Friday, December 05, 2008

Clegg takes Lib Dems into pro-war waters

Some years ago the then leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, spoke at the largest anti-war demonstration in this country's history. It was controversial in some quarters as the Lib Dems were hardly a consistent anti-war voice and could act as a break to a rising movement - as it happens I think that decision was the right one, it was an exercise in showing just how politically broad and numerically vast the opposition to the invasion of Iraq was.

Ever since (not just because of Charlie speaking on that platform, obviously) there has been an element of Lib Dem support that has essentially been to the left of Labour who hoped that the yellow party could be a nicer, less bloodthirsty and kind of social democrat-ish place. But there has been a growing feeling that the Lib Dems are less interested in that constituency these days than they are in positioning themselves to repel Tory advances.

Nick Clegg, the current leader of the Lib Dems, is a different kettle of fish to CK, his last meaningful predecessor. He likes to lean to the right and has a harder, more market orientated approach to life. But that's not all, his instincts on foreign policy are rather more robust than many of those who gave the Lib Dems their vote last time round might like.

Back in June Clegg longed for military action against Zimbabwe (among other punitive measures) and in October he decried the reticence to intervene whilst accepting that "The best we can hope for is keeping the insurgents ‘manageable’" in those areas where British troops are currently stationed.

Release the peace and love bombs

Nick Clegg on PM tonight went further and, using the word force rather more often than might have been strictly necessary, came out clearly in favour of military intervention in Zimbabwe, further distancing himself from those whose faith in liberal intervention is not so well developed.

Clegg said he felt a "mixture of rage and impotence" at the situation and that we should "take up the call of Desmond Tutu" who recently said that Mugabe ought to be deposed by force. Clegg argued that the West had a "responsibility to protect [which] in effect gives a moral or legal right to the outside world to intervene in a country where its rulers are neglecting or brutalising their own people." (please note: we don't have any such legal right to invade countries on the basis that they mistreat their populations and we don't like them).

Clegg called on China and South Africa in particular to "step up to the plate", rightly claiming that South Africa's approach so far had been "feeble and pathetic", he then stated that "I think force is now completely justified [however] Western intervention is impossible without the cooperation of its neighbours" which could be taken in one of two ways. Either that we should secure the cooperation of those neighbours for a Western invasion to take back our colonial possessions, or that we will be unable to invade so South Africa will have to do it for us (fat chance). I assume he wasn't calling on China to invade - but who knows!

The situation's critical

The situation in Zimbabwe does indeed seem dire. With a Cholera outbreak, a food crisis and the army rioting it's only right that we ask ourselves what kind of solidarity can we offer? Particularly because the authorities are using this moment to target trade unionists and activists, including the arrest of the leader of the teachers union and a leading human rights activist. Voices that call for grassroots action by Zimbabweans are getting beaten down because they are rising up, and we need to hold out our hand to them.

But whilst those like Condoleezza Rice see this as an opportunity to pursue US/UK interests in the region, to call on African nations to commit to a failed strategy because we're too tied up in our own failed wars to start a new one isn't wise. We're exactly the wrong people to advocate this strategy because of our colonial history and our recent adventures in the Middle East. We don't have a good track record here which means we're just not credible.

Whilst we're happy to fund and arm countries like Nigeria who oppress their populations and keep the oil flowing Zimbabwe has consistently failed to play ball, and behaves like a "rogue state". Our governments find that difficult to tolerate. I think there's another way, but one that does not meet the modern needs for immediacy and blood letting.

Nations like Botswana are donating aid to help the Zimbabwean people rather than bombs whilst simultaneously pursuing a critical, diplomatic offensive to the undemocratic and barbarous Mugabe regime. I suspect that shows a better way than wishing for wars that will never, and should never, come - but either way Britian has to butt out.

Well, Nick Clegg will be attending the climate change demonstration tomorrow in much the same spirit that the Lib Dems attended the anti-war demo all those years ago. Whilst there's votes in it they'll be there, but let's not imagine that if the wind changes Clegg and co wont just drift away.


weggis said...

My apologies for absence tomorrow.

I am busy building a boat.

Jim Jay said...

Sounds like fun - it's not an ark is it?

weggis said...

Only two per Party. Book early.
I always suspected that the fractualism on the left had a purpose!

Andy said...

Um... the Lib Dems have never been an "anti-war" party. They were an "anti-Iraq war" party, on account of being a "pro-international law" party, but they supported the concept of going into Afghanistan, and Paddy Ashdown was urging action in the Balkans a while before the rest of the world caught up in the 1990s. I'm not sure you can call this much of a shift.

mish said...

I was wondering today about the relative death tolls of the cholera outbreak versus an invasion. Any bombing would cause further deterioration in the infrastructure.

Also I heard someone on radio 4 calling for a fuel blockade of Zimbabwe as it would hurt the army. Pros and cons of that seem less clear cut, but still plenty of potential for the old 'collateral damage'.

Gavin said...

This article reflects badly on you.

I'm going to assume your not being deliberately slow on the uptake to make some petty party political point or three.

I think, perhaps, the reason that China comes up is that if China budged on the issue then the United Nations could conceivably back strong action. This is precisely the kind of situation the United Nations exists for, and precisely the kind of situation it has tragically failed to deal with so consistently in the fairly recent past (mainly through the lack of will among its most powerful members).

But basically you've written an article which says we should respond by figuratively holding out a hand to Zimbabwean civil society. (Just to check, but have you been withholding your figurative hand this past decade or so? And if not, how much difference has it made so far?) If this is Green Party foreign policy, it's bunkum. If Clegg wants to get angry about the UN and its members looking the other way, good for him.

Jim Jay said...

Andy: I agree that the Lib Dems have never been an anti-war party, my argument is about the fact they recieved an anti-war *vote* which they clearly seem less keen to court these days.

Mish: the actually death toll from the outbreak is difficult to assess even for those in Zimbabwe but several thousand seems likely - any invasion would of course cost many, many more lives than that.

Gavin: Clegg isn't just getting angry he's advocating military action - presumably from South Africa. I don't agree with that policy and believe it would cost many thousands of lives without the prospect of bringing democracy.

It's posturing to look tough without offering real assistance in a tragic situation.

What his call also does is help those advocating punative actions against Zim - like the fuel blockade mish mentions. A novel way to help to help victims of cholera. Personally I think Botswana's approach is much more helpful.

Gavin said...

I think you're probably wrong about the costs of military action, but I don't have any means of knowing for sure. Clearly it would depend a lot on the nature of the action, and the communication which surrounded it. All I would say is that no two situations are the same - the UN is there to decide a course of action, and it needs to do so in a functional way. It shouldn't (as with Iraq) have to consider situations with a gun to its head, but it must consider them on their merits or it's just pointless.

Clegg doesn't call for military action, he says how he feels about the current position (I agree, don't you?) and says there is a moral and legal 'right' to intervene (I would say obligation rather than right, but I think we get the sentiment). There is, through the UN, a mechanism for action and Clegg correctly identifies China as the key obstacle on the global level and South Africa as the key player locally.

I know you want to get your dig at the Lib Dems in (the pictures alone tell us that) but wouldn't it be more edifying to set out what you want to do for the people of Zimbabwe.

My real fear is that you're saying, on reflection, basically nothing. That really troubles me - for the avoidance of doubt, are you saying you can conceive of no circumstances when lives (and particularly civilian lives) are saved by military action sanctioned by the UN? Would you applaud the way in which the international community approached the Rwandan crisis in 1994?

I honestly think you're wrong here, and tragically so if you think you're any kind of progressive. Don't you think that - if nothing else - Desmond Tutu deserves a second thought before you attempt to paint him as some kind of rapacious 'neo-con'?

Botswana's approach is interesting - clearly the aid is very welcome (the UK does contribute and has contributed through NGOs too, although this is not routinely trumpeted since the Mugabe regime has made it clear at times that UK funded organisations are not especially welcome). Of course, there is a big border security / refugee / public health issue for Botswana in all of this. Here I have no easy answers, but I'm very reluctant to praise closing borders, erecting electric fences etc to keep refugees out. Ironically, some have described these as acts of war. I think they are probably acts of desperation, but not ones that sit comfortably with me.

Jim Jay said...

I don't think Clegg was describing China as an obstacle but rather, because of the trade relations between the two countries, I think he was identifying China as a player that might be able to bring more leverage to bear than others - in other words he was saying China could be a great help to the situation.

He's right in this.

I have not painted Tutu as a rapacious neo-con, but I do disagree with him on this issue. Nor do I care much one way or the other about the Lib Dems (I've both praised and disagreed with them on this blog) but the pictures illustrate my displeasure at Clegg.

Clegg *does* call for military action, although he tended to use the term 'force' - but he also says the UK is regretably (for him) not in a position to do this.

Now I don't think there are any easy answers - which is why I don't set out my five point plan for turning Zimbabwe into a utopia - but I have explicitly stated that Botswana's example is worth emulating and that people in the UK are exactly the wrong people to go round talking about regime change in an African country - no matter how dire the situation.

Gavin said...

I don't agree with this post-colonial vow of silence thing you've come up with, but I see why you think that.

I'm at risk of labouring the point here, but do you actually think the international community acted commendably during the Rwandan genocide? If so, I can admire your consistency but it frightens me. I'd be genuinely interested in your response.

As for Clegg, and the Lib Dems, I just think there's a self-defeating chippiness about your approach - I appreciate it probably comes more from your lingering resentment about the Lib Dems...agreeing with you...about Iraq. Clearly there was some form of electoral dividend from calling that right, and they got the lion's share of it in 2005. You presumably think the Greens or Respect or whoever would have been more deserving. Fine.

If you pay attention to the polls, you might come to the conclusion that neither talking about Zimbabwe nor attending the climate change march actually are very effective ways of 'chasing votes' these days. Is there anything the Lib Dems could do that you wouldn't view in those terms?

Clegg makes a serious point. I think he makes the point because he thinks it's the right thing to say about a desperate situation. You disagree with his view, which is fair enough - I just don't think turning this into some post-Iraq extended whinge does you any credit.

Surprised you endorse Botswana's approach quite so strongly. Would you be keen for Zimbabwe's other neighbours to close their borders and put up electric fences? I'm not sure any amount of aid money undoes the troubling inhumanity of that. (although I say again that Botswana's position is difficult however you look at it)

Jim Jay said...

Gavin, the post colonial aspect is part of it - but it's also our very recent history of military intervention and regime change which is utterly discreditted. The UK is not the only country in the world, nor is it the only country in the world that cares.

I suspect you think I'm much more cynical about the lib dems than I am, and that I view everything through the lens of whether something is good for me - to be honest the more usual criticism of my aproach is that I'm not cynical enough (eg in this thread Andy implies I had higher expectations of the LDs principles) and that I'm too open minded and willing to praise those with whom I'm normally at odds (eg I just posted a piece on Manchester's C Charge which I'm told says Labour is better than the Greens, or the piece I did a little while ago where I said nice things about Boris Johnson).

I think that the LDs approach to civil liberties has been very useful and does not necessarily chase votes. To answer your question.

I'm praising everything the Botswanan government has ever done I'm saying their response to this crisis is positive - and incidentally there is a health issue here and an attempt to prevent the spread of chorela.

I'm sorry you think I'm whinging - from my end it feels like disagreeing and stating my reasons, but perhaps it comes across that way.

Oh - on Rwanda - I know this is supposedly the event that proves we have to intervene when terrible events happen - but let's think about how effective similar interventions have been in Somalia and in the Balkans.

Of course everyone regrets the tragedy in Rwanda but the ideas around what effective action constitutes is contested. I favour the long termist approach - but perhaps I would as someone who works in international development, others favour military force despite the fact that we have no examples of this working in this kind of situation.

That's quite a big topic so I'll stop this comment here.

Gavin said...

Thanks for your reply. As you say, we are on to big topics which perhaps can't be debated in full here.

I know we're not the only country in the world, but rightly or not we're a member of the UN Security Council and we should be trying to make it work while we're there.

There is/was no long termist approach to Rwanda, and there is no long termist approach to this cholera outbreak. Either the international community does something (beyond what it's already doing and has been for some time) or it does nothing. Sometimes international action can work - the UN has got to make it work more reliably or else one of its most important reasons for existing falls down - states will then act unilaterally, and really does cause more problems. I'd sooner the world kept trying rather than just watching on TV and reckoning it'll probably sort itself out in the end.

But there is a real moral dilemma very often, and I'm grateful for your reply.

My main argument is that every situation and every individual permutation of 'intervention' needs to be considered on its merits and its specific consequences as far as we can foresee them. I don't think anyone should be criticised for starting a debate in these terms. I'm not convinced UN-sanctioned intervention by African nations in Zimbabwe would be a bigger disaster than what's happening without it.

Thanks again for the discussion though.

Jim Jay said...

I agree with you Gavin that there was no adequate response - short or long term - to the situation in Rwanda. I'll try to post on this, perhaps next week, and it's clear that what efforts there have been so far on Zimbabwe has been inadequate too - often with contradcitory approaches from different countries.

If Clegg wants a debate on this then this is my contribution to it, after all you can't have a debate without disagreement.