Amir Taheri/An Opportunity for Britain to Boost its Profile

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An Opportunity for Britain to Boost its Profile
Amir Taheri/Asharq Al Awsat
Friday, 15 May, 2015

Until even a few years ago the UK general elections attracted special attention in the Middle East, reflecting historic, economic and political bonds going back to the 19th century in the context of a love–hate relationship. This month, however, the UK general election that produced the first majority Conservative government in two decades went almost unnoticed. Those who did mention it in tea-houses from Cairo to Tehran, passing by Baghdad, attracted no more than a few yawns. However, this lack of interest may be as misplaced as the exaggerated interest shown in the past.

Britain’s decline as a global power started almost immediately after the Second World War and was symbolically sealed with the East of Suez retreat in 1971. In the final phases of the Cold War, the best that Britain could do was play second fiddle to the American “superpower.” And, yet, thanks to centuries of “special relations” Britain always retained a voice in the Middle East. In 1990, that voice played a crucial part in mobilizing the US-led international coalition that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

What about now?
Because of President Obama’s delusional strategy, a growing vacuum is emerging that a revamped Britain might be able to fill, at least in part. But before we consider that, let’s make a couple of points clear. The first is that today no outside power is in a position to decide rain and sunshine in a conflict-ridden Middle East; any talk of restoring Pax Britannica is absurd. Britain alone no longer has the economic and military power, not to mention the moral authority, to guarantee a new balance of power in the region. The second point is that in two years’ time the US may change captain and resume leadership in evolving a new balance of power to guarantee peace and stability in the arc of crisis that spans from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic—which affects not only the Middle East but also North Africa and Europe.

The role that Britain could play at this time may be one of holding the fort until the cavalry returns. But why should we assume that Britain could play such a role, supposing it is tempted? One reason is that Britain remains a veto-holding member of the UN Security Council and therefore could, if it wanted, assume a leading role on the diplomatic front. For example, Britain could challenge Obama’s plan to rush the nuclear deal with Iran through the Security Council with a resolution designed on the basis of what he terms “creative ambiguity.” Obama has chosen the UN path, where he hopes to encounter no hurdles, to avoid submitting an agreement to the US Congress where he knows he would face opposition.

Britain could also play a role in helping the European Union develop policies regarding the region’s pressing issues, including the disintegration of Syria and a looming Arab-Kurdish civil war in Iraq. Having played a leading role in toppling Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Britain could return with initiatives to help stabilize that country, thus also helping deal with the influx of illegal immigrants from Africa. Another reason why Britain could punch above its weight is the network of contacts it has in every country in the arc of crisis. There, a substantial segment of the political, military and business elite is British-educated, a distinction unrivalled by any other power with the exception of the retreating United States.

Even the current ruling elite among the mullahs and military in Tehran has always maintained close links with Britain through open and clandestine channels. Many mullahs believe that the US is nothing but muscle for a British mastermind! This is why they try to obtain PhDs from British universities for themselves and their offspring, and in recent years have joined elites from other regional countries in securing pieds-à-terre in London.

Relative to the size of its economy Britain remains the biggest pole of attraction for investments from the region. It is also the main destination for Middle Eastern visitors for medical attention or tourism. Britain’s position within the Commonwealth, a grouping of 53 nations in all continents, also provides a unique network of global, diplomatic, political and economic contacts.

No longer a military giant with global reach, Britain still remains NATO’s number two power in terms of deployable capacities. The 28 European Union nations have a combined military force of 3.2 million men. Of these, however, only 25,000 could be quickly deployed to theaters outside the continent. Much of that capacity belongs to Britain which has also managed to maintain one of the world’s only three blue water navies.

Right now, Britain has other advantages. With a new government, it is assured of five years of political stability. It is also the only EU member-state with a reasonable economic growth rate and thus capable of ring-fencing, if not actually raising its defense and foreign aid budgets. Because of its contacts, Britain could act as the shoulder on which rival groups in the region cry, an important attribute for a mediator. Powerful enough to be heard, Britain, at the same time, is not powerful enough to overreach itself.

It could provide a synthesis of Norway and the United States, mixing diplomacy in the service of peace with a minimum of military and economic credibility to make a difference. Britain has the potential. However, potential alone is never a guarantee of success. Many things could go awry. Britain could see itself bogged down in a dispute over membership of the European Union in a surrealistic form of navel-gazing diplomacy. Scottish secessionists, now the third largest party in the House of Commons, could repeat the shenanigans of the Charles Parnell group that paralyzed British politics in the name of Irish nationalism for years in the 19th century. A set of coincidences have produced a situation in which Britain could boost its profile as a power in the service of peace and stability. Will David Cameron see that opportunity, let alone try to seize it? We shall have to wait and see but don’t hold your breath.