A response to Labour’s military interventionists

by Lee Butcher

Kirsty McNeill and Andrew Small’s contribution to Progress Online on “the interventionist dilemma” reopens an important but neglected debate within the party. The pre-eminence of the ‘interventionists’ (as they term it) within the Blair and Brown governments were key to how the last government acted out in the world, and the consequences that had for those on the receiving end and for the party’s popularity at home.

The silence on this matter of the party since returning to opposition has seen discussions about the future, or otherwise, of interventionism within the party largely neglected. This is partly due to the convention of opposition parties sticking close by the government on such matters, and partly to avoid reopening the barely healed wounds of Iraq. Such a debate ought to be had before returning government. On this I would agree with McNeill and Small, there however is where my agreement with their analysis ends.

There is an assumption that runs throughout their article that British intervention overseas is not just desirable, but is of critical value to ourselves and to the rest of the world. They make a rather curious assertion that because of American withdrawal from foreign commitments a future Labour government will need to immediately budget for doing so ourselves. Though they do not explicitly say so, one would ask if this would be done on a unilateral basis. This view would seem to be contradicted by an example they cite, Libya, which was done with close co-operation with France. The evidence would strongly suggest that if it is not the Americans we accompany into such pursuits it is our European partners. To believe that the United Kingdom can aspire to going it alone does not take into account the size and strength of our armed forces and what they are capable of achieving. This has been made plainly clear by the Strategic Defence and Security Review.

If McNeill and Small get their way and Prime Minister Miliband instructs Chancellor Balls to budget for increased military spending while critical spending at home is being squeezed, they will quickly find they lack the support of their Labour colleagues in Parliament and vast swathes of the electorate. For all the recent support for the military, spending on wars abroad remains unpopular when schools and hospitals are falling to pieces.

The problems with McNeill’s and Small’s view are not just at home. A foreign policy of values, led principally by military intervention, is inherently problematic. The first is to question how often we have seen such a policy enacted. Often there have been far more motivating factors (in the government’s view) for interventions elsewhere; the Balkans to avoid a state of chaos and insecurity on Europe’s south eastern borders , Afghanistan to remove America’s attackers and Iraq to install democracy in the Middle East – the latter cases in order for Britain to remain close to a critical ally. Rwanda itself is a case in point; a place of marginal importance to British or American interests and the superpower recently stung by a debacle in Somalia ensured nothing happened. Humanitarianism alone has rarely been a motivating factor for our government.

Secondly if we choose to enforce values we have to ask what sort of values are we exporting? In Iraq exchanging tyranny for chaos and sectarian conflict hardly seems worth the sacrifice of Iraqi, British and American lives.  If the answer is democracy, we have to ask what kind of democracy? The problems of translating the American or Westminster systems of governance to parts of the world with societies that differ greatly to our own are evidenced across the world. Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East are cases in point where the competitive ‘winner takes all’ democracy has exacerbated, rather than calmed, tensions and conflicts.

Throughout the assumption is made that we know best, that we are uniquely placed to adjudicate on behalf of foreigners’ unfortunate enough not to be us. A neo-Chamberlainite tendency of this form of arrogance still flows strongly through the veins of Britain’s foreign policy makers.  It is here where the danger emerges. Wherever we have intervened the destructive process of regime change has been achieved easily, but the creative processes of rebuilding shattered societies have foundered. We knew too little about Iraq, Afghanistan, even Sierra Leone and the Balkans and politicians were largely uninterested in knowing the complexities of the societies they were seeking to change. We were firmly convinced by our own intrinsic superiority which rendered such knowledge obsolete. Worst of all, we rarely asked the people we were supposedly liberating what it was they wanted, and where we did we often ignored any answers which contradicted our own pre-conceived opinions.

McNeill and Small are correct to say that some form of interventionism is needed, but their response of relying on the military is mistaken. A Britain engaged with the world needs to establish credibility by understanding well the places we are concerned about and of establishing connections with those we wish to support. The value and impact of so-called ‘soft power’ has been forgotten in the rush to militarism under the last Labour government.

In all the places that we chose to invade Britain largely ignored them until these decisions were being taken. Due to long term negligence short-term decisions were taken which were based on weak foundations. That mistake should not be repeated and a Labour Prime Minister would be well advised to begin the process of establishing long term “soft” engagements in an intelligent and thoughtful way with those societies and communities which we are concerned about.

Britain, as a second rate military power, needs to establish itself in a new role. That is either the smaller friend of a superpower or a player in an alliance of nations. That alliance can focus on military solutions, or it can look for alternatives. Britain should lead the way in convincing our friends in Europe and elsewhere to prioritise human rights and to encourage speaking out in support of them. This must be done consistently; invading one country for human rights violations while ignoring violations in places like Israel and China greatly undermines our credibility. Moving away from militarism and toward a consistent approach in speaking out against all violators, while seeking change by ‘soft power’ in conjunction with likeminded allies, is one compelling alternative role a future Labour PM should investigate.

Above all caution should guide us in seeking to enforce our values on societies which are not our own. We must not assume that what is good for us is good everyone, as the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Lee Butcher works for a Labour MP and is a postgraduate history student at Birkbeck, University of London. This article reflects his own views


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6 Responses to “A response to Labour’s military interventionists”

  1. steve says:

    “all the recent support for the military”

    Never confuse support for our put-upon military personnel with support for the wars initiated from the comfort of Westminster by deceitful politicians and justified by feverishly ambition sycophants.

  2. Jonathan Roberts says:

    How on Earth are we a second rate military power? We have the 5th largest military in the world – those above us have significantly higher populations. Take the Royal Navy as an example – the QE-class carriers soon to come on stream, the Type 45 destroyers and Astute-class subs are amongst the most advanced in the world – developed through British engineering by companies such as BAE and Babcock Marine. They are outstanding.

    We head up EUNavFor and essentially lead the global operation to defend trillions of pounds worth of global trade from piracy activity in the Indian Ocean, and are leading the training of forces on the West coast of Africa to prevent the predicted rise in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

    And that covers a tiny, tiny fraction of what the HM Armed Forces do. Did you know any of that? If not, why did you write the article? Or are you just engaging in Britain-bashing?

    Personally I think the role we play in global defence is nothing short of incredible for what, in terms of both geography and population, is a small island. And I’m proud of that.

    For me, arguing against intervention in the most heinous of cases – such as Kosovo – is to argue against Labour values of defending those who can’t defend themselves.

  3. This is an important debate. Labour needs to come to terms with Britain’s role in the world. Britain (and Labour) ought to stand up for the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, perhaps most importantly Article 3 ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.’ These rights ought to trump the rights of dictators and their allies. These rights ought to move British people, their government, and yes, the Labour Party to seek ways of defending human beings when they are being needlessly slaughtered. There is no simple way of doing this. The way forward is not easy. Action can and often does have negative consequences. But inaction is not a morally neutral stance, for this country and for Labour. Inaction has consequences too, as we discovered when we (the UK, EU, West and Nato) collectively failed to prevent the massacre of Bosnia’s Muslims, or when we failed abysmally to protect the Tutsis in Rwanda. Or in Darfur, where the US even declared a genocide yet failed to act (despite being signatory to the Genocide Convention).

    I’ve written about these issues relating to Libya, Syria and Iraq – https://docs.google.com/document/d/1qgu1lzxj7J5Ukcxy66SDk8w11wjGkozyqImxyp4YU-o/edit

    My most recent article followed a visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, where I saw first hand, the human consequences of inaction – at Domiz refugee camp, near the Syrian border – http://slingerblog.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/my-article-in-spectator-blog-and-wall.html

  4. gary kent says:

    Lee Butcher’s response to Kirsty McNeill and Andrew Small made me uneasy, not because I disagree that intervention, whether soft or hard, needs debating and there is a limit to what the UK can and should do in the light of limited defence spending and capability, but because I disagreed with his summaries of why some previous military actions were taken and their consequences.

    He writes, for instance, that the aim of the intervention in the Balkans was “to avoid a state of chaos and insecurity on Europe’s south eastern borders” and that of Iraq was “to install democracy in the Middle East.”

    There was more to the case for intervention in the Balkans and in Iraq. In the former, it was to avert genocide and in the latter it was to prevent a regime, which had used WMD in a genocidal campaign against the Kurds, from using the WMD that most understandably assumed that Iraq still had as well as to encourage democracy in a pivotal country in the Middle East and thereby undercut potential alliances between rogue states and jihadists.

    Lee also writes that “In Iraq exchanging tyranny for chaos and sectarian conflict hardly seems worth the sacrifice of Iraqi, British and American lives.” Well, this is a long and bitter debate in which I am undoubtedly in a minority but it was rather more than a run of the mill tyranny – it was fascism and had inflicted mass murder into the millions, including two wars of external aggression against Kuwait and
    Iran, and repression for decades.

    The invasion was the easy part but the way in which the occupation was enforced was disastrous and it is true that Arab Iraq is in a mess – the highest death tolls in recent months and the Al Qaeda jail break come to mind – but Iraq has had several elections and is far freer than it ever was or was going to be under Saddam.

    The threat of genocide against the Kurdistan Region has been lifted and it is the safest and most prosperous part of Iraq – a model for the rest of the country to follow. The big question is why external intervention was not taken earlier when it could have stopped the genocide against the Kurds.

    Lee later adds that “We knew too little about Iraq, Afghanistan, even Sierra Leone and the Balkans and politicians were largely uninterested in knowing the complexities of the societies they were seeking to change. We were firmly convinced by our own intrinsic superiority which rendered such knowledge obsolete. Worst of all, we rarely asked the people we were supposedly liberating what it was they wanted, and where we did we often ignored any answers which contradicted our own pre-conceived opinions.”

    The Conservative MP Rory Stewart, himself a former diplomat and governor in Iraq, made a similar point in a recent debate in the Commons. We often don’t know much about closed societies. We didn’t, for instance, know how far the Libyan regime had developed its WMD before it was shaken into dealing with the West after the invasion of Iraq. We should do more to increase our understanding and to be respectful but without underplaying the universal values of democracy
    and human rights. Lee’s jibe of “intrinsic superiority” is a bit throwaway and not sustained.

    As for asking the Iraqis before the invasion, this was rather difficult given they endured a dictatorship which silenced them, at pain of death, but we shouldn’t forget that externally-based Iraqis and those in Kurdistan (then under the protection of a western no-fly zone not mandated by the sadly hapless UN) urged and welcomed intervention. It soured in Arab Iraq as the Pentagon got so many
    things wrong and made it easier for Baathist and Al Qaeda to begin a sectarian civil war. I can emphatically say that the intervention was and is seen as a liberation in Iraqi Kurdistan.

    By all means, let’s have a debate but let’s define things much more clearly.

  5. Lee Butcher says:

    Thanks for the great comments everyone, a very productive debate.

    Steve – responsibility for these decisions does lay with politicians; my comment referred to recent cultural developments in favour of the armed forces among the public, the ‘Help for Heroes’ phenomenon perhaps. It was intended to argue that despite these developments (regardless of one’s views of them) the public will be unlikely to support expensive wars abroad when austerity is at work at home.

    Jonathan – while the UK armed forces are relatively well equipped and do a good job, when compared to the United States our forces are very much second rate. The kinds of operations we are discussing, large scale occupation of extensive geographical reach, are very different from maritime operations that you mention. They involve a relatively restricted number of assets and do not compare in scale to the likes of Iraq and Afghanistan. They are better characterised as maritime policing, rather than occupying and rebuilding entire nations. Pride isn’t really the topic up for debate, it is about a dispassionate and reasonable assessment of what we can achieve, this is even more important as we seek to downsize the full time forces available for deployment. Those limitations are shared by the powers of a similar size to us, and are certainly not a problem peculiar to Britain. Libya is a good example of this; even a limited operation without troop deployments required a multi-national approach, without the Americans individual mid-range powers cannot undertake extensive operations unilaterally.

    You are right John, those values are important. My case is that those principles, when we have tried to act on them, have been compromised by their application. ‘Right to life, liberty and security of person’ was firmly violated when civilians were accidentally killed by our forces. Regardless of the intent, there was no life, liberty or security in the grave for those people. In a more general sense the situation we created by removing Saddam, and the severe loss of the life that occurred in the resulting insurgency and sectarian violence, while not committed by us, occurred in a situation we created. It is a deeply uncomfortable truth that our mistakes lead to those horrendous and wide spread violations of human rights taking place. The same is true in Afghanistan. Our actions resulted in excess deaths that any reasonable assessment would likely judge that the previous regimes would struggle to cause under the pre-existing conditions. Indeed inaction isn’t morally neutral, if it avoids creating a worse situation from emerging it can be morally positive. Morality, as I mentioned in the article, is a difficult concept to put into practice. All moral decision making has to ask, whose morality? Morality is constructed by those involved in the process, and it is prone to leaning upon whatever biases and misconceptions those decision makers bring into the process. Morality is not a universal constant that exists separately from the individuals and institutions involved. If even then we are able to land upon a desired moral objective the question of executing it becomes critical, which takes us back to where we began. Morality in an abstract sense of right and wrong, good and evil, is a questionable basis for policy. Practicality and reason ought to dominate, that doesn’t mean that humanitarian aims cannot or should not be followed, but they should be grounded in an objective evaluation of the situation on the ground, not on abstract moral considerations in the metropolis.

    Gary – I agree that the reasons for these conflicts were multifaceted. My argument was that the causes I mentioned were not the only causes, but that because they were complex developments humanitarian intervention was in competition with other, less altruistic, reasons. I would argue that the history of British foreign policy firmly places the balance toward strategic and self-interested reasons for foreign policy decisions over the long view. Your example in Iraq is a good example. Democracy promotion has the (theoretical) positive side-affect of helping the populations involved, though our form of democracy has actually exacerbated, rather than healed, divisions in many locations in Africa and the Middle East. Democracy promotion also installs friendly governments more amendable to Western interests; countries more prone to supporting Western aims in the region, more open to Western trade etc. Doing this has a long vintage which has continuity from the time of British dominance through to American hegemony in the Cold War; regime change was about Western interests first, with the affected populations a secondary concern. I believe that ‘intrinsic superiority’ is actually very much the point of this debate. Throughout there is an assumption that it is our business to intervene in the lives of other societies and that doing so will do them unquestionable good. That assumption is based on our own conviction of our abilities and our values. Why would we do not them any good, and why would they not want to be like us? That is an instinct that runs deeply and for a long time in Western foreign policy making (and it is certainly not just a British issue). Recent débâcles ought to direct us toward humility in these matters. Asking those affected is difficult to do, though that is not helped by the near total absence of intelligence work in these countries. Too have such little focus on places we invaded is the height of poor foreign policy. There is also the problem of who we are asking. Diaspora groups may not represent those on the ground, and those who form lobbying groups may also be disconnected or have their own interests. Syria is a prime example of this. There is also the problem of what happens to ruling communities when the regime collapses, whether they are minority Sunnis in Iraq or minority Alawites.

  6. steve says:

    @Lee
    Thanks for the clarification.

    The point had to be made as, on several occasions, some Labour politicians have attempted to fuse support for military personnel with support for Labour’s disastrous foreign policy decisions.

    Of course, ordinary people know that the forces are constituted by brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers: i.e. people just like them. This is one reason why sympathy for the forces is so extensive.
    And it’s worth comparing this situation with that of the House of Commons, where an institutional bias operates against participation by ordinary people. Indeed, ordinary people will most likely only get a look-in as cleaners on zero-hours contracts. This, of course, partly accounts for the extreme low regard accorded to expense-hungry, gravy-train riding, disaster initiating careerist MPs.

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