Foreign Policy — Debate (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:53 pm on 26th February 2009.

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Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench 3:53 pm, 26th February 2009

My Lords, I am sorry that I cannot follow the theme pursued by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, because I would like to examine the challenges to our foreign policy arising from the Middle East. I start from the conviction that western policy has been a signal and very expensive failure since at least the time of the Oslo agreements. The failures have perhaps been largely American ones, but Britain has been dragged along in the wake, despite the high quality of our diplomats.

In the early 1990s, Oslo seemed like a miracle, but now we can appreciate that it was somewhat unjust and simply postponed the most important issues. The West failed to foresee two appalling wars, in south Lebanon in 2006 and the most recent onslaught on Gaza, which followed a blockade going back to 2005. More comprehensive dialogues might have prevented both wars. These wars have left Israel still insecure while alienating Hamas and much of Islamic public opinion throughout the world. Western policy could be greatly improved by not laying down preconditions. These are usually inappropriate when those affected have suffered the traumas of war, displacement and occupation. The preconditions imposed on Hamas after its election victory in 2006 were perhaps the most glaring example of this kind. My noble friend Lord Wright has already mentioned the excellent letter in today's Times, which I just hope will lead to major changes of policy.

The other improvement in western policy would be not to demonise groups and Governments of whom we may disapprove. Iran has had a bad human rights record, both under the Shah and since his fall. The current president has, however, been elected and his Government are in full control of their territory. If I were Iranian, I would see nuclear weapons to the west, the east and the north of my country and ask, "Why can we not also have them?". What is surely needed is less western rhetoric coupled with consistent, patient negotiations.

Are the Government studying the report from the Strategic Foresight Group, The Cost of Conflict in the Middle East? I mentioned this in our debate on 6 February and so far have had no reply. On the same day, I regretted the lack of multilateral approaches to peace and stability in the Middle East since the Madrid conference now 18 years ago, and here I agree with my noble friend Lord Weidenfeld. It is shameful that the constructive proposals of the Arab League have been so neglected since they appeared as long ago as 2002. We now urgently need to repair the harm done by attention being diverted to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

States both within and outside the Middle East should try to view the region as a whole. Like the Baker-Hamilton commission advising former President Bush, we should all be asking how maximum regional co-operation can be generated and what the most appropriate new or existing institutions are that could work for the common good of the whole region. Permanent fora are needed where common problems can be discussed. This is all the more necessary given the arbitrary lines drawn by existing frontiers. Discussion of common problems could lead the way to the co-ordination of policies and eventually to varying degrees of pooling of sovereignty. Perhaps the Middle East needs its own regional version of the OECD. It may be inappropriate to speak of a Marshall plan for the Middle East, but ways should surely be found to bring together the resources and sovereign wealth funds of the oil and gas producers with the technology and know-how of western business. The aim should be to create an area of common prosperity and improved education for the mainly young populations of the region. It is worth noting that these young people are often football crazy. British teams at all levels could win friends and influence people by playing matches in the Middle East.

When a region is anxiously searching for peace and normal life, "reconciliation" can be an overworked and sometimes empty word, but it is a time-consuming and costly process and one in which civil society has a vital role to play. Religious leaders, parliamentarians, business people and NGOs all have a common interest in working for reconciliation on two levels. There is the regional level, already mentioned, aiming to create a wide area of common prosperity, and there is the level of the state or nation. There is an obvious need for a coming together among Palestinians between the secular and Islamic parties and between both and their diaspora. Even in Israel there are tensions between Ashkenazis and Sephardim or between Arab and Jewish Israelis. Both Iraq and Lebanon have three-way splits between religious and cultural groups. In Egypt and Turkey, majorities and minorities do not find it easy to co-exist in harmony.

British foreign policy should be humble enough to recognise the mistakes and failures of recent years. It should also be cognisant of the reconciliation needs that I have cited. It should support national and regional reconciliation wherever this is discreetly possible. National reconciliation will very often entail some form of power sharing. Here we could try to explain how power is shared in countries as diverse as Switzerland, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and, as my noble friend Lord Sandwich mentioned, Nepal. Federal states such as Germany, the USA, India, Canada and Australia also provide models of how to distribute power and responsibilities.

Lastly, British foreign policy should take account of the acute needs of refugees in the Middle East. Palestinians have been in exile since 1948, while Syria and Jordan are now hosts to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. The Middle East cannot be left to stagnate. The peace-loving majorities that exist there must somehow be helped to prevail.