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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.

  • Mark Wright

    I like the Belgians style! Maybe if Cameron and Clegg had just spun it out a little longer we too could have enjoyed naked protests until a government was formed!

    Oh, and on Libya: just imagine a similar uprising except Gaddafi still posseses his WMD. Blair was right. ‘Nuff said.

  • SG

    No mention of al-Megrahi , how do you defend that little episode ?

  • Olli Issakainen

    Jack Straw is right to state that without the change that began 2003, region would be much more dangerous place.
    But Mr Straw told the Iraq inquiry that regime change was never in UK plans. According to AC´s diary entry for 2 April 2002 at a meeting it was discussed whether the central aim was WMD or regime change. TB felt it was regime change.
    In a 2002 letter to Blair Mr Straw, the then foreign secretary, said that regime change per se is no justification to military action; it could form part of the method of any strategy, but not a goal.
    Jack Straw has also stated that Saddam had “every opportunity to comply with the UN” to avoid military action. This is not compatible with the view of Richard Haass, the author of War of Necessity, War of Choice.
    Mr Haass, who worked for Colin Powell, says that the Bush administration went to war simply to go after al-Qaida. It did not want to nation build. President had decided to invade anyway regardless of WMD.
    Paul Wolfowitz has admitted that WMD was chosen as a reason for war for bureaucratic reasons. He has also said that the US backed regime change.
    The Iraq war was a war of choice, not necessity.
    Neocon agenda of spreading democracy was behind the Iraq war. They wanted to make Iraq as an example to the whole region.
    The doctrine of a RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT is endorsed by the UN. Criteria for deciding whether the use of military action is justified includes: right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means and reasonable prospect.
    The US cannot stand up for justice and the role of law because of its own record of torture since 9/11. It has not much moral authority to influence others around the world.
    The Monitor Group ran a PR campaign on behalf of Muammar Gaddafi to improve his image between 2006 and 2008.
    Libya has 100 MiG-25s and 15 Mirage F-1s plus Russian Sam ground batteries. As Robert Gates has stated, no-fly zone would mean initial bombing of Libyan radar and anti-aircraft facilities.
    Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against his own people in 1988 killing 3,200-5,000 people. Iran-Iraq war between 1980-88 caused 650,000 Iranian casualties.
    Douglas Alexander wrote in the Guardian that the Tory-led government´s operational incompetence has now been followed by strategic incoherence. The world view of today´s cabinet has been defined by the financial crisis.
    But the bilateral, mercantilist approach to foreign policy has been found wanting by recent events.
    A networked foreign-policy is needed.

  • ZacMurdoch

    Couldn’t agree more. The ex post facto revisionism of so many commentators is sickening. All part of the ‘get Tony Blair’ movement, which is also sickening.

    But Mandelson’s book was fun – and surely even he doesn’t believe all his own propaganda?

    Still enjoying Jonathan Powell’s, and your Vol 2 is next.

  • Dave Simons

    I’d defend it by questioning the verdict. I think there have been enough miscarriages of justice in recent years to shake anyone’s confidence in the legal system. Remember the Guildford Four, The Birmingham Six, the first trial of Jefferey Archer with its reference to his ‘fragrant’ wife? I would like to know which gang did murder all those people above and in Lockerbie in December 1988 but I’ve yet to be persuaded that al-Megrahi was a member.

  • Chris lancashire

    You are quite right that criticisms of previous contact with Libya are over the top. However, was it really necessary to go as far as releasing al-Megrahi?
    And I’m sure that Cameron is being “short-termist and tactical”. You, of course, in government were always long-termist and strategic. Oh please!

  • Ehtch

    To me, international diplomacy seems such a crossed up bunch of firing lines, that it is hard to say in history who did a good job or not.

    So you have to judge things on character and track record before hand, and Blair is well up there. Either side can win in a game of chess, but at least in chess you can see what all your pieces are getting up to.

    Hague has his hands tied by being a member of the “nasty party”, where he has to balance nastyness with sense. Quite a difficult diplomatic job, when your comrades in the cabinet are “nasty” by nature.

  • Anonymous

    How does Campbell sleep at night with so much blood on his hands?