October 08, 2006

Why is Foreign Policy so reliant on bombs, not brains?

We have 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of the population. In this situation, our real job in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which permit us to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we have to dispense with all sentimentality… we should cease thinking about human rights, the raising of living standards and democratisation. – George Kennan, US Foreign Policy advisor, 1948

I would characterize current U.S. nuclear weapons policy as immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, and dreadfully dangerous – Robert McNamara, former US Foreign Policy advisor, 2005

It doesn’t sound like much has changed, then. Foreign policy seems to be the most influential, potentially dangerous and ideologically-divided type of politics, yet it is also the area of politics in which there is the least debate and where elites have the greatest say over our lives. In 2003, the Parliamentary debate on war in Iraq was an unprecedented exercise in debate before destruction. Only because of the incredible pressure put upon the government was there any debate in the Commons. They won because the Conservative opposition wished to play up the divisions in the Labour Party.

Daily Mirror, 6th October 2006The effect of poor foreign policy has been clear to see from the headlines this week. The Muslim population of Britain and other Western countries have been angered not only by the closed world of foreign affairs, but also by the blinkered reporting of it by newspapers, television and radio. Jack Straw’s remarks this week tackled one of those issues denied a hearing because different communities are afraid of stepping on each other’s toes. Henry Porter in the Observer and Martin Kettle in the Guardian both defended some of Straw’s words, while warning of the likely reaction from those who hadn’t read what he actually said in his newspaper article and radio interviews. But the – fairly predictable – reaction to Straw’s comments wasn’t the fault of a nervous Muslim population (in fact most moderate Muslims have shrugged it off), but was the fault of a British population not used to such open discussion of delicate issues. The media doesn’t prepare us for the identification of acceptable difference that is needed in a modern, diverse society where things aren’t only in shades of grey, but in full-blown technicolour. And the media isn’t helped when the government restricts debate of things like the replacement of Trident, nuclear power and our foreign policy generally.

When Tony Blair talks of a ‘roadmap’ for the Middle East, only he and his transatlantic allies seem to know what this roadmap is, and only they helped define it in the first place. There was little discussion here in the UK and in America of what would be required, just as there was little involvement of citizens in Israel and Palestine, and that’s been reflected in the fragility of the process. Similarly, no-one seriously thought to ask what should replace Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and only a few hours was given over to Parliamentary debate about the inevitable invasion.

Jack StrawTo refer back to George Kennan’s remarks in 1948, is it the case that military planning is done without reference to human rights and democracy? Events since 2001 suggest that it could well be. 2,973 people died on 11th September of that year, and the reaction to it has – at least in terms of casualties – been seriously overblown. Iraq Body Count – an independent body – suspects that between 43,799 and 48,639 civilians have been killed in Iraq since 2003, far more than in New York and Washington, and far more than were murdered by Saddam Hussein. Where is morality in this situation? Yes, one can blame the ‘insurgents’, ‘terrorists’ or ‘freedom fighters’ for many of these deaths, but it is clear that the British and American invasion triggered them.

George Bush does not seem a sentimental man, and Tony Blair does only when he’s performing for the cameras. But has sentimentality gone the same way as informed debate amongst ordinary people and our governments? The past five years and the closed-door world of Western foreign policy suggest that it has.


- 5 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Mathew Mannion

    but it is clear that the British and American invasion triggered them.

    You can’t put a value on the freedom of Iraqi people though, whether it is true that they are free or not, since the debate on the War in Iraq had a large basis on improving the standard of living of the Iraqi people. The actual fact of the matter seems to suggest from left-leaning media that this isn’t the case (whilst pro-Government media, if there is any, seems eerily quiet), but that doesn’t mean that the idea was wrong, or that we were wrong to go to war – it just means that we’ve fucked it up.

    Personally, I think foreign policy is the most highly debated issue and has been for the past 4 years, but before then I’d imagine things were different.

    08 Oct 2006, 14:10

  2. Adam

    It’s outrageous the stuff that our governments get away with in our name..I’ve heard good things about “Hidden Agendas”...”Tell Me No Lies” is another goodun from Pilger, even if he is sometimes, shall we say, ‘liberal with the facts’..!

    08 Oct 2006, 15:08

  3. Adam

    And to answer the question directly, British foreign policy less reliant on brains because Margaret Beckett doesn’t have one.

    08 Oct 2006, 15:10

  4. I feel like I’ve been reading this Pilger book for ages, but I’m only about a sixth of the way through it. Annoyingly the library fines here are far higher than at Warwick too! It’s a great book though and (if you remember my post from last week) makes being an embittered journalist seem more attractive. It’s given me a few story ideas which might appear on the blog at some point. I’d definately recommend it, along with Distant Voices which is the book I was intending to take out before I forgot the title of it.

    08 Oct 2006, 17:01

  5. Hamid Sirhan

    You can’t put a value on the freedom of Iraqi people though, whether it is true that they are free or not

    Well presumably if the Iraqi people were free then some could argue that “the price was worth it!”.... instead there’s more torture than there’s ever been, huge sectarian violance and the very real possibility of an extensive civil war…. which is what many predicted. Oops.

    since the debate on the War in Iraq had a large basis on improving the standard of living of the Iraqi people.[/quote]

    Come on Matt! This isn’t quite 1967 or 1973! This happened a few years ago and you lived through the media coverage! Whilst some proponents undeniably argued that as a central issue… the Governments who launched the invasion were not arguing that until their issues concerning the so-called immediate threat were debunked “hello dossiers!”. The point being that in international law, it’s hard enough to argue for the aggressive invasion of a nation on the possibility that they might attack you. Saying “We’re going in to improve their lives!” simply doesn’t work. That, however, was the label smacked onto the package after the Iraqi invasion. “Well they posed as much threat as a desk lamp. But at least the Iraqi people are free now. Wait, you were against this illegal invasion? Do you hate freedom? Oh yes and Saddam Hussein had a moustache. And he supported al-Qaeda!”

    [quote] The actual fact of the matter seems to suggest from left-leaning media that this isn’t the case (whilst pro-Government media, if there is any, seems eerily quiet)[/quote]

    Precisely because it isn’t the case. Which ever reason you can cherry-pick for launching the war:

    1) Saddam was an imminent threat.
    2) We’ll improve the lives of the Iraqi people.
    3) Saddam supported Al-Qaeda and was directly involved in 9-11.

    All have turned out to have been lies or empty promises. Even right-wing rags rarely argue that life is, on the whole, better in Iraq now. Indeed, in the past year or two, life is, again on the whole, substantially worse in Iraq – with the grave possibility of spiralling downwards. Saddam had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda and he could barely keep control over his own country, let alone lob missiles at every nation under the sun.

    09 Oct 2006, 00:28


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