Ed West

Whatever happened to critical thinking in foreign policy?

Whatever happened to critical thinking in foreign policy?
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Now that the Middle East is basically moving to Europe after Germany did the national equivalent of advertising a house party on Facebook, it’s worth looking back four years ago to when the ‘Arab Spring’ was beginning, and what might have been done.

At the time, you’ll recall, Egypt’s kleptocrat dictator had just fallen and the first protests were beginning in Syria. David Cameron flew to the Gulf where he attacked suggestions that the Middle East ‘can’t do democracy’. As the Mail reported at the time:

He rejected the idea that 'highly controlling' regimes are needed to ensure stability as violence and protests continued in Libya.

He dismissed the idea that Arab or Muslim countries cannot cope with free and fair elections and said: 'For me, that's a prejudice that borders on racism.'

The former Prime Minister declared as decolonisation occurred across Africa: 'The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.'

Mr Cameron said today: 'History is sweeping through your neighbourhood not as a result of force and violence, but by people seeking their rights, and in the vast majority of cases doing so peacefully and bravely.

I wonder if he believed all that; if so, that says something worrying about both our political system and our education system.

One of the many downsides of democracy is that the sort of people who end up standing for office and deciding things tend to be optimists, because optimists have the confidence to try the career in the first place. I’d never get into politics because I wouldn’t get past the selection process and even then I’d probably get slaughtered on election day; and even if I won I’d probably be a disaster.

But pessimists, and people with depressive personalities, tend to have a more realistic grasp of affairs. At the time of the prime minister’s speech, I wrote something suggesting that since no Arab country had yet produced a lasting democracy, it was a realistic calculation based on the available evidence to suggest that it might not work. Since prejudice is defined as ‘an adverse judgment or opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts’, I argued that this was not a prejudiced judgement. 

If Cameron really did believe what he said, what's more concerning is that he studied at the best school and best university in the country, and yet in the most important foreign policy area, expressed an extremely naïve view. And it’s not just words; from 2011, Britain’s policy in Syria has been aimed at replacing the Baathist dictatorship with a democracy. Fine, the Assad regime has one of the worst human rights records on earth. But this policy was despite the fact that Syria, although one of the oldest civilisations on earth, was a religiously diverse country with very weak civil institutions, low economic development and a very young population. Not to mention that a similar policy in Iraq had been a total disaster and that religious extremism, and the militias that promoted it, are very strong in the region, and would most certainly fill the void where civil institutions were lacking. Ditto in Egypt.

On top of this a pessimistic conservative might suggest that violent revolutions almost always go wrong and end with a regime worse than the one before; in most cases when there are moderates and extremists, the latter win out. Just as the Jacobins would terrorise the Girondists and the Bolsheviks the Mensheviks, it was obvious that the more extreme Syrian revolutionaries would win out against the saner elements of the FSA; on top of this there was the risk that Western intervention might undermine the legitimacy of moderates and would also inevitably mean reprisals against the country’s Christians, as happened in Iraq.

All in all, any degree of critical thinking would suggest such a policy of encouraging revolution and democracy in the Middle East to be dangerous, if not outright insane.

The only counter arguments to this would be that, firstly, the brutality and corruption of the present regimes were on display to the public, and created a ‘something must be done’ mood; that is what happened in Libya. Secondly, that to suggest democracy will not emerge would be ‘racist’ or bigoted.

That’s a concerning line of logic, especially when one looks at the future generations of leaders and the way they are taught. In universities across the English-speaking world, the main problem with the concept of censorship we call ‘political correctness’ is not that it mollycoddles students, although it does, but that it discourages critical thinking. Something is either true or untrue, whether it is offensive or not should be irrelevant to clear thinkers; instead once someone discounts evidence, facts and previous experience because it ‘borders on prejudice’, then it hinders one’s ability to make rational, intelligent choices.

The last four years of western policy in the Middle East are pretty much exactly what you’d expect of a generation of leaders raised on the fairytale that is the Standard Social Science Model. Looking at developments on campus today, I’m inclined to be pessimistic about the future. But then I would be.