As Cameron slithers from tactic to tactic, Mandelson and Straw right to defend difficult positions
Posted on 7 March 2011 | 9:03am
I may not have liked much about Peter Mandelson’s book (“‘insufferably self-indulgent’ – Alastair Campbell” doesn’t seem to have made it to the quotes on the cover of the paperback). However, I totally agree with his defence of the Blair government’s attempts to bring Libya in from the cold.
He has written a well-argued piece in the Financial Times, rightly saying that the criticism of those who have had any kind of links with Libya has been taken to ‘ridiculous lengths’ and that it will harm British interests, not just in Libya, but elsewhere for what it says about how we slither from one position to another.
Of course a lot of this is about our media, which moves so easily from one conventional wisdom – ‘Gaddafi is changing’ – to another – ‘it was so bloody obvious he was never changing at all, and anyone who thought otherwise now has blood on their hands.’
It is the same intellectual gymnastics that goes into a rage about the use of military power to remove Saddam, but asks with equal rage why we have never taken out Mugabe. Or which criticises the intelligence agencies for failing to prevent the July 7 bombings, but goes into a lather of dinner party indignation at ‘police state’ powers to follow, survey and obstruct terrorist plots. It is the same unthinking inconsistency which has people screaming ‘something must be done’ to topple Gaddafi, but shifts to ‘why on earth are we getting involved?’ when it emerges the SAS are trying to help ‘diplomats’ make contact with the Opposition there. All because it does not go quite as smoothly as the ordering of a bottle of wine over lunch at the Garrick Club.
So it is ‘an embarrassment’, we heard all day yesterday. No, it was just a very difficult operation that didn’t go totally according to plan.
Having defended David Cameron for authorising the operation, and those who were on it for giving it a go, I will now point out that the PM is in part responsible for these wildly escalating conventional wisdoms.
As Peter points out in the FT, until the uprising, we heard nothing by way of criticism from the Tories for the Labour government’s approach to Libya ‘for all their wise-after -the-event high-minded statements now’. His point, even if it clashes with his words of praise for Cameron when promoting the paperback, is that the PM will always avoid a difficult strategic position if a nice easy tactical pitch is available.
Since the uprising began, and the violence escalated, Cameron has never tired of scoring a cheap point or two on ‘dodgy deals with dictators in the desert.’ He should perhaps take a little counsel from John Major, who rightly pointed out recently that leaders sometimes have to consort with those they would rather not have to, in their own national interest, and that the prize of getting Gaddafi to give up WMD was a big one.
Cameron is so short-termist and tactical that he seems oblivious to his own inconsistencies. There he was again yesterday, declaring war on ‘the enemies of enterprise’, whoever they are, and rightly defending the taking of business leaders on his foreign visits. But does he imagine none of the countries they have gone to, and drummed up business in, will be at some point in the future give us cause for concern about those contacts?
As Peter pointed out, British Airways, Marks and Spencer, HSBC and BP have all been doing business in Libya. Do we now boycott all of them for failing to see that one day the Mag Dog would revert to his old ways? No, I don’t think so.
In an interview I did with Bill Clinton a few years ago, he said ‘too many decision-makers define their reality according to that day’s media. It is almost always a mistake.’ It is one David Cameron makes with alarming regularity….
Meanwhile, as I promised to on Saturday, before I got caught up in the weekend’s sport, here is the Times article I mentioned by Jack Straw.
As Cameron slithers from one position to another, according to the tactical interest of the moment, it is good to see Jack and Peter defending difficult decisions and positions, even when it is unfashionable to do so.
It’s like dominoes, isn’t it? Democracy is about to break out all over the Middle East We’ve all been helped in our understanding by those multi-coloured flashing maps so beloved of television news-readers. With breathless commentary these highlight country after country across the region whose autocratic leaders might be next for street demonstrations, uprising, and – in time – free elections. Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt are already gone; Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, and Libya have all been flashing like crazy.
Strangely, there’s one country missing; it’s rarely even mentioned, and where the populace could all take to the streets if they wanted – and without fear of repression. There have been protests. But these have been about jobs and corruption, not a call for a democratic revolution. That’s because the fundamental demand of people everywhere to have a say in what happens in their lives has already begun to be met.
That country is called Iraq. No more than Egypt or Tunisia is it yet a fully functioning democracy, but it is a lot further down the path to that goal. It’s got an agreed constitution – and an elected government which more or less works. What an uncomfortable truth for those wedded to the twin conventional apostacies: that democracy and Islam can never mix; and that Iraq was, is, and will continue for ever to be an unmitigated disaster.
Iraq had national elections a year ago. They have an elaborate system of proportional representation. I’m no fan of PR in general, but where a nation is confessionally or ethnically divided (and Iraq is both), PR is necessary. It inevitably results in a hung parliament, and tortuous post-election haggling. However at the year end the Iraqi Parliament approved Prime Minister al-Malaki’s government, inclusive of all main ethnic groups.
That took months, and months.”How terrible, Just shows how those Arabs are not ready for freedom (and Saddam was all they deserved)” some, attached to those twin apostacies , might think, even if they won’t say so out loud.
But wait. The formation of the new Iraqi government was an heroic and timely achievement compared to at least one “advanced country” at the heart of Europe.
Last month, Belgium (which, coincidentally, shares with Iraq some rather arbitrary boundaries drawn by us Brits) achieved the world record for the longest period without a government. Not even threats by the partners of Belgium’s MPs to withdraw all conjugal relations until there was a government, nor demonstrators stripping in the streets has yet ended the paralysis.
The military action against Iraq was not taken with the purpose of creating a democratic state, but rather to secure its disarmament. I still profoundly believe that this latter, critical objective could have been achieved without war had there been a clear and united resolve within the Security Council to present Saddam with a categorical ultimatum and a deadline of weeks, not the “sometime, never” of those who opposed our strategy.
Tragically, since the invasion of Iraq many thousands have died, principally through terrorism and ethnic conflict. Even so, most Iraqis, with an intimate knowledge of Saddam’s methods and history of slaughter, still believe that their country is better off without him.
The same Iraq Survey Group which could not find any stocks of chemical and biological weapons – contrary to the Security Council’s belief that these stockpiles existed – also concluded that Saddam’s goal was to gain support for the lifting of sanctions whilst preserving “Iraq’s intellectual capital for WMD”. The ISG also said that the dictator continued to aspire “to develop a nuclear capacity”, but was focus[ing] on ballistic missile and tactical chemical warfare capabilities.”
Without Saddam’s full and prompt compliance with the Security Council Resolution 1441, or the military action, Saddam would, as the ISG concluded, have re-armed with WMD. That would have meant that today in the Middle East, there would have been not just one highly dangerous proliferator but two: Iraq and Libya. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi without nuclear and chemical weapons is bad enough. With them, the situation today would be terrifying.
I was closely involved in the demarche of the Libyan regime towards the end of 2003, when Gaddafi was confronted with painstaking (and accurate) intelligence developed by our Secret Intelligence Service and the CIA about his WMD programmes. I have no doubt that what convinced Gaddafi peacefully to abandon these programmes was Iraq. But don’t take that from me. Just three days after Libya had agreed to have its WMD programmes dismantled under international supervision CNN reported that” Gaddafi acknowledged that the Iraq war may have influenced him” in his decision. In the same report Hans Blix, the former UN weapons inspector, said he imagined “Gaddafi could have been scared by what he saw happen in Iraq”.
We would all have been scared if his programmes had been further developed in the eight years since. 23 tonnes of mustard gas, 3,563 unfilled chemical aerial bombs, “hundreds” of SCUD-B, and five of the much more advanced SCUD ‘C’ missiles made up part of the haul .
Libya had previously declared just one nuclear site. There were in fact twelve. In 2004 inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency gave forensic detail of an extensive active covert programme for highly enriched uranium and for the production of nuclear weapons.
There is one country which has appeared on those flashing maps, where the immediate prospects for a proper democracy are much less hopeful than for Egypt, and Tunisia, and maybe even for Libya. That’s Iran, which also has a nuclear programme that is strongly suspected of having a military as well as a civil purpose.
The smart talk is that the invasion of Iraq strengthened the hard-liners in Iran. I do not agree. In the short term, certainly, the removal of its arch-enemy Saddam has given Iran considerable influence within Iraq, just as the defeat of the Taliban has done the same in Afghanistan. Whilst the world’s focus has been elsewhere in the Middle East, the regime has taken the opportunity to detain some of the key leaders of the opposition movement.
But if I were a leader of the hardliners in Iran I would be very exercised about my longer- term prospects of hanging on to power without a legitimate mandate. With autocratic rulers all over the Middle East, and an utterly barbaric regime in Afghanistan, Iran was, relatively, a better place to live. But whatever the birth-pains of democracy across the region – and they will be many – the events of the last three months have shown that there is an insatiable demand by people in that area to have some of the control over their own lives which we take for granted. That wind of change will not stop at Iran’s borders.
I do not make the extravagant claim that Iraq was the first domino to fall, and has brought with it the others. The exact influence that the development of democracy in Iraq has had across the region will be for historians to assess. But I do say that but for the change in Iraq that began in 2003, the region would be a much more dangerous place. Its example shows that even with its terrible, benighted past, democracy may flourish.