The establishment of a UN-sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya has led to the destruction of the left’s position on the Middle East. The Australian-born leftist guru John Pilger appeared on the Q&A program on February 14. Initial discussion turned on the ousting of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and the emergence of campaigns for greater freedoms throughout much of the Middle East.

In response to a question on Syria, Pilger quickly turned to “Palestinian suffering”. His position was simple – and simplistic. According to Pilger, “Israel is the canker” and that until the Palestinians “are given back the rights to [sic] which they have suffered … we are going to have instability throughout the Middle East”. He specifically mentioned Syria and Egypt. Earlier in the program, Pilger blamed the United States, Britain and France for virtually all the problems in the region.

However, what is noticeable about the current UN-endorsed action against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya turns on the fact that no one is talking much about Israel. Moreover, the no-fly zone – now being implemented by US, British and French forces – has been broadly endorsed by Amr Moussa, the Arab League’s Secretary-General.

Right now, the tensions in the Middle East are obvious. They exist between the Persians in Iran and the Arabs, between Muslims and Christians, between the Sunni and Shiite traditions of Islam, between Muslim fundamentalists and Muslim moderates and between those who support dictatorships and those who favour democratic government. All those tensions would exist irrespective of whether Israel had been created, with UN endorsement, in 1948 and irrespective of whether Western powers had influence in the region.

There are only two nations in the Middle East which can legitimately claim to be democratic. Israel is a genuine democracy in which Arab Israelis have greater rights to freedom of expression and association than Arabs enjoy in virtually all Arab states. And then there is Iraq, which is a nascent democracy. There is free expression in Iraq but this is tempered by the terrorist attacks of Islamists on their fellow Muslims and on the minority Christian population.

Iraq is the only Arab country to embrace democratic forms, including free elections. This came about as a consequence of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime due to the efforts of the Coalition of the Willing led in March 2003 by the US, Britain, Australia and Poland.

This is not a fashionable point. Yet the record indicates it was the administration of George W. Bush which first raised, in a serious manner, the issue of democracy in the Middle East. At an American Enterprise Institute function in late February 2003, shortly before the invasion of Iraq, Bush said “it is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world – or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim – is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life”.

In June 2005 the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, addressed the American University of Cairo. By then the Saddam dictatorship had been toppled and the US was attempting to overcome the unintended consequences of the invasion and to establish a secure and viable Iraq. On this occasion, Rice was not for apologising. Rather she told her Egyptian audience that “for 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East – and we achieved neither”.

In June 2009 Barack Obama addressed Cairo University. The President was not as direct on the issue of democracy in the Middle East as Bush and Rice had been several years before. This was perhaps understandable, since he had opposed the invasion of Iraq. But Obama did acknowledge to his audience that “all people yearn” for democratic rights. He added that “the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed … are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support this everywhere”.

It would be folly to predict the outcome in the nations of the Middle East that are now witnessing calls for greater democracy. The Iran or Gaza scenario is possible: where democracy movements were taken over by hardline Islamists who use the power of the state to crush democratic institutions. Or it’s possible that nations such as Egypt might be able to move towards an established form of representative government which can prevail in spite of the demands of the Muslim Brotherhood. Indonesia is a successful example.

All that can be said is that Israel is on the sidelines in the current turmoil. Also the apparent aim of the people in the Arab streets is to demand the kind of democracy they well know – through the press, television and social media – exists in the likes of the US, Britain and France. The very nations which have put the lives of service men and women at risk in an effort to stop Gaddafi’s slaughter of his fellow Libyans.

Despite some criticism, Julia Gillard has taken the correct approach. As the Prime Minister pointed out in Parliament on March 2, Australia supports a no-fly zone in Libya.

However, there is scant justification for the diplomatic stridency of the Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd. Australia has some influence in Afghanistan, with troops serving there. But our influence over Libya is limited and so should be our rhetoric.