Miliband’s grand Middle East delusion

The foreign secretary is wrong: Britain’s soft power in the Middle East has much greater influence than its show of force in Iraq

By Christopher Phillips, The Guardian 12 March 2010

There is a common ritual that I, like most Britons, have regularly encountered when riding a taxi in Damascus, Amman or Cairo over the past seven years. Talkative and curious, most cabbies will immediately ask where you are from and, on hearing London, raise the usual questions about Tony Blair and Iraq.

Seven years after the invasion, British citizens are still taken to task for their government’s actions in 2003. It is therefore hard to take seriouslyDavid Miliband’s claim earlier this week that the Iraq war has boosted Britain’s reputation in the Arab world.

Called before the Chilcot inquiry, the foreign secretary stated:

“People in the region do respect those who are willing to see through what they say [they will do]. Even people who disagreed with it say to me, ‘You’ve sent a message that when you say something, you mean it’ … In the Arab world today, I don’t believe that the Iraq decisions have undermined our relationships or our ability to do business. Some of our ambassadors say we are in a stronger position.”

Though diplomats in Israel and Kuwait might support the foreign secretary’s view that Britain’s reputation was enhanced by Iraq, the reality on the Arab street is quite different. Militarily and diplomatically, London appears weak and tied to Washington, while economically it lags behind European competitors for influence in the region. The UK’s main area of success and influence is actually in the cultural sphere, where institutions like the British Council provide a degree of soft power. But military misadventures like Iraq, far from enhancing Britain’s reputation in the Arab world, serve to undermine the soft power that these institutions have spent decades acquiring.

The Iraq war did no favours for Britain’s military reputation in the region. The operations of the first Gulf war in 1990-91 and the bombing of Iraq in 1998 had already built the image that Britain’s armed forces were an extension of US forces, and the blind loyalty shown by Blair in 2003 only cemented this view. Marc Lynch has shown how, since 1998, millions of Arab viewers of al-Jazeera have watched Iraqis killed by Britain – which became a daily occurrence in 2003. On top of this, allegations of prisoner abuse by British soldiers were widely reported, as were claims about the under-funding of UK troops. Far from enhancing respect for the military, the Iraq war has allowed the Arab media to portray it as subservient, abusive and weak.

Subservience to the US has also characterised the Arabs’ perception of British diplomacy since 2003. The initial refusal to seek a ceasefireduring the 2006 Lebanon war and a similar reluctance in Gaza are two prominent examples. Even recent diplomatic shifts, such as Miliband’s commendable lobbying for the relabelling of goods produced in Israeli settlements, or his visit to previously pariah Syria, are interpreted as reflecting the new priorities of the Obama administration rather than independent British initiatives. This perceived diplomatic dependence on America is emphasised by other actors’ comparative freedom in the region, notably France, which has re-engaged under President Nicolas Sarkozy, deepened its ties with Syria and Lebanon and opened a military base in the UAE.

Economically, Britain’s influence is similarly limited. While Lord Davies, the minister for trade, investment and small business was in the UAE this week trumpeting the increased trade between Britain and the Middle East, Britain lags behind Germany, Italy and France, which take a far greater share of the Arab market.

One field where Britain still excels is arms sales, particularly to Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. However, far from using this trade to leverage influence, Britain seems more eager to appease its customers. This was seen in the dropping of corruption charges in the BAE-Saudi scandal, and the continued sale of arms to Israel after the 2008-09 Gaza war.

Yet in spite of perceived military and diplomatic subservience and economic impotence, Britain does maintain an influential cultural presence in the Arab world. While critics may attack organisations such as the British Council as a waste of taxpayers’ money or “cultural imperialism”, arguably their many educational, cultural and developmental projects enhance Britain’s reputation far more effectively than the billions spent on the Iraq war. The British Council itself recognised this fact in 2007, substantially expanding its presence in the Arab and Muslim world.

Though the Arab press often hails the role of the British Council in supporting local projects, its reputation can be easily tarnished by the government’s foreign policy. In 2006, for example, when Britain was alleged to have a role in Israel’s capture of a Palestinian militant, the British Council in Gaza was attacked. Moreover, Britain is not alone in promoting cultural ties and soft power in the Arab World. France’s Institut Francais and Germany’s Goethe-Institut have expanded their impressive operations in the Middle East recently, without fearing a backlash against their government’s policies in the region.

As Chilcot continues and the British establishment tries to understand what went wrong in 2003, perhaps it should take the opportunity to reassess how Britain projects its power and influence in the Arab world. David Miliband is deluded. Displays of hard power on the coat-tails of the US won’t enhance Britain’s reputation. Military misadventures like Iraq only serve to undermine the soft cultural power that is far more effective in promoting a positive picture of Britain in the Middle East.

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