Friday, October 06, 2006

Conservative Foreign Policy

During the conference William Hague discussed his 'new direction' for foreign policy but unfortunately from his description it didn't sound terribly new.

The discussion of Darfur is starting to sound worryingly like a cliché. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that Britain does not have the capacity to take on another major operation at the same time as Afghanistan and Iraq. That is not going to change for some time after the Conservatives take over regardless of whether or not we make improvements to the armed forces. As such, all we can really do is implore the international community to act. What the world is lacking is not a recognition that Darfur is a mess but the political will from nations with the military capacity to put their forces into a situation which could potentially turn ugly with Al Qaeda already threatening any non-AU force.

The Conservative Party have not, thankfully, taken the unfortunate road of asking what is in the Atlantic alliance for us. All decent nations have a common interest in the security which the US is working to uphold; the question is whether we wish to be a free rider. Choosing to cop out in that manner would be immoral and dishonourable and has, rightly, not been seriously considered by the Conservatives. As there is still a rough consensus within the party that the US is fighting a good fight against Islamic extremism, if sometimes fighting it poorly, our foreign policy will, and should, remain deeply Atlanticist. I'll make the case for the factors which should determine US-UK foreign policy in a post soon but for the purposes of this post it is just necessary to accept that there will be wars in the future and the Conservatives will, ceteris paribus, probably be supporting the United States.

What that leaves us with is the pledge to be a friend, but not an uncritical one, of the US; the pledge to be a liberal conservative. However, this in itself is a tantrum not a policy. Clearly no Conservative government worth the name would start fights with the US for the sake of it. When people talk about Love Actually moments or Michael Howard discusses distancing us from the US what the public heard was that we were planning on doing just that and they were not impressed. Starting fights with the most powerful nation in the world, the strongest nation on the right side of the War on Terror and a long standing ally is no sign of principle. The question which needs to be answered is clearly when, in which circumstances, a Conservative government would be a critical friend of America.

The rhetoric on torture and other infringements of rights was the main hint at an answer here but I'm not so sure that is likely to be effective. In matter of how we go to war and how we execute that war Britain, as the key US ally with its own troops going in, has a reasonable amount of sway. If anyone tells you that we don't point them quickly to the attempt to get a second UN resolution which was at Blair's insistence. However, questions of torture and indefinite detainment are seen by the US, I believe, as essentially their own business. In war and peace-keeping there are Britons making enormous sacrifices which give weight to our opinion; our thoughts on Guantanamo do not have such emphasis.

Attempting to get a second UN resolution was well meaning but misguided. It forced us to have the debate over going to war in a setting where any one of Russia, China and France had the same influence as the US. It meant that the debate over the legitimacy of the war was settled by them and the other members of the security council at that time. The seeking of a second resolution looking like an admission that we should not go to war without French approval rather than an attempt to bring others on board. That and the over reliance on the existence of NCB weapons as the justification for war made a mess of attempts to sell this action to the public and international community.

The attempt at a second resolution was the major British influence on the US and it did involve a spending of credibility we had as a reliable ally. Once we were responsible for the mess of an attempt to go back to the UN our council on other matters was weakened by the question this raised over our judgement. A better case for the way Britain should have used its influence is in the execution of the Iraq war.

This is both where the war has gone wrong, the chaos afterwards, and the reason for public dissaproval. I don't think opinions of the war were contingent upon the finding of weapons of mass destruction as they reached their highest point at the immediate end of the war when WMD had not been found but we did seem to have done something genuinely worthwhile for Iraq and had gotten rid of a genuinely unpleasant and destabilising dictator. The situation soured as it proved difficult to reestablish order following the war and popular opinion followed this deterioration. The reasons for this happening seem best summed up to me in the rules for running a successful peacekeeping force from Paddy Ashdowne that Niall Ferguson quotes in Colossus:

  1. [To have] a good plan and stick to it. This plan needs to be drawn up, not as an after-thought, but well in advance, as an integral part of the planning for the military campaign.
  2. [To] establish the rule of law - and do so as quickly as possible... It is much more important to establish the rule of law quickly than to establish democracy quickly. Because without the former, the latter is soon undermined.
  3. To start as quickly as possible on the major structural reforms - from putting in place a customs service or reliable tax base, to reforming the police and the civil service, to restructuring and screening the judiciary, to transforming the armed forces.
  4. [To ensure] that the international community organizes itself in [the] theatre in a manner that can work and take decisions.
  5. [To establish] an exceptionally close relationship between the military and civilian aspects of peace implementation.
  6. [To] avoid setting deadlines, and settle in for the long haul... installing the software of a free and open society is a slow business. It cannot be done... in a year or so... Peace-keeping needs to be measured not in months but decades. What we need here... is "sticktoitiveness"... the political will, the unity of purpose, and the sheer stamina as an international community to see the job through to lasting success. That means staying on, and sticking at it, long after the CNN effect has passed.
Clearly a worrying number of these lessons were ignored in Iraq. The excessive US confidence that they were liberating an Iraqi people immediately ready for freedom led them to seem too eager to leave which incentivised a struggle for post-US power, to not take security seriously enough near the beginning and to allow a shortage of manpower.

The Conservatives are right to be thinking about the Atlantic alliance and the extent to which it should be critical as well as supportive but I would suggest that we are better placed to influence American conduct in its interventions abroad than its idealistic purity at home. Conservative criticisms of Blair should centre upon his wasting of our important influence on the totem of the UN instead of making sure that the war and peace were fought in the right way.

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