by Dan Hodges
Libya has turned into the first international crisis of David Cameron’s premiership. And he’s flunked it. When an ash cloud stranded thousands of British holidaymakers, the previous government deployed the Royal Navy. With the Middle East aflame, and hundreds of British workers in peril, this government turned to the heavy metal band, Iron Maiden. Bruce Dickinson, the group’s lead singer, is also marketing director and chief pilot of charter airline, Astraeus, one of the first to land at Tripoli to begin a belated evacuation. The RAF heroes of 633 squadron have been pensioned off for the heroes of flight 666.
At times like this, there is frequently a populist rush to judgment. “Something must be done”, goes the cry, even though operational and political realities make the situation far more difficult and complex. This is not one of those times. Ministers had sufficient warning of the spreading unrest in the region in general, and Libya in particular, yet they clearly had no coherent strategy in place for the evacuation of British nationals.
In fact, it is amazing that there appear to be no settled contingency plans for the rapid deployment of military or other assets to remove our citizens from areas of potential instability. It doesn’t need a doctorate in international relations to tell you that Colonel Gaddafi is a fruit cake with the potential to tip his country into chaos at the drop of a pair of his designer shades. Surely one of our chaps in the FCO should have twigged that a guy who calls himself “the Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” is worth keeping a wary eye on.
That said, I think the Brotherly Leader has more chance of clinging to office than our own foreign secretary. After the shambles over which he has presided, not even the most daring SAS rescue mission is going to save William Hague’s political career. Indeed, with the prime minister off acting as sales rep for the four horseman of the apocalypse, our part time deputy prime minister not even bothering with his usual half day in the office and the defence secretary down the boozer, the Libya debacle has had the entire government rocking.
All of which made Ed Miliband’s foray into international affairs in Sunday’s Observer doubly unfortunate. There were two constructive paths he could have followed: a forensic attack on the government’s mishandling of the crisis, or a serious analysis of the geo-political issues that led to it. He did neither.
At times it was vacuous:
“Our approach must combine hard-headed internationalism and practical support for democratic values with better co-ordination to help achieve functioning self-determination in the region”.
As opposed to a soft-headed approach and poor coordination?
At others it was simplistically populist:
“the demands of commerce risk our wider national interest if it leaves us bound tighter to regimes whose legitimacy is – at best – questionable. That is why we should also examine our arms sales to ensure that UK weaponry is not used for the repression of people in those countries”.
How do we do that? What will ensure that a rifle is used against an invader rather than a protestor, a bomb used against a column of advancing tanks, rather than a rebel village? If that principle had been upheld by the international community in the wake of bloody Sunday, Britain would have been defenceless until the signing of the Belfast agreement.
There were entire sections that read like they had been written by an intern. The ritualistic adverse criticism of Israel on the issue of settlement building was ludicrously contrived, especially when set against the abstract context of the rest of the speech. You could almost hear the boxes being ticked: democracy and freedom – check; Israel – check; arms sales – check.
But if most of what Ed wrote was at worst banal, there was one passage that was not:
“the neocons were wrong to think we could impose democracy at the point of a gun. In this new era, soft power will often be a better way to achieve hard results”.
That isn’t a meaningless statement. It’s a profoundly dangerous one. At the moment, Ed Miliband is leader of the opposition. In international terms, his words count for relatively little. But they still count.
He aspires to be prime minister of the country, and the way David Cameron and co. are carrying on at the moment, that may not prove an empty aspiration. If Ed Miliband ever crosses the threshold of Downing Street, those words are going to come back to haunt him. More importantly, they are going to come back and seriously haunt the sort of people who are currently in the streets of Benghazi, Mizurati and Tripoli, fighting for their freedom.
If the Gaddafis and Mubaraks of the world believe they will only ever be faced with the threat of “soft power”, they will be going nowhere. Because they won’t have to. Once the oppressed people of the world hear prime minister Miliband stating, as he did in the Observer, that he will send nothing more than “the British Council and the BBC World Service” to aid them in their struggle, then their dreams of freedom and liberty will be fated to remain just that. And at a time when the UN is debating the introduction of a no fly zone, it’s not helpful or politically astute for Labour’s leader to be threatening to take down Gadaffi with a sustained blast of the Reith lectures.
What’s really strange about this article is that in Stewart Wood, Gordon Brown’s former foreign policy advisor, and David Clark, former advisor to Robin Cook, he has two of Labour’s foremost foreign policy experts at his disposal. Nor were either Brown or Cook shrinking violets when it came to liberal interventionism. Brown was fully supportive of the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan, while Cook was a robust advocate of “boots on the ground” during the war in Kosovo.
What the article does highlight is three of Ed Miliband’s current weaknesses. A desire to play to the gallery of liberal opinion. A need to distance himself from the symbols, if not the substance, of the New Labour era, of which the Iraq catastrophe remains the most potent. And finally, and perhaps most debilitating, his own inability to place himself in the mind-set of a prime minister.
The wish to decouple himself from the legacy of Iraq is understandable, and even the need to court his small l-liberal constituency is excusable. But when to comes to foreign affairs he does not have the luxury of developing a plasticine policy agenda that can be remoulded were he ever to be fortunate enough to find himself in office.
Tucked away at the very back of the Observer’s comment pages, Ed Miliband’s words will have been missed by most people. But they will not have been missed in Tripoli. Nor in countless other capitals where hard power is the only power that counts.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.