What Ed Miliband lacks in charisma, he is attempting to make up for in polemic. Tragically for the UK’s future, this represents an ‘Americanization‘ of British electoral politics. In all likelihood, its origins are David Axelrod cynically taking a page out of the Republicans’ playbook. Fortunately, repeated screaming of ‘Benghazi’ as if it were a primordial voodoo incantation, is unlikely to work on this side of the Atlantic.
Speaking at Chatham House on Friday, Miliband sought to pre-empt his critics by laying out a cohesive vision for foreign affairs – usually considered his weakest policy area. He preached multilateralism in quite compelling terms, shrewdly articulated the dangers of an in-or-out EU referendum, and summed up the primary threats facing the world into three elegant categories. Professorial in tone, the focus was entirely backward-looking. Clearly grasping at straws for how to attack his opponent, he indirectly criticised David Cameron’s handling of Libya in the wake of Qadhafi’s ouster in 2011. He failed, however, to present any concrete proposal on how to address the current humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean or how to use Western influence to halt Libya’s ongoing civil war.
Miliband is right to point out that Libya would have fared better had the Western world been able to administer more capacity-building assistance after the fall of the Qadhafi regime. Yet, Miliband’s speech writers apparently haven’t studied the history of Western involvement in Libya enough to coherently explain how we might have better helped our Libyan allies ‘transition to democracy’.
Instead of proposing novel solutions to the conundrum of nation-building in the Islamic world, Miliband went on the attack, asserting that ‘David Cameron was wrong to assume that Libya’s institutions could be left to evolve and transform themselves.’ To investigate this claim, I contacted a few former FCO members who were advising Cameron on Libya from both Tripoli and Whitehall between 2011-2014. They confirmed to me that no one in Number 10 made any such a naive assumption and that Labour was constantly consulted and informed of the coalition’s Libya policy.
Miliband’s unwarranted potshot at Cameron is unstatesmanlike and frankly inexcusable. One of the greatest traditions of British politics, relative to its French or American counterparts, is not to politicise foreign policy decisions. Personalise, as with criticisms of Tony Blair’s policies in Iraq – yes – but make it into a partisan political issue – no. This tradition allows Britain to punch above its weight in influencing Western foreign policy and to allow British input to be made in a professional way by diplomats and permanent undersecretaries, rather than in a partisan way by politicians and political appointees.
In a less partisan gaffe, Miliband asserted that in the wake of Qadhafi’s ouster it was predictable ‘that when tensions over power and resources emerged, they simply reinforced deep-seated ideological and ethnic faultlines’. Here Ed seems to have confused Libya with Iraq. Libya is more than 90 per cent Sunni Arab and the conflicts that have emerged among rival militias and power centres do not really pit ethnic groups or long-standing ideological blocs against each other. They are about personalities, regionalism, oil money, Islamism and, primarily in my estimation, about the role that former Qadhafi personnel should be allowed to play in public life.
Later in his remarks, Miliband again insinuated that the international community – and Cameron in particular – had failed to offer sufficient assistance to the nascent Libyan statebuilders. Even if this were the case, it is certainly not the reason that Libya currently lacks sovereignty and is engulfed in a multipolar civil war. The real problem is that post-revolution Libya has suffered from a leadership vacuum and its elected transitional politicians deliberately chose to appease and subsidise the militias. From 2011 until the fracturing of the Libyan state in the summer of 2014, Western diplomats (including many capable British ones) and various academic analysts like myself have been suggesting alternative policy options to our Libyan counterparts. Yet, short of old-school imperialism we couldn’t force them. Miliband’s view that somehow ‘the West broke Libya’, and that if he had held the reins of power, it might have been different, is deeply hypocritical.
In the words of an anonymous Labour-leaning former diplomat, ‘ironically, had Ed Miliband been in power in 2011-13, the FCO’s preference for a hands-off approach to reconstruction would have been even more pronounced and it would certainly have been reinforced from the top by Miliband’s attempts to distance himself from Blair’s legacy.’