Michael Portillo Article for The Sunday Times

Our one-cudgel approach to Islam is costing us dear

1 August 2004

"Why does nobody ever read books?" That was the lament of the cerebral Conservative politician Sir Keith Joseph. He despaired of briefings that were based on press reports and hearsay. Deeper thinking was required.

He would be depressed if he could see how we now conduct our foreign policy. Nowadays Britain does not produce many Anthony Edens, types who were reared to be Foreign Secretary. Today's politicians are amateurs who turn to foreign affairs only late in their careers.

I attended a meeting of the shadow cabinet when Margaret Thatcher was leader of the opposition. She reported on her first ever meeting with the Chinese leadership. Her comments were pedestrian. She was evidently ill at ease with foreign policy. Years later, when I was a minister, I sat next to Tony Blair, then leader of the opposition, at a church service. I had just returned from Japan and tried to engage him in a discussion of politics in the Asia-Pacific region. He looked completely blank.

In either case it would have been hard to predict that the Thatcher and Blair premierships would be dominated by momentous foreign policy decisions.

In case that sounds snotty I will confess that when I became Secretary of State for Defence I asked for a full briefing on Karajan. The generals were too polite to bat an eyelid, and proceeded silkily to give me the low-down on Radovan Karadjic. It was easy to tell that until my appointment I had taken more interest in German music than Yugoslav politics. However, within days I was making key decisions about British military policy in a highly complicated and violent ethnic conflict. I had arrived in office ignorant and despite Keith Joseph's warnings I did not make time to read books. I relied on briefings from officials.

A biographer of Bill Clinton, Nigel Hamilton, reports that the future president was an immensely gifted student of international relations, whose speciality was the Soviet Union. He would have shone in that career had he chosen it (or indeed even as a saxophonist had this multitalented man gone that way instead). In truth I never felt that at the White House he fully applied his enormous intellect to the Balkans, but undoubtedly he had both the intellectual equipment and the training to do so.

My worry is that neither George Bush nor Tony Blair is as gifted or as well informed, and those shortcomings are evident in our policy towards the Arab world.

In a recent article The Times correspondent Anthony Browne argued that whilst we would be wrong to focus on a Muslim "plot" against us we should recognise that Islam really does want to conquer the world because Muslims, unlike many Christians, actually believe they are right, and that their religion is the path to salvation for all.

It is an interesting insight, but it is only a stage in the argument. For whilst it is true that over 1400 years of history Islam has passed through periods of territorial aggression, there have also been long periods of quiescence.

In a hundred years after the life of the prophet Mohammed Islam's expansion was equal to the spread of Christianity over the seven previous centuries. Jerusalem fell in 638 AD. The Muslim armies captured land from Kabul to Tangier and seized Spain and France as far north as Tours. Later, the growth of Ottoman power delivered Constantinople to Muslims in 1453 and put Vienna under siege in 1683.

But in between there were periods of more peaceful coexistence. The Muslims who occupied Spain were enlightened and often lived side by side with Christians and Jews. Islam brought back to the West knowledge of architecture, mathematics and astronomy that had been lost during the Dark Ages. Muslim leaders showed an enthusiasm for scientific discovery that contrasted with the suppression of all inquiry by the Catholic Inquisition.

We must recognise too that there have also been periods of militant Christian counter-attack, evidenced by the Re-conquest of Spain and the Crusades whose objective was to win back the Holy Places. When Granada fell to Christians in 1492 they exhibited extreme intolerance and expelled not only the Muslims but the Jews as well.

If religions exhibit phases of extreme militancy, the question is can the West influence Islam's transition from violence to peace? It seems likely that we will improve our security if our policy promotes the highest degree of secularism amongst Muslims (and indeed amongst Christians too).

The Anglo-American axis lacks any such coherent strategy today. We have waged war on terror. More specifically we have dislodged the Taleban in Afghanistan and Saddam in Iraq. Terrorist organisations linked to Al-Qaeda have been disrupted, and doubtless plots have been foiled. Bush has shown strength where Clinton had offered merely token defiance.

But the American policy of violent response and pre-emption is a one-club strategy. No general would fight a war using military might alone. There must also be psychological operations to loosen support for your enemy and to win adherents to your side. The middle classes in Arab countries are natural supporters of the West. Many have been educated in American schools locally, or universities in the United States. It is a measure of Bush's failures that many of those people have now become opponents of US policy.

The President made a couple of thoughtful speeches last year urging the gradual introduction of democracy to the Gulf and Middle East. That is a proper medium term objective and a good message for western audiences. For local ones, it might be better to talk of raising living standards, sharing wealth and so reducing the gap between rich and poor.

What we do matters more than what we say. Arabs see that the West normally stands behind the present regime in each of their countries. To America and Britain it is logical realpolitik to support governments that offer a buttress against Islamic extremism. But our target audience in the Arab world see us aligned with rulers who are incompetent and corrupt. While we talk of democracy, they might be happy initially just to see movement towards better government.

We are not good at explaining our apparent inconsistencies. We may discern good reasons to extend the hand of friendship to President Gaddafi, as Blair has done. Libya has been rewarded for renouncing weapons of mass destruction. Others might reflect cynically on why Gaddafi who murdered Westerners has been re-admitted to our tent while Saddam who did not has been sent to prison.

We do not sound intelligent when we generalise about Islam. Many of our sweeping condemnations of Muslim countries are based on the Middle East and are inaccurate if applied to Indonesia or even Turkey, both of which are democracies. Across the Arab world the language they share can be as strong a bond as religion. In a country like Egypt Arabic unites Muslims and Christians. Each Arab state is sharply different and appearances mislead. Morocco looks autocratic but tolerates a highly critical press. Tunisia looks easygoing but has no media freedom. The President of Syria is a charmer who speaks good English and has lived in London. Nonetheless the Americans suspect him of backing terrorists in Iraq. And so on.

The British Foreign Office knows much about the Arab world. Unfortunately our diplomats often go native, and because there are many Arab countries but only one Israel the Foreign Office has a deserved reputation for being Arabist and partisan. That has diminished its influence with prime ministers and earned it the distrust of the United States.

Nonetheless our foreign policy wonks remain a great resource. Tony Blair has the opportunity to lead them in formulating a policy that is coherent, comprehensive and for the long term.

During these weeks of summer calm our prime minister should reflect on the inadequacies of Bush's one club policy. He should be thinking about how he could supply a second strand. He could offer it to President Kerry on his arrival in the White House, or roll it out independently if Bush is re-elected. Blair must put behind him his abuses of intelligence, and work with intellectual honesty on papers that he commissions from inside and outside government. Perhaps he could ask Clinton to apply to them his analytic skills.

Above all, as Blair stretches on his sun bed chez Cliff Richard he should be reading books. But I doubt that he'll make time.