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Monday, April 20, 2015 

Foreign policy: not on the campaign agenda.


You hardly need me to tell you the election campaign has not exactly caught fire thus far.  It has briefly threatened to, with Labour's unexpected pledge to abolish non-dom status and the Tory response of Ed Miliband being so ruthless he'd stab his mother in the back to get her independent seafood deterrent or something along those lines, but otherwise it's been three weeks of increasingly hysterical warnings about what the other side will do.

Indeed, it's all wearingly familiar to 5 years ago, with personal attacks on an unpopular leader and scaremongering about the economy the defining characteristics.  The major difference is the Tory emphasis on the "chaos" that would result from any sort of SNP involvement in government, despite the indications up to now this is having precisely zero impact on the polls, unless part of the aim is to do the equivalent of jumping up and down on Scottish Labour's corpse.  The polls as a whole suggest an effective dead heat between Labour and the Conservatives, with slight leads for both from different companies cancelling out each other.  As we head ever closer towards Thursday the 7th, the chance of the fabled "crossover" for the Tories surely becomes less and less likely, with all that implies for how the final week will pan out in terms of last minute attacks and stunts, not least from the never knowingly underbiased media we all know and loathe.

Nearly entirely absent has been any discussion of foreign policy.  Whereas in 2010 debate didn't go much beyond how Labour had clearly breached the military covenant by failing to give the Ministry of Defence exactly what it wanted in Afghanistan, with Gordon Brown criticised for bothering to write a personal letter of condolence, this time it's been limited even further to the 0.7% overseas aid target and the potential in or out EU referendum.

Considering just how disastrous the coalition's foreign policy has been with the exception of the aid target, it's more than slightly incongruous.  It's only when you realise that with the single exception of Miliband stopping the attack on Assad by mistake, which might be a slightly unkind verdict on what happened back in 2013, there has not been a single substantial difference between the main three parties on bombing the fuck out of Islamic State, bombing the fuck out of Libya and supporting the good rebels in Syria while opposing the bad ones that the reason becomes clearer.  When it's left to Private Eye to sum up the ever more bizarre contortions of whom we're supporting and where in the Middle East (see above, obv.), from the satire pages no less, something has gone spectacularly wrong.

The situation in the Mediterranean is not wholly the result of European foreign policy but on it most certainly rests a very heavy burden of responsibility.  Both David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy saw the crackdown by Gaddafi in Libya not just as demanding the invocation of the responsibility to protect in order to save the citizens of Benghazi, but as an unbridled opportunity for European companies to take full advantage of the possibilities created by the dictator's removal.  The UN resolution meant to protect civilians was used to justify changing the regime.  It wasn't inevitable that the end result would be another civil war, but the complete lack of interest from Europe once Gaddafi was dead and his government gone was palpable.  Only now when the country has become the key transit point for migrants looking to escape from the wars and oppressive governments across the region has anyone began to take notice.

Our foreign policy is not so much coherent as asinine.  In Libya we overthrew a secular dictator, just as we did in Iraq; the result has been the same, if so far less bloody.  In Egypt we initially welcomed the overthrow of a secular dictator, only to get cold feet over the Islamism of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, democratically elected or not, and so we now support the restoration of the secular dictatorship in the shape of President Sisi.  In Syria we support the downfall of the Assad regime, but obviously we don't want the Islamic State to take power instead.  What we do want isn't on offer, as the non-Islamic State supporting rebels nonetheless aren't interested in democracy and instead would like an Islamic state.  We're supposedly training "moderate" rebel forces, but whether they actually exist is still up for debate.  In truth what we seem to have settled for is a bloody stalemate, with neither Assad or the rebels able to win an outright victory, and as a result what's been described as the biggest refuge crisis since WW2 carries on regardless.

In Iraq we naturally support the central government in its fight against Islamic State, but the central government has almost no control whatsoever over the army the Americans supposedly trained at vast expense.  Instead most of the fighting is being done by the same Iranian-backed Shia militias that previously were behind much of the insurgency in the south of Iraq.  The perceived sectarianism of the central government was what drove many Sunnis into once again supporting the Islamic State; now the militias, accused of looting and summary executions are completing the job.   


In Yemen things are even crazier: Houthi rebels, linked with but not under the control of Iran have succeeded in exiling the useless president installed after the protests in the country following the Arab spring.  In a further example of the proxy war being fought between the Saudis and Iran, the Saudi response has been to bomb the fuck out of one of the poorest countries in the world, and we, naturally, are fully behind it, in part because of their negligible help against Islamic State in Syria.  So far the bombing it better approach has amazingly failed to work, with the Houthis continuing their advance.  That no one is the slightest bit interested in yet another bloodbath in the Middle East when there are so many others to pay attention to isn't surprising; when it leads to a further exodus to European shores, as it will, it might just increase in importance.

For while there are some among those making the crossing from Libya to Italy, Greece or Malta, with thousands drowning in the process that are simply looking for a better life or fleeing oppressive governments we have little traction or trade with, like Eritrea, many are there because of conflicts we have either been responsible for or made far worse.  Only Germany and Sweden have made an effort to take in Syrian refugees, with the rest of Europe declaring itself to be full or saying one thing and doing another, as we have.  The decision was effectively made to let migrants drown this spring on the basis that to rescue those put to sea in dangerously overcrowded or inadequate vessels was a "pull" factor.  The numbers have increased regardless of any such thing.  The belated response now has obviously not been to admit that the foreign policy of most EU member states has directly led to the thousands attempting such a perilous voyage, but to target the smugglers themselves, as though they're comparable to the Somalian pirates.

This narrowness between the main parties is an invitation to the bigots and the opportunists to say what they like or claim they somehow offer an alternative.  The Libyan war was a choice; allying with the "moderate" rebels in Syria was a choice; allying with the Saudis in Yemen was a choice; the Iraq war, more than 12 years after it began, remains a choice of almost unparalleled stupidity.  The drowning of thousands of those desperate to escape from the nightmare of their lives is being described as a failure of compassion.  While true, it's more damningly a failure of policy.  That despite 5 years of utter lunacy on the foreign policy front none of the parties want to suggest a better way forward, and in fact two of them want to stir the pot even further goes to show just how limited our politics has become and is likely to remain.

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