Thursday, March 3, 2011
Has Britain Lost Her Nerve?
by Benedict Brogan
On Tuesday night, William Hague found himself alongside Hamid Karzai at the British Museum to mark the opening of a showstopper of an exhibition from Afghanistan. A place of war and destruction, which struggles to maintain a semblance of government, has sent the remnants of its most prized treasures on tour to prove that it has a past – and a future – more interesting than its difficult present. Proximity to objects of such fragile beauty must have provided the Foreign Secretary with a moment of respite on an otherwise difficult day.
And what treasures they turn out to be. These delicate relics, brought to the banks of the Oxus via more than 2,000 years of trade, migration and conquest, remind us that the hidden valleys of Bactria, Aria and Arachosia were the nexus of antiquity’s version of globalisation: carved amber from Siberia; a translucent piece of engraved chalcedony from western Turkey; paper-thin enamelled glass from eastern Egypt; a ribbed bowl of a type found as far west as Britain; and gold in great quantities, culminating in a magnificent folding crown, its delicate discs and flowers shimmering in the light.
How it is that we are able to admire them after two decades of violence and vandalism is even more remarkable. The most moving part of the exhibition is the video showing the disbelief on the curators’ faces when they jemmied open the old safes from Kabul’s National Museum in 2004. These men had worked by torchlight during the bombings to retrieve scattered shards of pottery, and survived by seeking work in the bazaar as potato-sellers and buggy drivers. Yet while everything else had been smashed and blown up by the Taliban’s iconoclasts, the core of their collection – and of Afghanistan’s national and cultural identity – had defied the odds.
That these treasures can be seen in London is, of course, a direct result of British and American military intervention nearly a decade ago. The immediate objective – the defeat of the Taliban – was in retaliation for the attacks of Septemeber 11. But the slow emergence of a legitimate and roughly democratic government, and its maintenance ever since, are in large part the products of Tony Blair’s decision to make good on the idea of liberal interventionism that defined his premiership. To further that goal, we have invested our own treasure: hundreds of lives, and billions of pounds.
The Blair doctrine, first set out in a speech in Chicago in 1999, expanded the idea of the national interest to include the threat posed by failing states, and the moral obligation of those with the means and the will to act against tyranny. He emerged from the Kosovan refugee camps that same year as a passionate advocate of military intervention. Months later, he successfully sent British forces into Sierra Leone, and then Afghanistan, and then Iraq.
Cameron and Obama discuss how to depose Gaddafi
25 Feb 2011
Libya: no-fly zone plan to stop attacks by Gaddafi loyalists
28 Feb 2011
There are still those who hold that Mr Blair was right to champion Britain’s willingness to combat tyranny, even if what began with small-scale, defensible interventions spiralled into grandiose, reckless schemes that destroyed Britain’s credibility abroad and contributed to his downfall at home. But David Cameron was not among them. In Opposition, he could see the damage that Mr Blair’s adventures had done. He mapped out a different course, more pragmatic, less prone to delusional excess. There was to be none of the messianic zeal, the “glint in the eye” that Lord Wilson, the former cabinet secretary, claimed to have spotted in Mr Blair.
So, in Berlin in 2007, the then Leader of the Opposition proposed two principles that would govern his thinking: national security and, in lieu of Mr Blair’s liberal interventionism, the “doctrine of liberal conservatism”. Mr Blair had the correct moral impulse, Mr Cameron argued, but had got the balance between idealism and realism completely wrong. He, on the other hand, was “sceptical of grand utopian schemes to remake the world”.
Fast-forward to Tuesday, when Mr Cameron was having to row back desperately in the face of the uproar caused by his offer to lead military action against Muammar Gaddafi. Downing Street tried to blame an over-eager media, which in turn blamed inept briefing. But there was no masking the streak of recklessness in the Prime Minister’s Commons statement the previous day, when he talked of not tolerating the Gaddafi regime and of setting up a no-fly zone. Scepticism, it seemed, had been replaced by over-confidence.
Within 24 hours, Nato and the UN had made it plain that Mr Cameron could go whistle, and yet more evidence had emerged of what a shambles has been made of our defence capability in the wake of the ill-thought-out Strategic Defence and Security Review. The Armed Forces can still manage to get oil workers out of the desert, but 13 years of Labour incompetence, coupled with hasty judgments last autumn, have left us unable to do anything beyond what we are already committed to.
When we discovered that nearly all Servicemen on active duty in Afghanistan were being told they faced possible redundancy, a Government that was talking big was left looking small. And that was before the Tory-dominated Foreign Affairs Committee lashed Mr Cameron for offering “inconsistent” reasons for staying in Afghanistan, and bungling the announcement of the “arbitrary” withdrawal date of 2015.
At Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, Ed Miliband did not need to press his point about the wisdom of making new commitments at a time of fast-reducing military capability. It is Tory MPs who are reacting in horror at the sight of a prime minister reaching for the military option to distract from his troubles at home. They fear their leader has been seduced by the temptations of foreign affairs when his focus, in terms of national security, should remain fixed on the vital issue that he himself has stressed – getting us out of the indebted mess that is reducing Britain to a bit player on the world stage.
Arguably, what should be exercising us just as much is the argument that Jim Murphy, the thoughtful shadow defence secretary, has begun to sketch out. In an age where the pain and cost of British entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan have sapped the public and political will for armed intervention, how does one make the case for using force? The horrified reaction to Mr Cameron’s sabre-rattling may be justified by the amateurishness shown by his government. But it should also worry us that a country and a political class that used to be at ease with the idea of projecting force now gets the vapours the minute someone suggests it.
This, I sense, is the dilemma that will dog Mr Cameron. We invested our treasure in Afghanistan and Iraq, for no obvious return. Now we want to bring what’s left home, and lock it in the vault, far from harm. Yes, financial circumstances of our own making mean that we would struggle to mount a substantial operation, even if we wanted to. But the real danger is not that Mr Cameron has suddenly developed a Blair-like desire to meet our responsibilities abroad – it’s that the rest of us no longer want to.