with former revolutionaries".

This is not what the West had in mind for an oil-rich state in 2011 when David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy of France had their first taste of liberal interventionism. A rational decision to prevent Gaddafi from massacring his people was soon transformed into another of those grand narratives that begin with talk of peace, democracy and petro-chemical contracts, but end - as far as we are concerned - when we walk away.

Western interest in Egypt's brief springtime has also become muted. The process by which one military-backed junta has been replaced by another no longer attracts comment. Such - despite mass killings, imprisonment, torture chambers and the overthrow of an elected leader - is held to be the price of stability.

Mohamed Mursi might have been his country's first democratic president, but the people's choice was of the Muslim Brotherhood. In some unspecified manner, this made Mr Mursi illegitimate after only a year in power. All those lectures on the will of the people were soon forgotten when Abdel Fattah el Sisi and the army resumed control. Military aid from the United States also resumed.

Still, at least Egypt does not match Iraq. Its "transition from dictatorship" has not echoed Syria's civil war. The Egyptian junta does not yet aspire to the dynastic corruption of Saudi Arabia. Mr el Sisi simply presides over the kind of no-nonsense, mostly-reliable military dictatorship to which the West has long been accustomed in the Middle East. If we don't call the alternatives failed states, we call them Israel. And fail to ask too many questions, especially of the Israelis.

Britain, for one, is now in the bizarre position of pouring £10 million into Gaza through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the Red Cross while David Cameron is voicing support for Israel's collective punishment of the Palestinian people. Set aside morality (if you can): how does this amount to a coherent policy? The EU, including Britain, has been by far the biggest donor to Gaza and the West Bank. We pay for things to be built; Israel blows them up. And civilians with them.

This is as inept as the "bringing of democracy" to Libya; as dishonest as the "liberation" of Iraq; as hypocritical as our attitudes towards Egypt's Arab Spring. The US is to send $47 million in humanitarian aid to Gaza at a time when its military aid to Israel is worth $8.5m each day. Britain's export licences to the arms trade, and hence to the Israeli Defence Force, perform the same function. We help to create the crisis, then rush to help the victims.

These absurd paradoxes are symptomatic. Thanks to the welter of lies generated by Iraq, the US and Britain can no longer pretend to be honest brokers. The Syrian bloodbath continues chiefly because the West contemplated the situation and decided that nothing could be done. Iraqis are now held to blame for Iraq's problems. Libyans and their chaotic slaughter are just too complicated, it is judged, to contemplate. Instead, there is a quiet vote of thanks for Egypt's loyal and ruthless junta and the Saudi ruling house.

Meanwhile, you could almost think there was a kind of competition going on. Which part of the region will next claim the title of worst bloody shambles? Libya, all but unnoticed while the world is transfixed by the Gaza massacre, is increasingly a contender. But never underestimate Iraq, even as the Isis insurgency slips the world's mind. Never forget the lengths to which Syria's Bashar al Assad has been prepared to go in murdering his people.

Those inclined to intervention when it suits sometimes pose reasonable questions. If it is imperative that Israel's assault on Gaza be halted and some sort of peace achieved despite the odds, why stand aside from these other "trouble spots"? Israel might have been a little excessive, an American conservative might concede, but where's the international fury over Isis or Assad? And why is it always assumed that all blame can be laid at the West's door?

Oil, arms sales and endless interference would form one answer. The upheavals born of the mad, dishonest adventure in Iraq would count as an other. The refusal to hold Israel seriously to account for decades has helped to destabilise the entire region. Indulging the Saudis at every turn has made a nonsense of all the paeans to democracy and the rule of law. Coddling dictators, whether the Shah of Iran or Saddam, has not exactly enhanced Western credibility.

None of this turned Hamas into ruthless, Holocaust-denying oppressors of their fellow Palestinians, of course. Human Rights Watch and others have documented too many abuses, several deserving to be called crimes against humanity, to allow anyone to apportion all blame to "the West" or Israel. That doesn't make the punishment of ordinary Palestinians "proportionate", any more than the suffering of ordinary Libyans was a price worth paying - though not by us - when Gaddafi ceased to be useful.

A gigantic swathe of the planet faces an existential crisis while Israel wages another of its assaults on a tiny strip of land and 1.8 million people so tightly packed they have no choice about becoming "human shields". In the end, Egyptians, like Libyans, like Syrians, were allowed barely one season they could call a spring before the world turned away. The Iraqis who were supposed to dance in the streets at the moment of invasion are still locked in the nightmare of sectarian conflict.

But the West did not invent the distinctions between Sunni and Shia. For the most part it no longer tolerates the anti-Semitism whose roots are now deeper than ever in the Middle East. The West did not cause Arab brotherhood to dissolve into internecine hatreds, or the rivalries that are tearing Libya apart. Nevertheless, the condition of the Middle East deserves a response vastly more serious than another self-serving Tony Blair lecture on Islamists and terrorism.

This week the "Middle East peace envoy" was not in the Middle East. He was throwing a 60th birthday party for his wife at their country mansion as the Gaza death toll went to 1400 and beyond.

The former prime minister is no doubt entitled to spend an estimated £50,000 on such affairs. One way or another, he earns that kind of money. If you were in need of symbolism, however, there it was.

Mr Blair has had little to say recently about Israel and the Palestinians. Then again, he has only been to Gaza twice in his seven years in the envoy's job. Perhaps a deeper interest would have been "disproportionate".

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