Thursday, 19 August 2021

The Politics of Foreign Policy Humiliation

Commenting on Tom Tugendhat's speech in the Commons recall debate on the humiliation in Afghanistan, centrist journalists, so-called decents and sundry Labour MPs hailed his bravery and courage to say what he did. As a tendency in establishment politics perpetually looking for new heroes to associate their vapid movement with, he was the icon of the hour. Yet, while such endorsements would hardly recommend what he had to say, Tugendhat's career as an army officer and descendent of the British and French state aristocracy makes his opinion a revealing one, given the section of the ruling class which he comes from he serves as a barometer of the unease rippling through these exalted circles.

There are two key points Tugendhat summed up. As a combat veteran himself followed by a stint advising the Afghan client state apparatus, his speech condensed the widely reported disgust and bewilderment other soldiers have reported. To have seen friends and allies killed, sustained injuries, experienced the heart-stopping terrors of ambush, the strain of wondering whether some obscure corner of Afghanistan will be your grave, attending the funerals of colleagues and comrades, and knowing the lasting consequences for those unable to adjust to civilian life after the military for nothing is galling. Some might put a brave face on it by talking up the numbers of girls in schools, but deep down there aren't many servicemen and women who think the lives lost and traumas endured were worth it. And this is a big problem for Boris Johnson. Despite the Tories only paying lip service to the military covenant they are happy to let ex-forces people rot on the streets. It's the Conservatives' open secret, and it's testament to their political skill (as well as the assistance of their media friends) that this rarely becomes a political issue. However, the UK/US withdrawal brings to the fore the real Tory attitude: that they don't give a damn about those who sacrificed themselves for their military adventures.

If this wasn't bad enough, there is the carefree attitude Johnson has shown throughout the crisis. Last week as the Afghan collapse grew more obvious, both he and Dominic Raab made themselves scarce by disappearing off on holiday - something Keir Starmer did not fail to make hay with. But even worse, Raab couldn't be bothered to lift the phone to speak with his Afghan counterpart - something the Daily Mail are going heavy on. With the likes of Tugendhat and Johnny Mercer harrying them from the backbench, and the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace (ex-military himself) cutting an apologetic figure on the news broadcasts, pressure is now being applied on a previously safe and loyal segment of the Tory electoral coalition. If there's a moment Blue Labour social patriotism is going to work, this is it.

Then there's the second strand to Tugendhat's speech, the apologia for interventionism. Despite his veiled criticisms of the government, he does not question the right to bomb people overseas while trotting out the customary platitudes. Johnny Mercer, taking time out from his campaign to exempt British soldiers from war crimes charges, summed up the entitlement best. He said "These are new feelings we are not trained to deal with. We're not trained to lose." Indeed. It's difficult to think of another moment in the last 20 years, including Iraq, where the designs of the US and UK alliance have been so comprehensively defeated in full public view. As noted previously, this is significant: it makes the obscene doctrine of "humanitarian" interventionism much more difficult to push in the future, strengthening the hands of the anti-imperialist left and anti-war movement and the isolationist right. And if the domestic scene wasn't bad enough, equally devastating is the positioning of the United States itself.

In his speech on Monday, Joe Biden defended the rapid pull out of American forces and, somewhat distastefully considering the 65,000 Afghans killed fighting alongside the allied military, attacked them for "not having the will to fight." This might have appalled parliamentarians, but what has got the mainstream of warmongers properly spooked is the freezing out of the UK from negotiations by the US, and the refusal of Biden to take Johnson's call. As noted last November, for a number of bourgeois commentators Biden found Johnson distasteful because of his crude populism, his racism, and the devil may care stance to the Good Friday Agreement. Cut from the Trumpist cloth, in this instance it appears the President is closer to the style and leadership of The Donald than our Prime Minister. Cue the ritual jitters about the special relationship, but this has further ramifications. If Biden is happy to do America's own thing without consulting its closest military ally, this has direct consequences for the UK's ability to project hard power. If the US isn't interested, then the UK's posturing as the global bully's sidekick can only ever be that. You can understand how the Afghan debacle appals so much of the establishment on the government and opposition benches: their horizon, everything they've known about their privileged place in the world, looks like it's about to implode.

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16 comments:

Anonymous said...

"You can understand how the Afghan debacle appals so much of the establishment on the government and opposition benches: their horizon, everything they've known about their privileged place in the world, looks like it's about to implode."

There's a lot of truth in that - global Britain was gambled on American partnership, but this is the reality.

Naturally, the French response (post-Suez) would be to leave NATO and forge closer European ties!

This is simply a waystation on the UK's journey toward irrelevance.

However, equally distasteful is the glee with which the defeat has been met by the crazies on the 'left' here as if the Taliban were the Viet Cong (and they weren't Santa Claus, either).

What a dreadful world we live in with such dreadful people. If the left stands for anything, it should be a force for good - otherwise, how can it critique the bad? If your starting point is to celebrate the victory of misogynism and ignorance, then that is precisely where you shall end.

McIntosh said...

Good stuff showing how a 'catastrophe' exposes so many myths of British power.

So we spend $47 billion a year on our military and it cannot mount a campaign without the backing of US strategic infrastructure and US troops to rescue it if something goes wrong. Why spend so much and achieve so little?

We send a carrier fleet to the China Seas to promote our hard power while retreating at pace from military involvement in Afghanistan. I think the South Asians may notice the contradiction.

As you point out, our 'special relationship' is only special to us. For the Americans it is a bit of flattery they can use to keep the British lion purring, and when convenient ignore. The embaressment to be shown to be no more important than the Poles or Danes. With trade negotiations post Brexit on going Ministers will need to calm their back bench down lest they irritate Joe Biden even more with their criticisms.

And Lisa Nandy and the rest of the Army Council of the Blairite wing of the Labour Party have had the foundations of their humanitarian interventionism kicked away. They might have to come up with other approaches to problems in far away countries with strange sounding names than invasion and a vigorous bombing campaign. Their faith and hope in Biden's Democrats being different from Trump have been dashed. She and they are a lover scorned. They would have been as well supporting the Corbynite analyisis of foreign policy.

gastrogeorge said...

Strawman. Nobody is "celebrating" the victory of the Taliban.

BCFG said...

"However, equally distasteful is the glee with which the defeat has been met by the crazies on the 'left' here as if the Taliban were the Viet Cong (and they weren't Santa Claus, either)."

No, you are the crazy to think that you even have the right to dictate to the people of Afghanistan who they should or shouldn't have ruling their local affairs. What exactly gives you that right?

Driving the US beast from their country is a great day for the Afghan people, who hopefully can forge some kind of path of self determination, but for sure the plundering gangsters will do everything to ensure that doesn't happen and the cruise missile left will cheerlead them on all in the name of women's rights.

"This is simply a waystation on the UK's journey toward irrelevance."

You see, this is all you care about, Great Britain's place in the world! Hopefully Britains decline will see an end to people like anon, who think they can readily judge people in nations they know nothing, literally nothing about. What a great day that would be!

I dream of a world where the Afghan's judge us all too readily, where they get to wipe out the values of the West, that has brought mass extinction and a climate catastrophe, and where people care about nothing but their own self gratification.


Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...

Looking at it from the outside, which, unless some of those posting here were born and raised in Afghanistan, is what we are all doing, it is easy to take a "principled" position. What your principles are obviously varies. But if you are on the inside, you don't have that luxury. It becomes a simple case of making each decision based on survival, and sometimes all the options are bad, so its just which seems least bad.

I can't really imagine what it must be like to be an ordinary Afghan, but I do get that when the government they were given lost the support of the US military then the risk of supporting it shot up. If it were delivering a better life for you, and offering a vision of a stable future, then that might tip the balance, but if it all it offered was corruption and dependency on foreign aid, and large parts of the country either never had been, or were already out of its control, then the risk would be huge for little prospect of gain. Those who had already committed to it by taking a job with the government, foreign NGOs or the occupying forces would have no choice but to either flee, or fight. Without widespread support, the prospect of fighting and winning vanished, so you are left with fleeing as the only viable option.

It should not have been a surprise that the collapse was so swift and complete. Unless you believed all the stories out about how well-trained and equipped the afghan forces now were, how stability had been restored and peoples faith in the government was growing, how much the infrastructure had been improved, and how reliable institutions were being built. Clearly that cannot have been true, so we were told lies, and most of those involved must have been fooling themselves. Catastrophic failure is often a result of a refusal to face up to reality, thus preventing any adjustments, reforms, rethinks or fundamental changes of approach that might have turned it around.

We are all worse off for this failure, but the people of Afghanistan are those who will face the consequences. Further intervention is unlikely to improve the situation, so we can only take as many refugees as we can, and try to maintain some sort of constructive dialogue with the new government there.

Blissex said...

«So we spend $47 billion a year on our military»

That is not much, considering the cost of good hardware and of expeditionary forces. Once of the enduring issues is that since 9/11 the New Labour, Conservatives, LibDems have been trying to expeditionary forces in wars far away on a peacetime budget.

«and it cannot mount a campaign without the backing of US strategic infrastructure and US troops to rescue it if something goes wrong.»

Same as what happened after the declaration of war against the nazis and Japan. Winston Churchill said to the daughter of Asquith in 1944: “When I was at Teheran I realized for the first time what a very small country this is” and Tony Benn said much the same in 1965: “Defence, colour television, Concorde, rocket development - these are all issues raising economic considerations that reveal this country's basic inability to stay in the big league. We just can’t afford it. The real choice is — do we go in with Europe or do we become an American satellite? Without a conscious decision being taken the latter course is being followed everywhere.”

«Why spend so much and achieve so little?»

It is not "so much", and it is needed to get the "protection" of the USA requires that, and the main achievement is as to domestic politics.

You may want to remember the time when Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary, and the splendid use he made of the residual prestige of that position for pandering to domestic voters. That has not changed: the realists among the english ruling class know since the loss of France and Singapore that they cannot afford an independent foreign policy, and the last dreamers woke up at Suez, so the only value of having one is for domestic campaigning.

«We send a carrier fleet to the China Seas»

Consider the latest two adventures: bear baiting and dragon baiting to remind gammon voters of the victory at Sevastopol in the Crimean War, and of the victory in south China in the Opium Wars.

As to the former, the domestic political effect sought is to remind gammon voters of this song (is it still taught in school in history classes?):

“The dogs of war are loose, and the ragged Russian Bear,
Full bent on blood and robbery, has crawl'd out of his lair;
It seems a thrashing now and then, will never help to tame
That brute, and so he's out upon the "same old game."
The Lion did his best to find him some excuse
To crawl back to his den again, all efforts were no use;
He hunger'd for his victim, he's pleased when blood is shed,
But let us hope his crimes may all recoil on his own head.

REFRAIN:
We don't want to fight but by jingo if we do,
We've got the ships, we've got the men, and got the money too!
We've fought the Bear before and while we're Britons true
The Russians shall not have Constantinople.”

Very little has changed over the centuries, except “and got the money too!”, and so the new expeditionary force to Sevastopol was a single small ship, even if armed daringly with two powerful long range "aligned" journalists that were deployed as soon as the ship was near the crimean coast.

chris e said...

"Looking at it from the outside, which, unless some of those posting here were born and raised in Afghanistan, is what we are all doing, it is easy to take a "principled" position"

On the one hand this is true, on the other this - like some of the other criticisms privileges some Afghan voices over others, doesn't it ?

A total of 240K people have died in Afghanistan, in recent years the US and coalition forces have been responsible for around half of those casualties. So what improvement has the running cost of 6000 lives a year bought?

As you point out, large areas of the country have never been under the control of the coalition or the Afghan government, the benefits were largely concentrated on a small percentage of the population in Kabul and a few other major cities. So what kind of improvement justifies the death of 6000 people (most of whom would have had female relatives).

Jim Denham said...

"Some might put a brave face on it by talking up the numbers of girls in schools": so that doesn't matter, eh? To hell with women, eh? They were just stupid to put their faith in the imperialist intervention, eh, and deserve what they get?

South London said...

During the crisis units of the Indian army were deployed to Malta.

The chorus was amended to,
"We don't want to fight but by jingo if we do
We won't go ourselves,
We'll send the mild Hindu.

Dipper said...

"everything they've known about their privileged place in the world, looks like it's about to implode."

their?

You live in the same country. You benefit from this too.

Not quite sure what a certain teacher from Batley thinks right now about his 'privileged' place in the world given that the state in effect defended the right of the Batley branch of the Taliban to threaten him with death for doing something they disapproved of.

Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...

@Chris e
I wasn't justifying anyone's death. Nor was I privileging any voice. I was looking at it from the perspective of an outsider from a country that had interfered where the debate revolves around what to do now.

I never supported the war. I don't believe that "humanitarian intervention" by military means creates long-term stability or benefits the majority in the long run. All the evidence suggests it destabilises and makes things worse. If intervention is to protect our own stability, or prosperity, then it also fails on those counts in the long run.

But, we can't rewind and start again. We have to respond to how things are now in a way that does the least harm, while trying to protect those our actions have put most immediately in harms way. We have to prioritise because it is through not recognising our limitations and working within them and instead pretending we can help everyone that we get ourselves, and the majority of the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya etc, into these messes.

Let me clarify - I am not suggesting that the original intervention was driven by humanitarian urges. But for many of those involved, these existed and were genuine, even if they were often just a means of convincing themselves that what they were doing was acceptable. Who wants to die, or kill, to make someone else rich, or help them get elected? We all tell ourselves stories to justify our actions. Sometimes there is some truth, and usually we believe them. Motives are always mixed, even those of the Pentagon.

chris e said...

"But, we can't rewind and start again. We have to respond to how things are now in a way that does the least harm, while trying to protect those our actions have put most immediately in harms way. We have to prioritise because it is through not recognising our limitations and working within them and instead pretending we can help everyone that we get ourselves, and the majority of the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya etc, into these messes."

We cannot start again. My question to you was what benefit you believe is worth the cost of 6000 deaths per year (and many more thousand injured/maimed etc).

Matt Kelly said...

What the British have to get used to is that as a junior partner of US imperialism, they lost. They lost and did a runner, leaving behind people who helped them torture and kill. Leaving behind schoolteachers, women soccer players, etc.

It leaves a nasty taste in their mouths, to be sure. Sorry to introduce Nazis to the thread, but how do we think they felt when everything they fought to achieve came crashing down? We don’t shed any tears for them and neither should we for the US and British military.

Dipper said...

@ Matt Kelly

This isn't about you and your dislike of the British establishment

"What the British have to get used to is that as a junior partner of US imperialism, they lost. They lost and did a runner, leaving behind people who helped them torture and kill. Leaving behind schoolteachers, women soccer players, etc."

What do you mean 'get used to'? The USA have done a runner and politely said we can stay if we feel like it. But we were only there because we were supporting the USA taking action against the people who collaborate with those who murdered 3,000 of their citizens. This is very bad for the USA. No-one will support them again.

I am frankly sick of moral relativism, as if cultures which encourage free speech, equality, democracy, gay rights etc are somehow the same as cultures that believe in murdering gays, treating women as chattels and slaves, beheading opponents.

David Parry said...

Dipper,

But we were only there because we were supporting the USA taking action against the people who collaborate with those who murdered 3,000 of their citizens.

Please. 9/11 was just a pretext. What the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was actually about was securing the construction of the TAPI gas pipeline, in which, it was hoped, US TNCs would play a primary role. Now, things haven't panned out that way (the Turkmen state-owned Turkmengaz has ended up assuming the leading role in the project), but that doesn't mean that that wasn't the aim. The TAPI project started out in the early '90s as a US initiative. The US wanted an export route for Caspian oil and gas reserves that was under the control of US TNCs, and which bypassed Iran and Russia. It was actually initially willing to negotiate with the Taliban regime with a view to securing this. This broke down in December 1998 after the Taliban came out in support of al-Qaeda, who were purportedly behind attacks on US embassies in Kazakhstan and Kenya. What 9/11 did was hand the US on a plate a much needed pretext to remove a regime in Afghanistan that had come to be seen as hostile and untrustworthy with one that would facilitate the US' commercial interests in the region.

I am frankly sick of moral relativism, as if cultures which encourage free speech, equality, democracy, gay rights etc are somehow the same as cultures that believe in murdering gays, treating women as chattels and slaves, beheading opponents.

And I'm sick of useful idiots for US imperialism who lap up the bullshit narratives that governments on both sides of the pond have trotted out in defence of US-led wars of aggression, who not only think that US imperialism is any kind of remedy to dictatorship, the persecution of gays, the subjugation of women and so on (ignoring the fact that, insofar as 'Western' societies embody free speech, democracy, equality and so on, it is because of generations of struggle from below within those societies, not because of some imperial power coming along and imposing those values through the barrel of a gun), but who, in their dangerous naivete, assume that lofty, humanitarian ideals even have anything to do with said wars of aggression to begin with, overlooking the role that the US and its allies have played in fostering cultures characterised by the aforementioned evils abroad through the arming and financing of barbaric tyrannies like Saudi Arabia, which, incidentally, is the world's biggest sponsor of terrorist groups which seek to impose cultures which believe in murdering gays, treating women as chattel and slaves and beheading political opponents, as well as being guilty of all of those things itself.

Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...

@chris e. I am unclear why you are asking me. I had no part in the decision, nor was I consulted on it, or even asked my opinion. I am not part of the military-political establishment and have no position of authority or decision making that was in any way involved. What's more, I never suggested that there was any equation of improvement versus lives that would have validated or invalidated the action. I can't answer your question because it presumes that I hold a view that I do NOT hold.