Perhaps it is unfair to raise an eyebrow at the experts who failed to predict it, but fail they did. The most they said was that the Arab world was a tinderbox. None none of them forecast that we might even conceivably be where we are today. The Middle East is in chaos in a big way.

The Tunisian government has fallen. The thirty-year reign of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt is over. Colonel Gaddafi has lost control of Libya and is (at the time of writing) holed up in a corner of Tripoli saying he will die a martyr rather than give up power. Unrest is fomenting in Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria and even Morocco and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announces that he is shelling out £22bn to stop his subjects from taking to the streets too.

The thing about tinderboxes is that no one can predict when the critical spark will ignite it. But it has now. The Arab revolution is truly underway.

Against expectations too, the source of the revolution is not the one many in the West really did forecast - and feared. Islamic militants have tried and failed many times to topple regimes in the Arab world. But it is not they who have been instrumental this time in overturning the old order. Instead, the spark was lit by educated, secular youth, frustrated by rates of unemployment that prevent them not only from earning a living but from marrying and settling down and alienated by corrupt and arthritic regimes which deny them political freedom.

The experts were at least worried about this, but no-one knows who will end up on top – the democratic young, full of hope for a greater liberty, or the religious militants, spotting their chance to substitute repressive Islamic regimes for repressive secular ones.

Like all sudden revolutions, the Arab revolution has wrong-footed all those used to the status quo, and none more so than the West. And it has exposed the ambivalence – some would call it hypocrisy – of the West’s attitude to the Arab world.

True to their belief in freedom and democracy, Western governments have, in word at least, sided with those on the streets fighting for their freedoms and have urged the tottering regimes not to resort to violence against them. But it is those very regimes which Western governments have in many ways for so long sought to keep in power.

This is the old conundrum of foreign policy. Should a government pursue a policy that simply promotes its country’s own hard-headed interests even if it means supping with the devil? Or should it consort only with those foreign governments whose standards it can approve even if that means some of the country’s interests take a back seat? Or can the two be squared?

Robin Cook, Tony Blair’s first foreign secretary, thought they could and announced to the world that his foreign policy would be different because it would have an 'ethical dimension'. Sceptics pointed out that that’s all it was - a 'dimension' – and that realpolitik would win out in the end. It always does, they said.

No-one can have felt more keenly the embarrassment of being wrong-footed by the sudden Arab revolution than the Prime Minister. For it has broken out just as he was leading a trade delegation to Arab gulf states with a hefty contingent of arms salesman in its ranks. At the last minute he was forced to make an unscheduled detour to Cairo to make clear to the world how much Britain was on the side of Egypt’s blossoming democracy. He then resumed his trade mission to Arab countries where democracy is not exactly the order of the day and many of whose regimes fear they could be next to fall to popular unrest.

Defenders of realpolitik say Mr Cameron has no real option but to do what he is doing. The Arab world is a part of the globe where Britain has vital interests, not least the need to maintain an uninterrupted oil supply. He has to deal with the world as he finds it. Trade is not only economically beneficial to all involved but creates a forum for a wider dialogue. The arms industry is a very important part of the British economy creating thousands of jobs. Assurances are sought that no arms sold will be used for purposes of internal repression and in any case if we don’t sell the arms, others will.

Many people, however, will have no truck with this case. The assurances about how arms sold will be used, they say, are not worth the paper they are written on. In effect, by selling arms to undemocratic, repressive regimes we are taking sides against the very people whom we purport to back in their struggle for the freedoms we not only enjoy ourselves but declare to be universal human rights. In their view, an ethical foreign policy must never involve anything which obstructs the march to freedom of the oppressed people of the world.

But those who adopt this position have dilemmas of their own. How far should we go in actively supporting those who are fighting for their freedom?

In the case of Tunisia and Egypt this was not a pressing question because the old regimes fell quite quickly and with relatively little bloodshed. But it is different in Libya where, at the time of writing, it seems that Colonel Gaddafi will not go without a fight. If he insists on one, what should the West do? Mr Cameron said this week: 'The behaviour of this dictator cannot be allowed to stand'. But how far should the West be prepared to intervene?

Lord Owen, the former foreign secretary, has called for the international community to impose a no-fly zone on Libya, similar to the one successfully imposed on northern Iraq after the first Gulf War in 1991 in order to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s air force. It’s believed that Gaddafi may well want to use his own air force against the Libyan people.

Others are starting to go even further, raising the idea of Western military intervention on humanitarian grounds. But opponents warn that we have been here before and that the consequences can be dire.

The general case for ‘liberal humanitarian war’ was made by Tony Blair back in 1999 after the intervention in Kosovo. Some of those who support the Iraq war of 2003 defend it in these terms. Even if the ostensible case for war (to stop Saddam Hussein in his plans to stock weapons of mass destruction) turned out to be false, they say, the war was still justified because it liberated Iraq from a tyrant.

But opponents of this form of activist ethical foreign policy say we should look where that led. Foreign policy aimed at trying to make the world a better place is subject to the law of unintended consequences and can end up doing more harm than good. Foreign policy should concentrate instead on the more modest aim of promoting national interest and in the knowledge that much of the rest of the world will remain a pretty nasty place. We should simply thank our lucky stars we don’t live there.

What’s your view?

  • Do you think the West has been wrong-footed by the sudden Arab revolution or not?
  • Do you think western policy towards the Arab world over the last thirty years or so is best described as one of justifiable self-interest or as hypocritical and indefensible?
  • Should we continue to be selling arms to undemocratic gulf states?
  • Do you think the safeguards on when arms should and shouldn’t be sold are adequate or not?
  • How far, in principle, do you think the West should go in actively promoting democracy in regions like the Arab world?
  • Should we seek to impose a no-fly zone on Libya or not?
  • And should the West be prepared to send troops into Libya to protect the Libyan people from Gaddafi?
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