A long post. Go and grab a coffee.

Right at the very very start of this blog in January 2008, I wrote about one of most vivid pieces of work in the FCO, my paper about MTS and Non-MTS back from 1984 in Belgrade. Here’s the link.

The idea was simple: what does the comforting idea Muddle Through Somehow actually mean? Thus (emphasis added):

On my first diplomatic posting in Belgrade (1981-84) the paralysis of Yugoslavia’s convoluted ‘socialist self-management’ collective decision-making processes became ever more evident, to me at least. Yet the senior official policy line remained. Yugoslavia was a “pillar of stability” and (more importantly) had to be kept as such. The alternative was unthinkable – and tended to stay very firmly unthought.


As an Embassy Young Turk in these leaden pre-email and pre-fax days I argued about all this inconclusively with the then Ambassador and my other exasperated bosses, plus anyone from London who might listen. They insisted that even if I was right and Yugoslavia faced difficult times, it would “muddle through somehow”.


That familiar formula got me thinking. What did it actually mean? Hence my first FCO rant, in early 1984: Yugoslavia and the ‘Muddle Through Somehow’ Theory”.


My basic point was as follows. The Muddle Through Somehow (MTS) metaphor conveyed a number of interesting assumptions:


"… general notions of pragmatism; a certain degree of homely confusion; perhaps an absence of precise planning and control (“muddle”) but at least a broad sense of direction (“through”); … an absence of drastic, shocking, violent or cataclysmic change”.


But, I asserted, MTS as a very concept made sense only if it did not cover everything. World War Two had not exactly been a MTS event. In each case there had to be agreed non-MTS events (for Yugoslavia eg civil war or Soviet military intervention to prop up communist rule) whose likelihood also had to be assessed hard-headedly.


I tried to weigh all this up, and concluded that there was a serious chance of drastic non-MTS internal tensions escalating across Yugoslavia in the years to come … One has an eerie feeling of being perched on a sandcastle with the waters of economic logic slowly but surely eroding the base.”

And so it is with the ‘Arab world’ now. For far too long we all have got used to dealing with a sizeable group of miserable dictatorships and autocracies, some relatively benign and/or rich, others not. Even when truly appalling things happened, we looked away.

How to explain this attitude?

Part of it goes right back to the depths of the Cold War and European decolonisation in Africa. Some sort of psychological/political reaction against European rule was more or less expected if not inevitable (and for Cold War leftists, highly desirable). The Soviet Union piled in, offering these newly liberated territories an ideological ‘anti-imperialist’ approach to the ‘West’ plus arms sales and the control-freak blandishments of central planning.

And it worked. Western/European liberal ideas which had quite respectable roots across North Africa were more or less wiped out in favour of a motley mish-mash of repressive national socialism and pan-Arab ‘nationalism’. Remember Nasser’s fatuous ‘Arab Socialist Union’:.

  • state control over the national economy
  • Pan-Arab nationalism should be pursued
  • Class struggle is not required for arab socialism
  • The country should be answerable to the people and run as a democracy
  • Commitment to religion and freedom of faith and worship are essential

There was even talk in the 1970s led by Qadhafi of Libya, Egypt and Syria coming together in one new federation, an idea that soon collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.

The point is that during the Cold War we got used to making the best of dictatorships in all sorts of places. Unfortunately, when the Cold War ended we quailed at the thought of bringing the Arabs to have a hard look at themselves. We came up with no idea of a reforming partnership with the Arab world’s misgovernments. 

One of the other themes of this blog is that the costs and benefits of policies compound up over time. Compounding stupidity dragging on for decades produces fearsome negativities, not least the public debt crisis threatening the credibility of the EU and USA alike.

The Middle East’s compounding stupidities have led to a momumentally wretched outcome now. Look at the calamitous Third World revolutionary hero Qadhafi, now reduced to deploying snipers against protesters to try to defend the indefensible:

… the pro-government Al-Zahf Al-Akhdar newspaper threatened that the authorities would "violently and thunderously respond" to the protests.

"The people’s power, the Jamahiriya [system of rule], the revolution, and Colonel Gaddafi are all red lines and those who try to cross or come near these lines are suicidal and playing with fire," it said.

It’s one thing to sneer at the West for ‘propping up’ Egypt. But what about Nelson Mandela and all the Left’s other great heroes who for years have ostentatiously sucked up to Qadhafi?

The lure of Big Money is a real factor. Especially when that Big Money is tied to a tiny unaccountable clique. 

Regardless of ideology Governments from all round the world plus business people great and small all flock towards it, all hoping to wangle themselves a nice slice. I myself have been part of a modest (and wholly unsuccessful) effort to persuade ‘rich Arabs’ to take up investment opportunities in central Europe, using different channels to try to get to the key decision-makers near Qadhafi and others.  

Latterly Libya’s leadership decided to opt out of its loonier Third World revolutionary zeal and instead focus on getting rich. It did not take long for Tony Blair and BP to start doing some nifty business with Qadhafi, as this un-Wikileaked secret transcript revealed.

But what’s the choice in fact? It surely is better to do more or less honest business deals with dictatorships, as the very act of engaging with the professional western world gradually (OK, very gradually and perhaps at the risk of helping these villains stay in power) creates a new requirement rippling out into the local system for better training, accountability, due process, and so on. Constructive engagement and all that. 

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the sheer longevity of these decadent Arab regimes is that it reinforced a quasi-colonialist quasi-racist idea that ‘Arabs can’t do democracy’.

In my 27 years in the FCO I don’t recall hearing a single expert on the Middle East talking about how the region might become substantively more democratic. Planning papers on the issue were inconceivable and unwritten. The subject simply did not come up: "No point in planting Western plants in all that arid dust, dear boy – they just won’t grow!"

This idea perversely suited anti-Western leftists too, latterly disappearing into the black hole of tolerating Islamistic mysogyny. How dare neo-cons try to export Western so-called democracy to the Arab world! That’s paternalistic racism!

Thus the sad speech by President Obama in Cairo, which tried to straddle several incompatible positions at once, and duly failed:

Our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity — men and women — to reach their full potential.  I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice. 

Why not go on to say that a woman who is denied a free vote also is denied equality? And that so-called Islamic countries which deny men and women alike a free and fair vote are letting down themselves and humanity?

Oops. Can’t say that in Egypt. And the Saudis might not like it either.

… Surely in many parts of the Islamic world (and some parts of the UK now) the Islamic religion works to reinforce ages-old social/cultural gender roles under which women are manifestly subservient, and dealt with via extreme violence precisely when they try to make their own choices.

Obama’s language here verged on the ridiculous:

Issues of women’s equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam.  In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, we’ve seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead.  Meanwhile, the struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.


Basically, because Obama starts by defining his speech in terms of inconsistent Categories – America and Islam – he ends up in some confused and weak places.

Here at last is the point.

Not only did Western governments suck up to ‘Arab’ dictatorships for far too long. Everyone did – Right, Left and Centre!

Above all, so did their own people. For the best part of fifty years tens of millions of Arabs have passively accepted brutal, unaccountable regimes, sub-optimal living standards, a desert of intellectual poverty, reduced choice and freedom. That’s not our fault. It’s theirs.

In about 1987 I wrote a short after-dinner speech for Sir Geoffrey Howe, musing on what the people in communist Europe would think as they realised how they had been conned:

Imagine people in a filthy dark prison being set free. When the door’s opened are they pleased to be allowed to go? Or are they furious when they at last see the conditions in which they have been kept and the state they are reduced to?

It looks as if the Arabs are finally waking up – and realising in a rage what has been done to them by their own fatalism. No surprise that Qadhafi is scrambling to lock the door and turn the lights off again: amazing graphic.

How to respond now?

This is a non-MTS development for policy-makers round the planet. Muddling through somehow is not an option. But identifying what to do is not so easy, when almost anything we might practically do to ‘help’ (Er …help whom, precisely?) risks blowing up.

See eg Baroness Ashton, trying to scrape together some new money for Tunisia from her various EU budget-lines. And quickly being denounced as ridiculous. Whatever happened to gratitude?

Probably best to do nothing for now. Waiting and seeing looks inglorious, but being glorious and wrong does not help much in these circumstances.

In the meantime, my heart leaps at the thought of all those 2010 FCO risk-management matrices and target-setting roadmaps being revealed as so much drivel.

All that laborious, meaningless work – trashed! By reality!

The whole ‘risk-management’ bureaucracy as developed by Whitehall is phoney. Why? Because it basically assumes variations on Muddle Through Somehow. It allows no serious role for non-MTS events.

And as we are now seeing, non-MTS events are the ones which really matter.