Occupy-and-Hope: The British strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq

Prime Minister’s Questions today was all about foreign policy. It was almost as if there had been some sort of prior planning – as if the Speaker had taken the decision to have themed PMQs in an attempt to pep up the format. Foreign policy this week; personal attacks next week; and Colonials and Natives the time after that. I like it when foreign policy comes up at Prime Minister’s Questions, particularly when the issue raised is something where no reasonable human being could do other than adopt an earnest tone: like the flooding in Burma, or election-rigging in Zimbabwe.

PMQs is a mob event: the normal rules governing conduct between individuals are suspended and the MPs all regress to a much more atavistic form of interaction. One is not only permitted to act like a braying, heckling, hooting ass; it is expected. The whole thing is a bizarre mixture of savagery and riotous jocoseness. The MPs behave outrageously, enjoy themselves scandalously and in a slightly longer version of Orwell’s ten minute-hate discharge all of the cruel feeling that has accumulated in a week of constituency tedium. Then someone out to spoil their fun (with one eye on the pull-quote for their constituency newsletter) says something about people who are dying in a foreign country and the rules change instantaneously. Every last decibel of hysterical juvenile laughter has to be suppressed, held in like a fat person flattening his belly when a beautiful woman sees him with his top off. All of a sudden instead of a comedian-hero you are a pink-faced buffoon clowning around at a funeral in front of the widow. You can almost feel the strain in the House when it happens; almost hear deep breaths being drawn by impatient wags trying to control their mischievous impulses. And whilst they all sit their quietly, austerely you imagine that many of them are coming to the uncomfortable realisation that they are acting terribly and doing it on national television as well. The forced silence sounds a little bit like shame.

British foreign policy is worrying me a lot at the moment as well (note sharp tonal PMQs-style shift) because I think that there is an unwillingness to acknowledge uncomfortable truths. I say uncomfortable truths, but really they all amount to different facets of a single truth: Britain does not have the power to command the foreign policy outcomes that she considers desperately important. A refusal to acknowledge Britain’s near impotence on the international stage could result in a number of baleful consequences. It may mean that our troops continue to die purposelessly in Afghanistan and Iraq; it may mean that foreign policy discussion is replaced by a meaningless discourse that will do nothing but quieten the consciences of the credulous; and it may mean that an even-handed analysis of the difficulties and potentialities of our relationship with the United States never happens.

Britain and its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and a few weeks later I stopped thinking of it as a war. But British troops are still there fighting the Taliban today. And according to Brown, at the despatch box today, the Taliban are no longer waging a war, but conducting an insurgency, based on the use of a composite of guerrilla and terrorist tactics. If he is right, then we ought to despair. Occupying forces – even with authoritarian leaderships – cannot win wars against insurgents. There are countless examples of this from the original Spanish campaign of guerrilla warfare against Napoleon, to the Vietnamese struggle against the French and then the Americans, to the Algerians against the French, to the Mujhadeen campaign against the Soviets in the 1980’s. There are so many examples ready-to-hand that my previous sentence became an unwieldy succession of clauses.

To destroy a guerrilla movement one needs either to destroy a country or to assimilate it. The other alternative is that one fights until one’s will and resources are exhausted and one leaves ignominiously, abandoning the country to its “freedom fighters.” It seems at present that we have embarked myopically on this third course, which is in no way to recommend either of the other two courses. NATO has adopted a policy of wait-and-see or occupy-and-hope, an aimless watching brief which has become the default strategy because weighing the situation and taking a decisive decision is unpalatable. We are waiting for a deus ex machina to descend from the sky and resolve things favourably. The reason that I talk that way about the decision to remain in Afghanistan and reinforce our troops in this sort of way is that I cannot think – our government’s inane hope notwithstanding – what will fundamentally change in Afghanistan. I see no reason to believe that Afghanistan will not remain a fragmented practically ungovernable country with a large, fanatical Islamist element committed to forcing NATO out at whatever cost and no matter how long it takes. And if these fundamentals remain the same, then we are waiting for Godot and suffering whilst we do.

Iraq is not perhaps as clear-cut. The will of the West will be stronger there because of its strategic importance and because of the immense amount of political credibility that has been spent there already. And the neighbouring countries could choose to play some sort of stabilising role in conceivable, but not perhaps especially palatable, scenarios. Still it seems that the American and British goal of a functioning secular national democracy in Iraq is an outcome that we can do nothing to bring about. Sectarian conflict, Iranian influence, Islamism and the foreignness of liberal democratic ideas will almost inevitably conspire to prevent the triumph of the western model. It concerns me that we are continuing to fight here because we don’t have the strength to accept that what we have been trying to do is impossible. We are there because things have not become bad enough, the enterprise has not worn itself out sufficiently, for us to admit that it is beyond us. Before we can conscience withdrawal we have to make sure that we have atoned for our hubris through noble suffering.

I think that one can see some of the same features in other areas of foreign policy. The same impulse to intervene, to become involved, to secure somehow the desired outcome is evident in our attitude to Zimbabwe, Burma, the Sudan, Pakistan and Iran. But it is uniformly the case that Britain doesn’t have the wherewithal to get its way or even to influence decisively the behaviour of the international community. Yet that doesn’t stop commentators from exhorting the British government daily to do more to make these parts of the world right or politicians from ritually pronouncing the strength of their feelings on these situations.

The British tradition of conscience-driven foreign policy wasn’t born with Robin Cook and his much sniggered-at talk of ‘an ethical foreign policy.’ It goes all the way back to the 1820’s and George Canning’s support for the independence movements in South America, right through Palmerstonian cant about Italian independence, to Gladstonian anti-imperialism. But I think that in recent years our consciences have become more demanding and that we have become more indulgent of them. Globalisation has given the world conscience-aches: as the world becomes smaller, pity acts on us evermore strongly. It is a simple function of closeness, proximity. Our consciences shudder more readily and powerfully as an abstract sense of suffering under a cruel dictatorship is replaced by the details and images of newspaper stories and television reports. Our circle of empathy expands as suffering people pass out of shadowy abstraction into the glaring light of familiarity. The modern self no longer has any threshold for cruelty; we cannot stand to see people suffer, and so we cry out.

But that’s what it is: a self-indulgent cry, an unthinking response to pain. All we want is for that reflected pain to go away. But what they fail to recognise – as much more culpably does the politics parasitic on them – is the tragic disparity between what we feel compelled to do and what we are able to do. That ironic distance between morality and power is airbrushed out, or downplayed. And the result is a series of moral stands that are little more than empty pieties. Our headmasterly strictures against Zimbabwe and Burma become somehow perfunctory, illusions that we practice on ourselves to quell our consciences; acts which have much more to do with us than they do with them.

The moralisation of foreign policy isn’t new, only more exaggerated, but something has changed. Realism is no longer politically acceptable. Blunt talk of the national interest is vulgar. Straightforward discussions of power and the Hobbesian attempt to insulate foreign policy completely from moral obligations are no longer permissible in our political culture. I have been reading Alan Clark’s, let’s say, candid diaries a little bit the last couple of days and it is striking how foreign to my ear it is to hear him talk about ‘the national interest’ so brazenly. To my early twentysomething ears, it is now something that talk of which is brazen. I’m not advocating a straightforward realism here, but I think that we would benefit from an analysis of our foreign policy position that was less soft-headed, soft-hearted and self-deceiving – one that was perhaps informed by realist insights. Perhaps we might start by thinking again about America.

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