Foreign policy and the left: “first, do no harm”

Gerald Holtham

The Fabian Society’s publication Outward to the World was subtitled “How the Left’s Foreign Policy Can Face the Future”. Some of its contributors, however, showed an incapacity to face the past. The shadow of the Iraq war was frequently cited as inhibiting clear thinking about foreign policy on the Left. Yet the Iraq war was not an isolated mistake that can be blamed exclusively on Tony Blair’s eagerness to ingratiate himself with George Bush. Let’s try a little more self-awareness.

Since the second world war, and in my lifetime, British forces have been engaged in: Korea, Malaya, Egypt (Suez), Aden, Cyprus, Kenya, Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands, Kuwait, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya as well as Iraq. Now we are engaged in Syria. Few other countries have such a record of foreign military engagement. We cannot be accused of a retiring isolationism – an excessive tendency to chuck our weight about would be a more credible charge.

Let us leave arguments about the morality of each intervention to the philosophers and instead apply a utilitarian test. Did they leave the situation better than they found it? Was there, therefore, a chance that the inevitable death and destruction was somehow worth it?

We can compare North and South Korea and conclude that war was justified as a response to aggression which would have brought an unyielding tyranny in its wake. Malaya is murkier but Malaysia has had a happier history than other parts of Indo-China so let’s pass that one, too. Suez, though, was a clear error that achieved nothing. The conspiracy with France and Israel to attack Egypt illegally left Nasser stronger and reinforced our reputation as “perfidious Albion”. In Aden, Cyprus and Kenya, we eventually quit, ceding power to the very people we had denounced as terrorists and had been fighting. There is much more to be said about those three episodes but none can be claimed as a successful military intervention.

Northern Ireland, like the Falklands, was a situation where policy errors and neglect led eventually to a situation where military force was considered necessary. In the Falklands an enormous gamble paid off. Had the Argentinian air force primed its bombs better, a number would not have penetrated the decks of British ships without exploding and we should have lost more vessels and been faced with a fiasco.  However, what happened happened, so let us regard these two interventions as at least a qualified success – remembering that competent policy previously would have made them unnecessary. Similarly, the first Gulf war was a response to the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein and must be counted a success.

As we entered the Blair era, therefore, our record was 5-4 successes versus failures or, to speak less flippantly, five cases where military intervention, while costly in blood and suffering, produced a situation better than would probably have existed in its absence, versus four cases where no change or improvement was achieved.

Everyone seems to agree that the Blair/Cook intervention in Sierra Leone was a success. The balance of opinion seems to feel the same about Kosovo, though that is less clear cut. We have replaced oppression of an ethnic majority with oppression of an ethnic minority, which is an improvement of sorts, though Spain for one does not agree.

Afghanistan, however, has been a blatant waste of life. We invaded a riven country where the Taliban government was threatening to win a civil war and we have left a riven country where the Taliban are threatening to win a civil war. True, the Taliban are not currently occupying Kabul and the government there, while corrupt, is more tolerant of human rights, notably those of women. But violence continues and tens of thousands of Afghans and hundreds of British troops are dead or maimed. Moreover, British arms in Afghanistan suffered a defeat and loss of reputation. We could not control Helmand province and had to be bailed out by the Americans. The same thing happened in Iraq, where British forces in Basra ended up near the airport defending only themselves and had to be relieved by the Americans. Both of these exercises were not only political but military failures, where our under-equipped, insufficiently numerous troops could not achieve more than a very temporary pacification.

The luck that sustained us in the Falklands when we sent a barely adequate force to do the job ran out on us in Afghanistan and Iraq, where our commitment was seen to be inadequate. Of course, the failure was more than military; the political strategy was misconceived since the Americans could not bring the invasions to a successful conclusion despite much greater resources.

In Libya our air intervention certainly helped to achieve the fall of Gaddafi. It may well have prevented a massacre by his troops in Benghazi, but it has plunged Libya into violent anarchy that has persisted for over four years.

That makes three failures and two successes since 1997. Since the second world war we have undertaken 14 military adventures, of which seven have been failures and seven have been clear or qualified successes. That makes no attempt to weigh outcomes against loss of life; it considers only the outcome. Surely, a pass rate of 50 per cent and falling is too low to be acceptable when we are talking about peace and war, life and death.

That is what makes the talk about “principled” internationalism and humane interventionism so exasperating. It shows a British establishment of self-righteousness and group-think that blithely assumes that our interventions will always be well-intentioned, “principled” and efficacious, when history shows they have frequently been none of those things. They have always been partial; we covertly supported Saddam when he attacked Iran, turned on him when he attacked Kuwait and finally overthrew him when he was no longer attacking anyone. We dealt happily with Mubarak and the Saudis while anathematizing the Assads. We vote at the UN for resolutions condemning random infractions of human rights while vetoing, opposing or occasionally abstaining on others such as resolutions condemning Israeli theft of Palestinian land. There is a consistency in our actions in that they are predictable – not on the basis of humanitarian principle, but on the basis of whether the country concerned buys its arms from us and the United States or from the Russians. We can, of course, do better.  Yet to propose a British foreign policy based simply on “human rights and the protection of civilians” is self-deception of a high order. We would be conflicted and we do not have the political culture to be reliable as the world’s equitable policeman.

We don’t have the resources either. Leave aside “principle”, what about efficacy?  In a democracy it is difficult to sustain a long commitment to military action which is expensive in lives and money unless the most essential interests of the country are involved. It was clear to the British public that no essential national interest was involved in either Iraq or Afghanistan. That awareness kept our commitment down to a level that was inadequate but it was maintained for a long time before its futility became too evident to ignore any longer. Our troops were brave but they were dying for nothing and – to the shame of our politicians –  continued to do so well past the point where everyone could see as much.

Sierra Leone, on the other hand, was a success because the opposing forces, politically and militarily, were such that the force we could commit was able to cope.

Now we are in Syria where it is too early to declare success or failure. But there is only one way to bet. What are trying to achieve? And how can we achieve it? There are no answers to these questions. We want to defeat Isis but of course we cannot possibly co-operate with Assad or his blood-stained army.  That takes woolly-mindedness to a new level.  In Syria there is only one question: do we detest Isis enough to back the only force capable of beating them, namely the Syrian army supported by the Russian air force – just as Churchill allied with Stalin to defeat Hitler?  No, stomachs not strong enough? Then avoid military action. Dropping bombs on areas occupied by Isis is not a policy; it is an emotional spasm.

The first objective must be to stop the war. That requires hard-headedness, not our habitual wishful thinking. Indulging in fantasies about negotiating Assad’s departure won’t do it. He is a bloodstained crook but has become the only credible defender of the Alawites, Christians, and other religious minorities, not to mention Russian bases. Why would any of those clients surrender him?  Probably the only way to peace is via an armistice that recognises the de facto division of the country. We should confine ourselves to that, realisable, objective. People can live without democracy; they cannot live with a daily exposure to high explosives – even ours.

A sensible Left foreign policy would recognise that not every problem has a solution, or it may not lie in our hands. Begin with the Hippocratic injunction: “first, do no harm”. Or, if you prefer, Obama’s “don’t do dumb stuff”. Our politicians excoriated Chirac when he declared “war should always be a last resort” and would not follow us into Iraq.  But who can quarrel with that statement? It would not be a bad principle. It would certainly be an improvement on “liberal interventionism” whose humanitarian claims will always be compromised and subverted in practice by other political considerations. Our “principles” will be selectively applied and tend to reinforce the widespread view that the British are hypocrites. Now I do not think our governments have been particularly hypocritical but perhaps they have lacked audience awareness. They have taken action from the usual mixture of motives including their interpretation of the national commercial and security interest, electoral calculations and subservience to a greater power with a dash of humanitarian concern. Then they have tried to persuade the world, and perhaps themselves, that they were acting purely out of high-minded consideration for the oppressed and international law. One is reminded of Macaulay’s remark that no spectacle is so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.

The other prevailing fault has been an imperial hang-over, a tendency to overestimate British military power observed in colonial conflicts and on several occasions since. After Afghanistan and Iraq we should be more realistic. No doubt the country has great reserves of resource and courage that would spring up if it were truly, existentially threatened. But in the current state of national temper the forces we can commit on actions peripheral to our interests should not be over-estimated or be asked to do too much.

It should be a sobering thought that the world would be a better place if  we had not committed troops or planes abroad on fully half the occasions that we did. Wilson resisted Johnson over sending our troops to Vietnam; Blair acquiesced to Bush. Who now cuts the better figure? It is not a retreat into isolationism nor is it abandoning an imagined international “role” to say we should be much more reluctant to make foreign interventions than we have been in the past. The criteria for doing so should be more tough-minded: what are we trying to achieve; is it defensible; what needs to happen to achieve it; can we make that happen? If the answer to the final part is ‘no’ then stop; dropping deadly, ineffectual bombs is a dishonourable displacement activity. I am certainly not a pacifist and I do not entirely trust Jeremy Corbyn’s instincts, but the bare truth is that he has been right in this area more often than his critics.

Gerald Holtham is an economist and former director of IPPR 

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Gerald Holtham is writing in response to a recent Fabian pamphlet, Outward to the World.