Ed’s not going to take down Gaddafi with a sustained blast of the Reith lectures

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.


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12 Responses to “Ed’s not going to take down Gaddafi with a sustained blast of the Reith lectures”

  1. Tacitus says:

    Fair comment and sadly further evidence that Ed is showing signs of not being up to the job. Not that i want to see him warmongering like Cameron! Although I am sure that Dave’s rants were hailed by all the Tory right – they like nothing better than a good scrap. “Remember the Falklands!” I hear them yell as another few hundred British servicemen and women fall in the battlefield.

    No, Ed needs to be above all this and demonstrate a statesman-like quality while calling for peace and negotiation over Libya. Trouble is, I’m not even 100% certain Ed even knows where Libya is!!!!!!

  2. DevonChap says:

    Given this article misses out the SAS desert rescue that had started well before the charter plane problems I think the author ought to update articles they write on Saturday night before publishing on Tuesday.

  3. donpaskini says:

    “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.”

    You think if Ed Miliband were in power now, the Egyptians and Libyans would be be thinking, “well, we were going to rise up and overthrow our leaders, but we’re not sure that the British government is prepared to use military force to support us, so let’s not bother because it is basically hopeless?”

    It’s certainly an original analysis.

  4. Very well said Dan. The party has to heal its internal wounds and merely saying, as Ed M did, that Iraq was wrong, is not sufficient. We must reiterate that we would be prepared to intervene, perhaps not in situations akin to Iraq, but in situations where there are failed states. I.e. Labour must not revert to its comfort zone or seek merely to appease the left. It must set out a credible foreign policy. An ‘ethical foreign policy’ Mk II. It’s a long process, but one we must not shy away from because of the polarisation and acrimony of Iraq. We must remain in solidarity with oppressed people and be prepared, in extremis, to do something about it. We have a responsibility to protect. We have a responsibility to drive forward changes at the EU and UN level to ensure that the responsibility to protect is not merely enshrined in law but is practicable. Just as with those left wingers who went to Spain to fight Franco, we must not assume that the morally upstanding position of someone from the left is always to oppose war. It is not. Libya may place Ed Miliband in a very uncomfortable position. But doing the right thing in international relations is often uncomfortable, as Tony Blair found out.

  5. Helene Davidson says:

    Having hosted a houseful of inadvertent refugees during the volcanic eruption, I can assure you the UK government did not cover itself in glory for the way it was handled. Otherwise a very well argued view.

  6. luke says:

    Spoken like a true neo-con

  7. Dan Hodges says:

    Donpaskini,

    I think the outcome of events in Libya will have a direct impact upon whether the current wave of popular uprisings continue. If Gaddafi holds on it will encourage other dictators to dig in.

    If he goes, then I suspect others will follow. The willingness of the global community to both threaten intervention and intervene militarily if necessary will have a direct impact on what happens in Libya, and elsewhere.

    One think I’m absolutely certain of, if the greatest threat to middle-east dictators is the British Council and BBC World Service non of them will be going anywhere.

  8. andrew says:

    So the Egypt evac. was a failure? The USA is saying that their evac from libya was an croc compaired to ours, just a matter of perspective.

    Anyone with a bit of knowledge, knows that the texbook for evacs, is written and edited over years, therefore, when the situation arose the civil servants, would just follow the instructions written down, when the situation changed then it was the civil service theat f***ed up. As can be seen by the advice given by the embassy and the F.O. grunts. It also looks like the technical faults were none of the sort ( heavy traffic in Hereford). Look for the personnel review of the F.O. under Miliband and weep.

    Do I have to remind anyone that Dave is not the first P.M. to travel with salesmen.

    On the issue of Ed, you are spot on. Soft power, OMG, like the prius. Who is the biggest embaressment Ed or Clegg.

  9. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    If you were 15, this would be a damning indictment of the failure of our school system to teach proper critical reading. As it is, this is just evidence of writing the article and that interpreting the facts to fit.

    “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.”

    Note the word often. Then note that you continue:

    “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.”

    Note that often and only ever are not the same thing. Often suggests that the presumption ought to be that soft power is the best path to take. Hard power only comes when it’s clear that’s not going to work – which is not yet the case in Libya, especially since the opposition don’t want yet direct intervention and China and Russia are resolutely opposed a no-fly zone.

    You might also note that Mubarak didn’t face any threat from outside his own borders – quite the reverse, even quite late into the crisis the Americans were happy for him to delegate some powers to Suleiman. But mostly I’d just concentrate on reading what the speech actually says, rather than going off on one for no very good reason.

    Yes, it was a meaningless speech. But if you’re going to comment on it, you still have to read it properly.

  10. The crisis in Libya changed the politics and economy of the whole world. As soon Gadaffi leaves the government, the world economy will stabilize and the inflation will reduce.

  11. Chris says:

    @Dan

    Total f*****g nonsense!!! How many British soldiers have to die before the you war mongers realise we aren’t the worlds policeman? This macho, lets play with the toy soldiers has cost how many lives? How much money has been pissed up the wall in Helmand?

  12. Maxy says:

    What the Labour Party should be calling for is for the Libya war to be referred back to the UN. We have in David Cameron an over confident and inexperienced Prime Minister who took us to war in Libya. When will the Labour Party have the courage to ask for a recall of Parliament. Most people in this country are against further involvment in Libya

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