It is time to learn from our mistakes
This is a curious claim in the light of the hyperactive foreign policy the UK has pursued in the 21st century. The interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq initiated by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair were attempts to demonstrate that Britain was anything but a spent force. The same was true of the British intervention in Libya that Britain’s current prime minister, David Cameron, instigated in 2011, even though he previously ridiculed the notion that Britain could bestow freedom on foreign lands by bombing them.
It could be said that the UK has been all too zealous in its efforts to maintain its status as a world power. Missing has been the capacity to recognize that British foreign policy might be promoting the very thing — militancy — it aimed to eradicate. The late Col. Gaddafi, it transpires, warned Tony Blair that intervention in Libya would foment radicalism. Libya, now a fertile breeding ground for militants and an embarkation point for refugees heading for Europe, has since joined Afghanistan and Iraq as a country where Britain has contrived to play a less than constructive role. Not that this catalogue of debacles gave pause to British MPs, who, as if in the grip of collective amnesia, recently backed British airstrikes in Syria.
Sir. Jeremy Greenstock admits that the British interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were not exactly success stories but does not suggest that there are large lessons to be learned. Rather than conceding that it might have been better had the interventions never taken place, the former ambassador bemoans the dwindling size of the British army and its present negligible contribution to “peace-keeping.”
The UK was supposed to be engaging in peace-keeping in Iraq following the toppling of Saddam Hussein, though in the end British troops in Basra, menaced by “insurgents,” were reduced to “force-protection.” Perhaps when the endlessly delayed Chilcot Inquiry finally reports on Britain’s participation in the Iraq war there will be a proper reckoning with its ignominious outcome. Hitherto, a veil has been drawn over an episode that gave way to the further calamity of the British mission in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.
Sir. Jeremy Greenstock’s lamentation over the decline of British power is of a piece with the horror of many British politicians at the proposal by the leaders of the Labour Party and Green Party that the UK abandon its Trident nuclear deterrent, due for renewal at astronomical cost. Though proponents of Trident can scarcely deny that its role as a deterrent in an age of terrorism is not obvious, they insist that the future is unknowable. Of course, nobody can predict what threats Britain may face in years to come. Yet this is another area of public discussion where there is a taboo on confronting reality. What is never acknowledged is that Trident is not the independent British deterrent it is made out to be but a weapons system under US jurisdiction. The truth is that Trident is the virility symbol of a political establishment loath to accept that Britain’s days as a great imperial power are gone.
In a recent BBC television series, Let Us Entertain You, the historian Dominic Sandbrook argued that in terms of “soft” cultural power the British Empire lives on. Of conservative persuasion, Sandbrook is something of a jingoist. Nevertheless, his contention is by no means implausible.
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