David Cameron and Barack Obama met last week in Washington for their first bilateral talks. At the top of their agenda was how to extricate themselves from the wars they have inherited. With the announcement of a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2015, it would seem that neither administration is willing to stay any longer than expediency allows. The terrible cost in blood and treasure has turned public opinion firmly against the war, and both will be eager that they do not pay a political price. It is likely that Iran and North Korea also formed part of their discussions, but both men would do well to learn the lessons that their predecessors provided and should be wary of any future interventionist adventures.
In 1989 the world changed. The Berlin Wall was torn down, bloodless revolutions swept Central and Eastern Europe and by 1991 Boris Yeltsin rode on a tank into Red Square. The Cold War dissolved with the preconceptions of how global politics worked. The problem with this post-cold war idyll was that it took from our governments their raison-d’être, as leaders of the ‘free’. Into this vacuum entered Tony Blair, whose path to interventionism it would seem was initially an organic one. British troops were sent to Sierra Leone to free UK hostages from the rebel forces, but once on the ground they quickly realised they could end the civil war with ease, and did so, apparently without explicit government consent. Buoyed by this success, Blair turned his attention to Kosovo and led Bill Clinton’s America reluctantly to the conflict. It is hard to criticise either of these interventions, and in so far as any wars can be called good, these were.
After Kosovo, Mr Blair became a firm believer in interventionism as a force for good and when George W Bush’s hawkish Republican administration took office in 2001, he found a leader who shared this world view. The Republicans dreamt of creating a global democratic free-market utopia and they believed that US military power should be deployed to impose it, especially in the troublesome Middle East. The Muslim hardliners who preached of ‘The Great Satan’ - with its imperialist pretensions in the Arab world - felt vindicated and Bin Laden attacked the Twin Towers. The philosopher John Grey, in Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern suggests that the ideologies of both the Western interventionists and Al Qaeda were born of contradictions and false premises - nonetheless they led us to war.
In his polemic three part documentary, The Power of Nightmares, Adam Curtis argues that the ‘war on terror' lies largely in the imagination of our elites as a post cold war narrative, and the resultant actions of British and American foreign policy have made the world less safe than it was before. He believes that Western governments were emasculated by the ending of the cold war, but by deluding themselves of a global terrorist nightmare and saving us from it - they could become powerful once more. The real threat to Britain lies in the disenfranchisement of youth from minority ethnic Europe, the oppression of Palestine, the manipulation of Pakistan, the nation building in Afghanistan and that we have ended up fighting a morally dubious conflict as part of a deeply misguided post colonial doctrine. These actions have created a discontented Islamic world, and a minority have been drawn to violence - but to characterise this as a replacement threat equal to the Soviet Union simply does not stand scrutiny.
David Cameron has already betrayed a poor grasp of history, when he described Britain as “America’s junior partner in 1940”; one might have thought an expensive Eton education would have taught him that Britain stood alone in that year - America would not join the conflict until December 1941. It is however a more recent history that Obama and Cameron must learn from if the damage to America and Britain’s reputations in the international community are to be repaired. When Nick Clegg stood at the dispatch box on Wednesday and denounced “the illegal invasion of Iraq” as “Labour’s most disastrous decision”, he may or may not have been materially correct, but he accurately articulated the deeply held view of a great many across the globe. It is a timely reminder that we must face up to what has been done ‘in our names’ to make sure that it can never happen again - and that the rule of law extends not just to citizens but to our leaders as well.
It would be naive to think endless peace is credible, but I believe that it is fundamental that Britain should only ever fight ‘the good fight’ in the future.