Tag Archives: Syria

Tim Farron comes of age as Lib Dem leader

The honeymoon is over. For the last few months Liberal Democrats have been able to project their hopeful expectations onto Tim Farron, their new leader. And he skilfully avoided disappointing them. But his decision to back the government in last night’s vote to involve British forces in attacks on Islamic State in Syria has changed all that. Now, alongside the traumas of the Labour Party, we are asking what political parties are for, and how politics should work.

I was surprised at Tim’s decision. As my last posting shows, I was personally inching towards that view – but I consider myself to be something of an outlier in Lib Dem circles. The party at large is clearly against intervention, as a recent online poll showed. My Facebook timeline showed strong opinions against. And he had given himself plenty of cover. He had set five tests against which to judge any proposal to intervene. This is usually a political tactic to oppose something. And, to put it kindly, it is stretch to say that all five tests have been met – though it is also true that there has been movement in the right direction.

My doubts over intervention were not helped by David Cameron, the Prime Minister in today’s parliamentary debate. First he suggested that the attacks were needed to prevent IS activity in Britain. They will make very little difference; that is just not how these things work. Then he tried to suggest that there were about 70,000 “moderate” fighters who might act as the ground spearhead to defeat IS, without invoking the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. Even if the numbers are right, they do not form a coherent fighting force with the military skill to take on the highly effective IS army. And thirdly, it came out that he had smeared some of his opponents as terrorist sympathisers. That was the previous night in a “private” meeting with his party’s MPs – and it alludes to some of the new Labour leadership’s apparent sympathy for “freedom struggles” in the past. He might have graciously apologised, but he did not. As Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, said, it diminishes the office of Prime Minister. But it is a foretaste of Conservative tactics against the new model Labour party.

Mr Corbyn, on the other hand, was a model of dignity. There was no high-flown rhetoric, but at least what he said was clearly true. And if it was also beside the point, the same can be said of Mr Cameron. The reason why there is a momentum in favour of intervention, at least in parliament, is that there is s strong public mood to “do something” after the Paris attacks, that a gesture of solidarity with France will have diplomatic benefits, and that with Syria creating a massive refugee crisis, it is not a political topic we can turn our back on. Inaction seems to pose just as big problems as action. If it is good enough for the Germans, whose government is planning to commit forces to the same campaign, almost without precedent, that surely it is good enough for the UK? The fact that the proposed British contribution is small scale is actually in its favour – a lot of diplomatic bang for quite a small buck. Iraq this is not.

This is what politics is about. Weighty issues for which there are no obvious solutions, and where messy compromises are needed. It is about politicians from across the country and different political persuasions, working out what the country as a whole should do. The trouble is that there seems to be a new politics about, where political representatives are seen as figureheads for wider movements of like-minded people, for whom compromise is betraying your principles. The Labour Party is being overwhelmed by this conception of politics. Labour activists oppose intervention in Syria, and have turned it into a totem issue. They have been harassing any MPs and their staffs who take a different view. Some talk of rooting them out as “scum”.

Such are the death throws of a party that once aspired to govern. After being hammered for entering coalition, the Lib Dems can safely put such aspirations to one side. The behaviour of their MPs is more of a puzzle – though Tim’s leadership opponent Norman Lamb, and one other of the eight MPs voted against. Many of the party’s members have similar views to those Labour activists, though standards of behaviour and language are infinitely better. There has been much talk of rebuilding a core vote – which seems to be code for ignoring messy compromises and attracting the support of more motivated, middle class liberals.  But Tim Farron and his fellow MPs seem to have an older view of what MPs are for. They seem to have considered the vote on its merits, rather on any wider political impact. (I will say the same for Norman, incidentally. The differences between the two men are a complete reversal of what was said about them in the leadership contest, when Tim was portrayed as being to Norman’s left).

That wider political impact is hard to judge. Coming out in favour of intervention is the sort of thing that will play well with floating voters. But it will be hard for the party to get any credit for it. They famously opposed the Iraq war, so people will expect them to oppose all military interventions. They will just get confused when they do something different. And the party’s members and activists will not be happy. Some could leave, others just drift away.

It may too much to hope that the party will take this as a lesson on what successful politics must look like. Political representatives are responsible to their voters first, and party membership second. It is not “democratic” for a bunch of self selected activists to agree something using voting procedures, and then impose this on people elected in proper, public elections. Getting things done means compromise and lending support to policies that are second best or worse.  This is why we use a system of representative democracy. Political movements not prepared to engage fully with the real business politics ultimately get nowhere. – or if they do get somewhere, end up by forcing their views on others and suffocating political debate.

Unlike what the Labour Party is becoming (and, it has to be said, a lot of what it was of old, for different reasons), the SNP or the Greens I hope the Liberal Democrats will understand this and give their leader some slack. But this will prove a painful coming of age for him.

 

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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.

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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.

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What does the Syria vote mean?

Last night’s vote by the UK Parliament to reject a government motion to clear the way for punitive action against Hafez Assad’s regime in Syria feels like a very important moment in British politics. It is a small but decisive step away from Britain’s centuries-old role as a Great Power on the world stage. This has good and bad aspects.

The vote itself has divided opinion among in my social network. The less political of them, including my liberal leaning but unpolitical friend at the gym this morning, are very happy. A depressing chain of events that started with Tony Blair’s joining of the Iraq war has reached an end. But many of my Lib Dem Facebook contacts are very unhappy: who will restrain President Assad’s regime now? But just as many share the views of my friend at the gym.  I find my feelings very mixed. I do not want this country to take sides in this conflict; but the thought that Mr Assad’s government will take comfort from it is not a comfortable one.

But what will non-Britons make of this episode? It doesn’t seem to be all that important. The real power is with the United States; Britain’s military capacity is puny by comparison. This debate is not being had in many other countries, from the economic powerhouses of German and Japan, to other world powers such as Brazil or India. Only our French neighbours are weighing up the same issues, apart from America, and, in a different way, Russia. It all seems to be more about maintaining the status of our political elite than something that a third rank world power should be concerning itself with. It will be more difficult now for that elite to maintain its delusions of grandeur.

In one way this a good thing. The expense of the country maintaining this world status is increasingly unsustainable, as cutbacks to the armed forces show. There have been successful military interventions: in Kosovo, Libya and Sierra Leone. And places were we probably should have intervened but didn’t: Bosnia and Rwanda. But the results of the bigger interventions, Iraq and Afghanistan, are at best ambiguous. Syria looks more like the latter, though the government has been trying to limit the scope of any intervention. The judgement of our political leaders and the civil servants and military men that back them up has not proved particularly sound. And successful small interventions only encourage them to think bigger. We are now facing up to a more realistic view of Britain’s place in the world.

But there is also a dark side. It is not good if a country turns in itself, and does not want to accept the implications of being part of a bigger world. There is a strong undercurrent of this in Britain: from anti-immigrant feeling to criticism of foreign aid, as well as resistance to taking part in the European Union. But the country’s fate is more bound up than ever by what goes on in the rest of the world, and far too often this sort of isolationism leads to paranoia and conflict.

Personally I would like to see Britain take further steps back from its pretension to a world role: giving up the country’s seat on the Security Council and our nuclear weapons. But I would also like the country to take part in military interventions if these are needed, especially in Europe and (perhaps) Africa. But we need new ways of going about this, and a clearer idea about when and how we go about it. I hope last night’s vote is a step along the path to a better way.

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