03/04/2011 09:52 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Dark Side of Engagement

World leaders cringe at archive footage of them embracing Colonel Gaddafi. Staff at the London School of Economics resign or eat humble pie as a consequence of their relations with Libya. Has engagement with authoritarian states and their leaderships been proven to be a fool's errand?

This week's battle for Bregga may be one day seen in hindsight as the transitional moment from Libya's revolution to Libya's civil war. The evolving physical conflict has meant that the debate will naturally focus on talk of military interventions and sanctions. However, more complex than theories of liberal interventionalism is the question about how the West can be expected to configure its day to day relations with countries which possess few freedoms and poor human rights records.

For example should BP and the other Western oil companies, who are currently hedging their bets as whether or not to leave Libya be placed under the same level of scrutiny as the academics of LSE and politicos of Westminster? YouGov polling showed that half the public (51%) actually backed British companies operating in Libya to extract oil, while only 21% thought it was wrong. LSE's Sir Howard Davies resigned over embarrassment concerning a £2.2m deal to train hundreds of young Libyans, yet YouGov polling on the British public's view on Libya showed that a large majority (69%) thinks Britain was right to help Libya with education and training.

The media has apparently moved from one extreme to the other when condemning those with links to Libya. The LSE's deal was not highly secretive (witness Saif Gaddafi's public lectures) and presumably given the media/political general acceptance of the situation in Libya prior to the events of the past month, it would have remain unchallenged if the ugly face of the Gaddafi regime had not shown itself. Indeed Gaddafi has been portrayed by the media in recent years as a charismatic rogue, who would pitch his tents on the lawns of international conferences, was escorted around by an entourage of uniformed female bodyguards and traveled with a famously voluptuous European nurse (according to WikiLeaks).

However Gaddafi's buffoonery should never have tricked people into thinking that the leopard of 42 years rule had drastically changed his spots concerning his grip on power, a reality that his predictably insane response to the protests has vindicated.

So what next for engagement? Let us look at the case of Syria. Many, myself included, have been arguing for effective Western engagement with Syria since 2001, conscious of the fact that alienating the country has both pushed a threatened Damascus deeper into relations with Tehran (where Obama's initial outreach to Iran has been long forgotten) and into pursuing a more negative role in Iraq, Lebanon and Israel-Palestine. Nuanced engagement with Syria may have alleviated some of these challenges, yet we should never have been under the illusion that oppressive states with poor human rights records do not have the potential to massively escalate levels of internal repression to protect their power when threatened. If the current wave of regional protests were to gain momentum in Syria it would come as no surprise if the government were to resort to bloody methods to suppress its people, with the protestors (as in Libya) likely be branded foreign elements, spies or terrorists. But the reality of this threat is not alleviated simply by the alternative policy of Western isolation.

Clearly good intentions don't go a long way in dealing with bad regimes. What appeals to them is economic, political and military interdependence. Egypt, a Western ally very much dependent of its support, held off from the massive repression of its people during the revolution, under pressure from frequent calls from the US Secretary of Defense. By contrast Iran and Libya, both largely isolated from the West, have correspondingly been less inclined to hold back from attempting to aggressively subdue protests.

This of course makes the equation even more murkier -- does a reliance on Western support, and in particular arms, make an authoritarian state less likely to use force on its people and therefore should Western countries look to increase arms sales in order to encourage such dependence? Recent Middle Eastern history tells us to stay well clear of such a situation as allies can quickly become enemies (Saddam Hussein being an obvious example) and revolutions may actually put Western weapons in the hands of government's with a very different political agenda (such as the Iranian revolution of 1979s inheriting a vast array of US made weapons including F-14 fighters).

The Arab revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East may represent a new opportunity to redefine the principles of Western engagement with the region. In Britain a long list of renowned figures from the arts, politics and academia signed an open letter from the 'Council of Arab-British Understanding' (CAABU) to Prime Minister Cameron calling for suspension of arms sales to the region.

The letter stated that: "it is morally untenable to support democracy in the Middle East whilst selling arms that can be used by regimes to subvert the wishes and aspirations of the people under their rule. CAABU call upon the government of the United Kingdom to halt immediately the sale of arms to any regimes that engage in repression. People across the region are risking their lives to fight for their democratic and human rights. Britain's role in the Middle East and North Africa must change fundamentally if we are to be on the right side of the historic realignment we are currently witnessing in the Arab world".

Although the West has appeared largely as a surprised bystander to much of what has been happening in the region that does not mean it cannot expect to reconfigure its policies towards it once the dust has settled. In doing so addressing fundamental, if not for decades ignored, questions concerning principles of engagement should be at the very top of its priorities.