As a general rule any time you read an article asking that foreign policy be recalibrated to take greater account of the "national interest" you can be sure that you’re dealing with blather and hokum and platitudes and a deliberate misrepresentation of whatever the other mob got up to when they were in power. Sadly Dominic Raab’s contribution to a new book, presumptiously titled After the Coalition, proves all this all too well.
I say sadly because Raab, a freshman Tory MP, is sound on a good number of issues I care about, civil liberties most especially. Nevertheless, his piece, reprinted by the Telegraph, is rotten. Let’s count the ways. Mr Raab begins with this:
After the hollow realpolitik that tolerated genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica, the pendulum of British foreign policy swung to the ill-focused exuberance of the Blair-Brown era. From military overreach to implausible environmental targets, Britain has fallen short of many of her dizzying international ambitions. Now, amidst austerity at home, our foreign policy must be re-defined. Britain rightly sees herself as a global good citizen, but she must reconcile ambition with power, ends with means – shedding utopian idealism in favour of a more rugged internationalism, putting the national interest first, not last.
Realpolitik may be many things but it is rarely hollow. Is realpolitik bad, however? The first sentence of this paragraph leads us to belive it must be; the last sentence suggests it should be the guiding principle of British foreign policy. As we shall see a "more rugged internationalism" is, unless defined specifically, a useless phrase. Sadly Mr Raab never defines it usefully. Moreover his suggestion that the Blair and Brown ministries put the "national interest" last, not first is, or should be, unworthy of the man. Does he really believe that any British government of any stripe has ever wilfully ignored the national interest? If so he should damn well say so and explain how and when this happened and cease being so prettily prissy about it. For that matter, if our international ambitions are really "dizzying" should they really remain our ambitions?
Take military intervention. Shrouded by the “dodgy dossier”, which warped opaque intelligence, none of the stated war aims in Iraq spoke to the British national interest. Illusory dreams of bringing Western-style democracy to the Middle East were punctured by failures of planning and strategy, as catalogued before the Chilcot Inquiry.
Well, the intelligence that bolstered the case for war was scarcely unfathomable or "opaque" and to suppose that the "dodgy dossier" was responsible for leading Britian into Iraq is to simplify matters to a point at which all discussion becomes all but useless. Moreover, to say that "none of the stated war aims in Iraq spoke to the national interest" is itself an interesting re-interpretation of history (and, one might add, a repudiation of the Conservative party’s own view).
Given that "dealing" with Saddam had been a matter of some importance for some twenty years, claiming that Britain had no obvious interest in the Iraq adventure is absurd. Even if you accept – as you need not – that the only reasonable rationale for the war was to remove the threat of Saddam’s WMD programmes (as they were then understood to be) then it is hard to see how counter-proliferation efforts are not actually in Britain’s interest.
Furthermore, if the "failures of planning and strategy" were responsible for "puncturing" these "illusory" dreams of a democratic and, perhaps, healthier future for the middle east does that mean the fault lay in the planning and strategy or the idea itself? And though it is not at all obvious that Iraq opened the way for the "Arab Spring" – the outcome of which remains in doubt of course – does the reality of that spring mean these dreams were more, or less, illusory? Alas Mr Raab does not choose to dwell upon these matters.
A similar chasm between ends and means haunts the brave efforts of troops in Afghanistan. A surgical operation against al-Qaeda after 9/11 morphed into nation-building that one military chief estimates will require a military presence for up to 40 years. Likewise, humanitarian intervention, such as in Libya, requires international resolve, achievable goals and an exit strategy. Britain should scale down her current commitments and, in the short term, limit herself to wars of necessity.
One can have some sympathy with this, not least since I too was sceptical about the Libyan intervention. Nevertheless, it is silly to try and pretend that all conflicts have obvious entry and exit points. Afghanistan has been a mission-creep theatre for sure but Raab offers no insight into what he might have done differently. It is eay to carp – that’s what pundits are for! – but rather harder to deal with the unexpected consequences of actions undertaken in good faith.
And good faith matters. This talk of "wars of necessity" is easy in hindsight but at the time it was not so simple. No-one, not Tony Blair nor anyone else, has made a case for "wars that are, you know, optional but, trust me, I think a pretty good idea even though we don’t have to do it." To the contrary, Blair – like Major and Thatcher before him – took the view that sending soldiers into battle was a necessary evil that was in the national interest. It was not a computer game and he, like his predecessors, was not a Boy Scout.
Beyond immediate operations, our priorities must reflect our interests and capabilities. First, that requires robust affirmation of the right of self-defence to protect territory, allies, citizens and shipping – against judicial erosion by the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice.
Well, sure. But the war in Afghanistan was a war of self-defence. Many people may have forgotten this but that don’t change the truth. NATO responded to 9/11 by invoking Article Five of its constitution for the first time: an attack on one member of the alliance was an attack on all. Afghanistan became a Treaty War. We were defending territory, allies and citizens and it was a war of self-defence. Dispute this all you like; it remains the bloody truth. For better or for worse.
Other than that, behold the bravery of suggesting our foreign policy be reflected by "our interests and capabilities"! Controversial! The better question, of course, is what our interests and capabilities actually are. This government claims to maintain most of the former while downgrading the latter.
Second, it means replacing ill-defined nation-building and regime change with support for fledgling democracies, and UN peace-keeping operations that combine international backing with local buy-in.
By definition "regime change" can hardly be "ill-defined". And support for "fledgling democracies" is nation-building by another name and, what’s more, often dependent upon regime change in the first place. UN peace-keeping operations have, again by definition, "international backing" but are also, however worthy, a strain on the limited resources Britain enjoys. Since Raab decries the apparent over-use of those resources in one arena it is perplexing that he seems willing to transfer those resources elsewhere rather than keep them in reserve for matters even more obviously in the "national interest". And UN missions are also nation-building efforts and many of them are ill-defined too.
Just like it was in the 20th, 19th and 18th centuries!
We need to replace hubris with a humility and patient progress. If ends must be reconciled with means, they should not be sacrificed for them. It is time to eschew the Western legacy derived from former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s quip about Tito: “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” From Saddam to Gaddafi, cosseting despots has proved immoral and counter-productive.
Oh, for the love of god! Raab is right that "cosseting despots" is often immoral and sometimes counter-productive. But that approach has, in its way, been an example of the humility he seeks. It may stink but it’s also a recognition that the world is not as we would desire it and we lack the means to transform it in the ways we might wish. The "hubris", some might say, has been to insist upon transformation overseas and, lo, earlier in his article, Raab appeared to be of that mind too before changing his view when it came to that all-important final paragraph. So he’s really at war with himself, not anyone else. If cosseting despots is a Bad Thing and getting rid of despots and embarking upon the necessary post-despot nation-building is also a Bad Thing then you’re left with a foreign policy long on moaning and short on any useful or practical application.
Which is one reason why, though often misunderstood, Blair’s foreign policy at least had the virtue of coherence. True, We do what we can as and where and when the circumstances either allow or demand is not the grandest of rallying cries but it at least has the merit of being realistic and temperate (yes, really) and just about sensible.
Raab, by contrast, prefers to pretend that his opponents took no view of what might be in Britain’s best interests and, in so doing, demonstrates a lack of charity that scarcely becomes him while commiting the awful errors of assuming that he alone can divine the national interest despite showing no sign that this is so and writing a piece that, when not resting upon blathering boilerplate, is rife with contradiction, woolly thinking and wholly depressing when one remembers that Raab is one of the brighter Tory freshmen.Tags: Afghanistan, Blair, Britain, Foreign Policy, Hackery, Iraq, Tories