Labour’s defence policy seems about to go disastrously wrong
Because of the horrors unfolding in Libya, voices are again being heard calling for ‘humanitarian intervention’ by the west to protect the defenceless Libyan population from their deranged ruler. This activist climate seems to be affecting the Labour opposition’s front-bench spokesman on defence.
According to a Guardian report on 22 February 2011, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, plans to “resurrect the principles of liberal intervention espoused by Tony Blair but discredited by the Iraq war with a message to his party that they have a “responsibility beyond the UK’s borders”:
In an interview with Total Politics magazine, Jim Murphy has begun the task of persuading his colleagues they may have to intervene abroad again – despite many of them still being preoccupied by events in the run-up to and fallout from Iraq.
Referring to the 1999 intervention to defend Kosovans against Slobodan Milosevic, Murphy says: “If Kosovo were to happen in 2017, so we’re out of Afghanistan, I don’t want to get into a position where we would say, post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, ‘we couldn’t do another Kosovo’.”
“It’s important to make that argument. I’m not trying to nudge things in favour of another military intervention anywhere but you shouldn’t let the residual real anger that there is about the Iraq war defeat the pride that we have in what we did in Kosovo.”
Ed Miliband, who spoke during his successful Labour leadership campaign of the “catastrophic loss of trust” between the party and the electorate over Iraq, is thought to agree with the sentiments in Murphy’s interview that new principles for intervention should be established.
Murphy’s thoughts will inform the two-year defence policy review he is undertaking while fellow Labour shadow cabinet members review their own policy areas.
He will build on his ideas in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute on March 3, in which he is likely to emphasise the need for greater public diplomacy ahead of interventions abroad. [Emphasis added.]
In all this, Mr Murphy is disastrously wrong in virtually every way, as I tried to point out in a letter published in the Guardian on 25 February 2011. In the slightly longer text submitted to the Guardian I wrote:
Someone needs to sit Labour’s shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, down somewhere comfortable and teach him about the failure of the disastrous NATO attack on Yugoslavia over Kosovo, and the elementary flaws in Tony Blair’s attempt to justify it with his discredited doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ (Labour urged not to rule out military intervention, February 22nd): otherwise some future Labour government may be tempted to repeat past blunders instead of learning from them.
Contrary to the received wisdom, Mr Blair’s cheerleading of the NATO bombing failed to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo (the exodus of refugees out of Kosovo began only after the launch of the NATO attack), or to replace Serbian control of Kosovo by an international administration (that was achieved by flexible US-Russian-Finnish diplomacy when the bombing was going nowhere), or to topple Milosevic (the Serbian electorate did that months later). The NATO intervention was illegal (never authorised by the UN), based on a false prospectus (the Rambouillet conference concocted a pretext for attacking Serbia, not a basis for a peaceful settlement), unnecessary (the possibilities of a peaceful solution had not been exhausted) and incompetently executed (thousands of innocent civilians killed, non-military targets destroyed). If all that sounds familiar, it’s no coincidence. The delusion that the Kosovo aggression was both a success and a personal triumph for Mr Blair clearly encouraged a repetition of all the Kosovo blunders in Iraq, four years later. Never again, thanks, Mr Murphy.
In his first speech as newly elected party leader to the party conference, Ed Miliband courageously risked the anger of the New Labour Old Guard by dissociating himself and the party from the criminal folly of the aggression against Iraq in 2003, although in somewhat more cautious language than mine (“I do believe that we were wrong. Wrong to take Britain to war and we need to be honest about that. Wrong because that war was not a last resort, because we did not build sufficient alliances and because we undermined the United Nations. America has drawn a line under Iraq and so must we…”) But precisely the same indictment needs to be levelled at the Kosovo intervention. Labour party supporters and members, including those who have joined or re-joined the party since last year’s election, will be dismayed if Mr Murphy is allowed to come up with a defence policy for the party which implicitly or explicitly endorses either the illegal and unsuccessful NATO aggression against Serbia over Kosovo (for which Tony Blair was self-appointed cheer-leader), or the deeply flawed doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ preached by Mr Blair in his Chicago speech of 1999, at the height of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, later comprehensively dismantled and replaced by the UN-inspired “Right to Protect” (R2P) which has a completely different basis and which ensures respect for the UN Charter and for international law. Perhaps his more level-headed friends and colleagues will urgently draw Mr Murphy’s attention to the multiple failings of the Kosovo misadventure and to the replacement of Mr Blair’s Chicago doctrine by R2P, whose provisions will repay study, if possible before he enters into ill-conceived commitments in his speech to RUSI on 3 March.