Cameron – the heir to Blairite barbarism
It is fitting that Tony Blair should cheer Cameron's meddling in Africa, considering it's driven by shallow, reckless, Blair-style posturing.
The decision of the UK Lib-Con coalition government to help France get militarily stuck into Mali gained an unlikely supporter at the weekend. After all, Tony Blair, former New Labour prime minister, is not meant to be a friend to the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. But there he was, gaunt and grey, but still speaking in those familiar broken, self-consciously unspun sentences, about how right the current prime minister, David Cameron, was to intervene in north Africa
‘I think we should acknowledge how difficult these decisions are’, he said in reference to overseas conflicts: ‘The choice [of whether or not to intervene] is very messy. If we engage with this, not just militarily but over a long period of time, in trying to help these countries, it is going to be very, very hard, but I think personally the choice of disengaging is going to be even greater.’ Aware that Britain’s recent overseas engagements, many of which Blair himself embarked upon, have been very, very messy, he added: ‘We always want in the West, quite naturally, to go in and go out, and think there is a clean result. It’s not going to happen like that. We now know that. It is going to be long and difficult and messy. My point is very simple, though: if you don’t intervene and let it happen, it is also going to be long, difficult and messy, and possibly a lot worse. It’s a very difficult decision.’
In many ways, Blair is increasingly redolent of a different political era, one marked by the meretricious sheen of affluence rather than the matt greys of our era of austerity. Yet what was striking about his weekend comments was the extent to which they illustrated continuity between Blair and Cameron, not rupture. That is, Cameron operates in a foreign-policy context largely defined by Blair’s particular creed of interventionism.
Hence the purpose of intervention for Cameron does not seem to be governed by any concrete, strategic aims. Rather, just as they were for Blair, interventions for Cameron seem to be driven by something almost existential, a need to prove one’s moral authority, to demonstrate the strength of one’s leadership. So, when justifying the UK government’s support for France’s military effort in Mali, Cameron didn’t talk of specific objectives. Instead, he talked in grand, abstract terms. This, he said, was ‘a generational struggle’ against a ‘poisonous’ ‘ideology’, against ‘an extreme distortion of the Islamic faith’.
‘This is the work that our generation faces’, he continued, ‘and we must demonstrate the same resolve and sense of purpose as previous generations have with the challenges that they faced in this House and in this country’. The specifics of the conflict in Mali, between government forces and the ethnic Tuareg group, a conflict compounded by the influx of one-time Gaddafi-patronised Tuareg fighters from Libya, and tailended by various al-Qaeda-style discontents, are effaced. Under Cameron’s gaze, the problems in Mali are simply collapsed into a grand narrative in which good people fight bad people, just as Blair, alongside President George W Bush, proceeded to view world affairs through the prism of the ‘war on terror’.
The narcissism of this essentially Blairite approach to foreign policy is as incredible as it is reckless. In each case, they really do think this conflict is about them. Arbitrarily chosen, far-flung trouble spots act as ad hoc stages on which a Western leader can show the people back at home just what a good person he is. For Cameron, it was Libya and now neighbouring African states. For Blair, it was the Former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and, of course, Iraq.
It was a grisly irony, then, that while Blair spoke of the necessity of intervention in north Africa, of trying to do the right thing, the stage of his most infamous display of doing the right thing – Iraq – appeared once more on the fringes of the world’s news bulletins: a suicide bomber, aided by several others, had attacked a police headquarters in the northern city of Kirkuk. At least 36 people were killed and 105 were injured.
The situation in Iraq ought to be a telling reminder of the folly of Blair’s ways. That is, nearly a decade after President Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared the war in Iraq won, the conflict continues to rumble on. That’s right, the intervention in Iraq in 2003 which, by removing dictator Saddam Hussein, was meant to do good, merely made things even worse. According to diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2010, the US authorities were putting the war-related death toll as of March 2009 at 109,000. Of those fatalities, nearly 4,000 were from coalition forces, about 15,000 from the Iraqi national forces, and 24,000 were so-called insurgents. The vast majority – 66,000 – were civilians.
And it’s not getting any better. As of the end of 2012, the war-related death toll was reported by Iraq Body Count (IBC) to stand at 121,297. IBC reports that 2012 was the first year since 2009 when the death toll actually rose: ‘In sum, the latest evidence suggests that the country remains in a state of low-level war little changed since early 2009, with a “background” level of everyday armed violence punctuated by occasional larger-scale attacks designed to kill many people at once.’ Iraq is also a country with a ruined infrastructure, in which power cuts are frequent and health services impoverished. The verdict has been in for a long time: Operation Iraqi Freedom, as the Bush and Blair-led coalition called this do-gooding mission, has delivered misery, insecurity and very little freedom.
And little wonder. In trying to remove a nasty tyrant, in trying to fight the bad guys, Blair and Bush’s moral mission removed the major cohering force in Iraqi society. The Iraqi people weren’t liberated, they were simply left bereft. There was not some incipient social force just waiting to topple Saddam Hussein and realise its own democratic ambition; there was no alternative aspirant sovereignty lurking in Iraqi society, no popular political entity just waiting to exert authority. There was nothing, in fact. And that nothing, that power vacuum, opened Iraq up to the interests of, first, external forces, from the proxy political authority of US troops, who remained there until the end of 2011, to the looming presence of Iran. And second, it opened Iraq up to the competing interests of proliferating, ethnic-based militias, be it Kurds versus Arabs, or Sunni versus Shia. Intervention didn’t liberate Iraq, it unleashed its disintegration.
And yet despite the continued lessons that are there to be learned – in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya – the arbitrary, reckless meddling continues. Cameron is not just following in the footsteps of Blair by attempting to demonstrate in the international theatre the moral and political authority he is unable to generate domestically; he is also repeating the deadly folly of Blair-era interventionism. Such intervention will always make a bad situation much, much worse.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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