The Island 25 May 2011

In the decades when the Cold War raged, or simmered, or whatever, several major countries in the Middle East turned to socialism. Except in the case of Aden this was not extreme Marxism, but as time passed the variations became more extreme and with little concern for democratic practice.

It has been argued that this is a necessary characteristic of socialism, but the practice in South Asia belies this. Mrs Bandaranaike and even more so Mrs Gandhi may have been imperious in their approach to government, but they were firmly convinced that their programmes were what the people wanted. Accordingly they held unarguably democratic elections, and were soundly defeated.

Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran's ousted prime minister, during his trial in the wake of the CIA-MI6 orchestrated coup that overthrew his elected government in 1953. Photograph: AFP

The Middle East had no such luck. Unfortunately the first experiment in socialism through the ballot box was traduced, when the West got rid of Mossadegh in Iran, and established the autocracy of the Shah. What had been presented as a battle between free and restricted politics turned into a battle between free and restricted economies, and the West made no bones about its preference for political restrictions provided economies were capitalist. These were not necessarily free, but it took Cold Warriors a long time to realize that free economies could not really develop under authoritarian rule.

So, at the height of the Cold War, we had dictatorships all over South America, encouragement of authoritarian rulers such as Ayub Khan and Marcos and Suharto in South Asia (to say nothing of Generals Park and Chiang Kai Shek in East Asia), and the overthrow of African leaders who had achieved independence by right wing military regimes in Africa, most notably those of Mobutu and Idi Amin and the chap who got rid of Nkrumah in Ghana. Fortunately some of these characters were so preposterous that the West tired of them, but many lasted for unconscionably long period.

In the area in the Middle East carved up by the West after the First World War however, though three major countries had left leaning military regimes – which were indeed linked together briefly through the Ba’ath Socialist Party – the hereditary rulers of the other states that had been established continued to exercise authority. The most important of these was the largest, Saudi Arabia, named thus after King Saud got rid of the former Sharif of Mecca whom the British had initially installed as King.

That had been a brilliant stroke, to use someone with religious authority as the figurehead of the revolt against the Turks, but the Sharif’s family was in fact comparatively secular in its approach to politics. Not so the Saud family, which embraced the more fundamentalist Wahhabi form of Islam, and made Saudi Arabia a solidly Islamic state. They also used their resources to proselytize for their particular version of Islam, but doubtless this seemed to the West a good thing in those days, since it was a forceful alternative to godless Marxism.

Meanwhile, on the periphery of the Islamic world, there were a few other revolutions. Libya in 1969 saw the overthrow of yet another king by a left leaning military man. But Colonel Gaddafi was quite unlike Nasser and Assad and Abu Bakr/Saddam Hussein in that he was deeply religious. Coming into power in the year Nasser died, he became in the next decade the icon of the Arab world – which perhaps should have taught the West which way the wind was beginning to blow.

But they had other distractions at this time. In Afghanistan you had had a variation on the Iranian theme, with a Marxist oriented government emerging in the early seventies through the strange semi-feudal political system the country had. That became fertile ground for intrigue and, fearing that the West had suborned some elements of the regime, which had always been riven by factionalism, the Russians marched in in the last days of 1979 to consolidate the control of their favoured Marxists. It was a move that arguably led to their total defeat in the Cold War, with the United States supporting a resistance movement that forced a Soviet withdrawal.

General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq with Ronald Reagan

The Afghan invasion gave a new lease of life to General Zia ul Haq, who had initially got the cold shoulder. This was the period at which Jimmy Carter I think genuinely tried to inject some element of morality into international relations, but this phase did not last. What with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as well as other events in 1979, the solid self interest of Ronald Reagan seemed more desirable. Zia accordingly became flavor of the month. Since he was deeply religious, unusually so in Pakistan at the time for a military man, he was most supportive of the religious resistance to the Russians. Hence the Taliban.

It was ironic that the West should have turned to religious fundamentalism at precisely this point, given that the revolution in Iran, the other significant transformation of 1979, had been religious in character. It was true that previously, in the Western oriented authoritarian regimes of the Middle East, religion had seemed a good counter to Marxism, but Iran showed that it could also be forcefully oppositional.

However, at the height of the Cold War, with Russia seeming on the verge of securing itself in South Asia, the West was still concerned primarily to deal with Marxism. Indeed it was probably happy that the Shah’s ruthless extermination of the left in Iran had ensured that, when dissatisfaction proved too powerful to resist, there were no Socialists to inherit the country. The Ayatollah at that stage probably seemed a better bet than Marxists – and indeed later we were to see, in Contragate, that America still thought Marxism so dangerous that compromises with Islam were desirable in comparison.

And there was another element in the Western view of things which is a prime example of the determination of people to believe what they want to believe. It was some years later, when Iran was clearly an enemy but the Taliban and others had succeeded in forcing the Soviets out of Afghanistan, that I was circling the world on the Semester at Sea programme run at the time by the University of Pittsburgh. I found it astonishing then that the American academics on board were convinced that Shiites were dangerous fundamentalists, whereas the Sunnis were basically moderate Christians with some slightly eccentric beliefs. I did suggest then, in 1990 I believe it was, that Saddam Hussein proved that such a sanguine view of things was erroneous, but I did not carry conviction.

And so the West paved the way for the bitter hostilities we see today. I doubt however whether there are any regrets about the myopic view of looking at things in the past.  What went wrong will be based on others, not the sheer lack of principle and informed intelligence on which international relations should be based, even when pursuing one’s own self interest.

The Island 25 May 2011