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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.


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