The same arrogance that created disaster in Iraq is behind Brexit

It is a very British piece of political theatre. Yesterday Sir John Chilcot published the results of his enquiry into the Iraq. It is exhaustive, scrupulous, but examines events that are now ancient political history. Historians will find it useful, but in the big picture it tells us little we did not know already. It will have changed no minds. No currently active political career is affected. The US State Department spokesman sounded very puzzled over the attention the affair is getting, given the pressing challenges facing the world. No doubt that puzzlement is felt by other foreign observers. What was the point?

All I can say to that is that it is just the British way. We like to produce weighty reports that achieve little. Some people find it cathartic. It is much easier to reflect on the mistakes of the past than to consider a very messy present. I particularly enjoyed this reflection by an anti-war leftist in the New Statesman (Thank you Martha Zantides). I have always felt that moral certainties are evasions; my views on Iraq have always been ambiguous, notwithstanding the clear stand made by my party, the Liberal Democrats.

But I think it is a good moment to reflect on the nature of political power and decision-making. The immediate concern of Chilcot is Britain’s role in Iraq. And the main point here is how the moral certainty of Tony Blair, our then Prime Minister, managed to subvert the checks and balances of institutional decision-making to throw the country behind an American project, over which British leaders had very little influence. In Mr Blair’s eyes Saddam Hussein was a vicious dictator and a threat to world peace, and needed to be removed. He encouraged the Americans to work to that end, and backed them when they took the project on. After that he and the British were helpless passengers. British military resources, also committed to Afghanistan, were overstretched and forced into ignominious retreat – a small fraction of the continuing catastrophe that enveloped Iraq. Could this sort of thing happen again? Certainly; our institutions still favour the executive – though our capacity to act, and willingness to embroil ourselves in foreign adventures, are now much diminished.

But the British dimension was a sideshow. The real disaster in Iraq reflects the US political process. This firstly led to a reckless drive towards war, and, more culpably, a massive mis-judgement of how to deal with the aftermath. Driving these disastrous decisions was group of officials and politicians with a clear, driving vision. The most notorious was the Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; there was also Vice President Dick Cheney (who brought shadowy commercial interests into the picture) , and the highly influential Paul Wolfowitz, a real ideologue. Collectively these were known as the Neo-Conservatives, or Neocons.

The Neocons had a clear vision of the world and America’s role in it. They wished to push over dictatorships using US military power, and let the grateful people set up democracies and unregulated market economies in their place. They dismissed the legions of diplomatic and military types who made practical objections as being hidebound by old norms. They seized on small scraps of evidence that supported their case, and dismissed anything else. This was exploited by a group of Iraqi exiles, notably Ahmed Chalabi, who had no real political base, but told the Neocons what they wanted to hear about the country’s readiness to embrace American ways. This process, whereby an arrogant, visionary clique creates a simplified world view in the teeth of the evidence has been given a name: “groupthink”.  There are plenty of examples down through history. There are notable parallels within the ruling elites of Germany and Austria-Hungary before the First World War, for example. Democracies should not be as vulnerable as autocracies, as there should be more pluralism of thought, but Iraq showed that the US and British systems are not immune.

And in Britain we are now in the middle of another catastrophe brought about by groupthink – Brexit – though thankfully not one so threatening to human life. Amongst the supporters of Brexit in the British establishment we see the same ideological zeal, and the same unwillingness to get involved in the practical details. Chief amongst these is the Justice Secretary Michael Gove. This man is full of visionary zeal, but he seems unwilling to listen to experts. Indeed he publicly dismissed the usefulness of experts in the referendum campaign. This was evident in his stint as Education Secretary, when he dismissed the educational establishment as “the Blob”. Experts often lose the wood for the trees, and so must be open the challenge. But the answer is not to drive a bulldozer through them. Mr Gove’s term at Education achieved some good things, but was mainly a colossal waste of effort, which we are still picking up the pieces from.

Alongside Mr Gove sit, or sat, political opportunists like Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom, and anti-intellectual populists like Ukip’s Nigel Farage. And behind them there are a coterie of Brexit backers, a group of businessmen, financiers, think-tankers and retired officials who provide intellectual heft. These are united by a loathing of European Union institutions (admittedly not an inspiring edifice). These have created a construct of Britain outside the EU that is not dissimilar from the Neocon vision of Iraq after the US invasion. Hopelessly optimistic, and dismissive of the practical difficulties of achievement. These people are still popping up on Radio 4 to tell us all will be well after the first wobbles have been overcome. They have no concept of the pain that Brexit is inflicting on our very sense of self. It’s question of puling ourselves together and getting on with it. And if disaster ensues, it will be somebody else’s fault. Just like the Neocons in Iraq (and Tony Blair) who blame Iraq’s collapse on bad people, over whom they hold no sway.

Meaningful progress does not arrive through a visionary, revolutionary process imposed by a tiny elite. Neither does it emerge from a vacuum – the removal of the forces of order so that a new , more efficient system will emerge by market forces. It happens through a hard process of evolution, comprising a dialogue of bottom-up and top-down processes. It’s hard work and requires patience. Alas we have once more fallen victim to the impatient, who will walk away to leave others to clear up the mess.



Post Imperial thinking on the Iraq-Syria troubles needs to be challenged

Last week I watched BBC Question Time. Not something I do often, and not something I would care to repeat. It’s what happens when news is treated as entertainment. Three politician panellists put forth their careful platitudes, but at least showed some grounding in reality (none of them were in the Donald Trump school of politics). No doubt to spice things up the BBC added two journalists to the panel. They proceeded to spout a lot of provocative rubbish, in the way that you can when you are unaccountable for what you say. The audience chipped in with their own angry views. There was no time to unpick anything anybody said. It was all anger and provocation; there was no time for truth or solutions.

Syria came up as a subject, in the context of whether the RAF should extend its bombing to Islamic State targets in that country. It was striking that everybody seemed to think that Syria’s troubles were both our fault, and that it was our responsibility to sort them out. “Our” in this case being a rather fuzzy conflation of the the UK and the West generally. It is an attitude that I will call “post imperialism”. It is an advance on imperialism but shares much the same view of the world. It should be challenged.

The imperial era was at its height before the First World War broke out in 1914. In these times people in Britain and in other leading nations divided the world into three camps. On the one hand were the civilised countries, being the major powers: Britain, the USA, France and Germany at a minimum. Then there were the uncivilised or semi-civilised ones. The former had a positive duty to civilise the latter, and the favoured method was through colonisation, or other inclusion in an imperial domain. Then there were the countries in between: Russia, Turkey, Japan and so on, who were bit-players of different levels of importance.

Apart from a general mission to civilise, the major powers felt that empires were a good thing for the imperial powers themselves. This was mainly a matter of prestige, but various other economic and military benefits were widely touted. Failed states and political vacuums were therefore regarded as opportunities for imperial expansion. The main risk was of clashes between the rival powers. So the leaders of these major powers, and most of their people too, felt that what went on in any part of the “less civilised” world was their business. The doctrine of non-interference with the internal affairs of other states only applied to other major powers. China had particular reason to be aggrieved, as the major powers felt they could do what they liked, from grabbing port facilities to promoting the opium trade.

Post imperialism is definitely an advance. We now recognise that imperial possessions are more trouble than they are worth. Failed states are regarded as threats rather than opportunities. But there is still an attitude that the world is their business from the old colonial nations, and the US, and its implicit division of the world between the civilised and less civilised. It follows from this that practically any disaster anywhere in the world, outside a select group of stronger nations, is somehow the responsibility of these powers, and blame should be pinned on their political leaders. China and India are among the few big nations that reject this notion, with perhaps some marginal exceptions in their near-abroad. Russia shares the post imperialist attitude, but is bitter at being left out of the post imperialist club. The defeated powers of the Second World War, Germany and Japan, have more complex attitudes, it must be added and it wouldn’t be right to label them as post imperialist – though Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, wants to be.

But the trouble is that these post imperialist nations have no idea how to establish peaceful, thriving polities amongst the “lesser” nations. Do they back military strongmen, like Colonel Gadaffi, to preserve at least some semblance of stability and a functioning state? As soon as they do, these dictators push the limits to see how oppressive and corrupt they can be before they are rejected. This often leads to a catastrophic breakdown. Do they carry out “liberal interventions”, set up a new government and leave? But successes are rare (Sierra Leone perhaps) and the failures even more catastrophic (Iraq and Afghanistan).

So what we are left with is an incomplete “do something” idea, which involves finding some villains and hitting them with advanced weapons while keeping as few servicemen as possible in harm’s way. This has never worked, of course. But even some quite respectable people, like the Economist magazine, seem to favour it as better than nothing, which is a doubtful proposition.

So what do I suggest? We should step back and not assume that the great powers are ultimately responsible for any political mess that arises. There are plenty of more local people that can take the blame for the rise of IS, for example. Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki for his combination of malign neglect and downright oppression of Iraq’s Sunni tribes. The leaders of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey for stirring the pot without any interest in establishing a stable alterative. And Bashar al-Assad, who, though more competent than Mr Maliki, knew no other form of governance than outright oppression. And yet, with the exception of Mr Assad, criticism of these figures in the west is muted. It is much more fun to blame Tony Blair or George Bush. The record of both these men is atrocious, but it really isn’t helpful to keep blaming them as if they were the only grown-ups in the room. All that does is encourage the local powers to keep stirring the pot in the hope they will get western arms – or prestige from defeating them.

In the long run, the situation will only improve when the local powers start to practice mature statesmanship. The should be establishing diplomatic solutions with each other rather than fighting proxy wars and seeking to get outsiders involved. That will only start to happen when the western powers let go. No doubt limited humanitarian interventions will still be needed. But at some point we must grow up and admit that we are imperial powers no longer.


Bombing Isis: why am I so uncomfortable?

Paddy Ashdown says it’s OK. I supported the Nato intervention in Libya. As British MPs meet to consider whether the country should actively join the US and other nations in bombing the outfit that calls itself “The Islamic State”, and which I still refer to as “Isis”, this should be quite straightforward. But I have deep misgivings.

There are enough reasons why such action should be supported. Firstly Isis are evil. They represent a particular sort of totalitarianism that I detest, casually terminating the lives of anybody that gets in its way. Its attempt to appropriate the religion of Islam is as contemptible as the Ku Klux Klan’s similar appropriation of Christianity.

Secondly the action is legal under international law, provided that it stays within the boundaries of the Iraqi state, since the Iraqi government has requested it. Having said that I set less store by the norms of international law in such matters than many. It concedes too much power to sovereignty of national governments, and to the veto of UN Security Council members.

Thirdly, there is some level of direct threat. Isis has said that it wants to carry its crazy war into developed nations, including ours, through random acts of violence. It will kill any of our non-Muslim citizens that it can lay its hands on. Having said which it has not put much organisational effort into intervention in Western countries – being more interested in carving out its own statelet in Greater Syria.

I place some weight to showing solidarity with the USA. The Western powers are stronger if they act together, and we do have a very strong common interest. Still, the world view of many American politicians is ignorant nonsense, and we should not be too tied to them.

I find that my unease reflects a rather similar attitude with many on the political right to domestic politics. Actions driven by a  bleeding heart or anger can so often lead to the opposite of what we intend.

The first problem is dependency. The interventions by the USA and its allies in Iraq have led to an expectation that the Western powers will intervene to sort out any nasty problem in any neighbourhood (outside Russia, China or India, anyway). So the locals lose any incentive to sort out problems for themselves. We have seen this with Afghan government of Hamid Khazai. We have seen it with post Saddam governments in Iraq. They use the US security umbrella to carve out their own corrupt polities without any regard to their country’s long term future. They governments don’t even act as loyal allies.

The whole Isis mess was created by the failure of two governments: those of Syria and Iraq, drawing on the support of Iran and the Lebanese faction of Hezbollah. Their ineptitude created a political vacuum which Isis has exploited. They have shown themselves incapable and unfit to rule the areas that Isis now controls. But we have no other party to back, beyond the nascent Kurdish state. The US has wrought concessions from the Iraqi state, but I can’t see how these will be enough to regain the trust of the Sunni tribes. Past experience shows that as soon as US pressure is withdrawn, the Iraqi government reverts to type.

A further problem is lack of proximity. I firmly believe that the closer we as a country are to another, the more prepared we should be to intervene in its affairs. This is not just a matter of physical proximity, but also cultural. The Falkland Islands were (and are) close to Britain in that sense. Iraq and Syria are a long way off. I feel happier about our country intervening in Kosovo and Bosnia and, perhaps, Sierra Leone. If Turkey, which is on the edge of being a European nation, and is part of Nato, had chosen to involve itself in this affair, then perhaps we could make a case for helping its defence. But Turkey is staying firmly neutral.

I am not persuaded that this country’s participation in the 2003 gives us any obligation to help sort the mess out. I think responsibility for the mess lies with the Iraqi and Syrian governments. Neither is the presence of British volunteers amongst Isis’s ranks – though we should takes steps to reduce the flow of such people. However, I do think that our past involvement points towards humanitarian and economic assistance now.

And another thing. I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea that air power (including the use of drones) is some kind of morally clean way of involving ourselves in a conflict. It may put fewer of our servicemen’s lives at risk, but the death and destruction that they deal out is as real as anything that an infantryman does. And it leaves unanswered the question of who controls the ground after Isis has been beaten.

The world has a problem with failed states and power vacuums. This is what Isis exploited in Syria and Iraq. We also have Somalia, Libya and many other parts of the African continent. Post-imperial occupation by foreign powers has not proved a robust solution. Neither does the projection of Nato military might, outside Europe, anyway.

We need to find a better way. This needs to be led by the local powers, with perhaps further support as required through the UN. In the case of Iraq-Syria these local powers are Turkey, Iran and the Gulf Arab states. These powers somehow need to work out a new political settlement for the region, which, in my view, will require the redrawing of international boundaries. That Iran and Saudi Arabia have behaved in a highly irresponsible manner to date does not mean we can avoid making them part of the solution.

Perhaps President Obama’s coalition will help bring about such a resolution; he at least grasps the limits of military power better then most – though he is buffeted by the winds of US domestic politics. I would need to be convinced that this is so before endorsing any further British military intervention.


Tony Blair is both right and wrong, but mostly yesterday’s man

Well I was going to turn the radio off this morning when John Humphreys was interviewing Tony Blair to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  But I couldn’t go that far, and I caught about half of it.  I’m glad I did because it has helped clarify my views on confronting terrorism.

Mr Blair’s main argument is a lot more subtle than it is often made out to be.  He dismisses his critics as believing that the Islamic extremists (and I think that term is a fair one) are not a lunatic fringe who can be contained using normal security methods.  They are in fact the extreme end of a much larger spectrum of people who agree with their virulent anti-western narrative.  Since they have such a large hinterland of people who will support them and from whom they can recruit, they will simply grow stronger if they are not vigorously confronted.   He completely rejects the idea that the West’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have made things worse, since he says the terrorists would have gathered strength anyway.  What provoked 9/11? he asks.  The Al-Qaeda threat is of much longer standing than than these Western interventions.

And he is partly right.  There is a big hinterland for the terrorist groups, and an even bigger group of people who think that there are two sides to what is going on, rather than it being a simple battle between good and evil.  But from the same facts I draw a different conclusion.  This is not just a battle between just goodies and baddies; there is a huge neutral middle ground whose support is decisive.  These are mainly Muslims, and they live all over the world.  If these people come to the conclusion that the terrorists are a bad thing, who will make their aspirations more difficult to achieve, then Al-Qaeda and its like will be isolated and disappear.  If, on the other hand, they accept the clash of civilizations narrative, their support, even if mostly tacit, will keep the terrorist threat going forever.

There is a security campaign against the terrorists; but there is also a hearts and minds campaign for the Muslim public.  Unfortunately, if we are too uncompromising on the first campaign we will not win the second.  It is important to occupy the moral high ground.  The tragedy is that Tony Blair, and the American neocons, think they are occupying this higher ground.  In fact they have been systematically provoking the Muslim public.

And the important thing to understand about the hearts and minds campaign is that the ground shifts.  What gave Al-Qaeda real strength in its early days was the US intervention in the first Gulf War in the 1990s, which led to the stationing of US troops on Saudi soil; this seemed an insult.  It probably didn’t mean a great deal to the wider Muslim public, but it was enough for a determined group of Middle East activists to get started, mainly from Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  Israel, Iraq and Iran didn’t really come into things.  This was enough to lead to 9/11.

But the American response to 9/11 changed the game.  The outrage initially gave them the precious high ground, but they made cynical use of it.  Two problems stand out: the campaign in Iraq and taking sides with Israel.  These may not have been all that relevant to the Al-Qaeda threat in 2001, but they became so because the the strength of the American intervention.  The Muslim public became angry with America and its allies, and the extremists were able to pump up the clash of civilisations narrative.  They started to draw in many more recruits from right  across the world, including Britain.

But the hearts and minds battle has not been one-sided.  The terrorists’ very success has exposed the weakness of their case.  They now spend more energy killing other Muslims and creating civil disorder in Muslim countries than they do on attacking the west.  They have no real answers to the problems that trouble so many Muslims: dis-empowerment and poverty.  The west is retreating from Iraq and, ever so slowly, Afghanistan.  The British coming together after 7/7 has not played to the extremist narrative.  The western response to the Arab Spring has shown it to be a bit less cynical than people thought – comparing favourably with China and Russia, say.  In Libya Al-Qaeda and the west turned out to be on the same side.  Israel remains a running sore, of course.

Of course we need a robust security response to the terrorist threat.  But it can do more harm that good.  Assassinations and suspending the rule of law should not be part of it.  The terrorists may not be moved by this – but they will increasingly lose the support of their hinterland.

We have to move on.  Mr Bush’s and Mr Blair’s response to 9/11 was a huge mistake, and we can’t expect them to acknowledge this.  But they are yesterday’s men.  We’ve learnt a lot.  A new generation of leaders is showing more subtlety.  Slowly, we are learning how to manage the terrorist threat.