Our Sorry State

One of the under-explored aspects of the upcoming war against Iraq is whether it’s really upcoming at all. Whether, in fact, it’s much as many of the leading personalities involved – Colin Powell, a plurality of his American peers still in uniform, even by times, President Bush himself (and of course the hapless British) – would have it: that they’re talking war to make peace. That to get Iraq, and the rest of the world, to the stage it’s at at the moment, required a lot of plausible threats. This isn’t to say that the saner faction in the administration were ‘bluffing’ per se, but that, at heart, they’d rather Saddam gave way without a fight. Indeed, ratcheting up the tension, making a war of ‘regime change’ seem inevitable, has been a conscious, hopefully successful, aspect of this pacific strategy, their argument could run. Though obviously it’s hardly one anyone in a position of power is liable to give voice to anytime soon. Do we think this is a serious explanation for what’s going on at the moment? We might wish to at least consider it when we reflect on those most viciously opposed to it: neocons; counter cultural freaks; and cynics.

Cynics would simply say that this isn’t the way the world works, and that history doesn’t proceed along designs and plans, but happens in spite of them. Cynics are invariably right, but the missing component in their critique is always the moral dimension. Intentionality does matter, and we do have a duty to judge people in light of what it was they were trying to do. A Colin Powell talking war, all the better to avoid war, is a different kettle of fish to a salivating Bill Kristol, or a Max ‘there’s too many still alive’ Boot. Neocons, as we know, positively fear that this is what’s happening, and for reasons of their own factional weakness have to be circumspect in how they go about denouncing Mr Bush for ‘letting this happen’. And as for the Trots, and the assorted other space cadets of the hard left, well, they’re so smart that they’ve long ago seen behind all the superficial stuff you and me are fooled by. They wouldn’t be so naive as to fall for anything blood-sucking imperialist war-mongers like Mr Powell have to say for themselves (it’s a very nuanced position, is the hard left’s).

To tell you the truth, I’ve no idea who or what’s right about what, chiefly the American, but also the British, governments would like to do in Iraq. Neither is united on the subject, still less do they share a common understanding of what the fruits of victory in such a war would be. It is worth asking ourselves, what is ‘the stage it’s at’? Even if the Powell/presumably Blair line is the one that the dominant faction in the Anglo-American position (or ‘war machine’, if you’re left wing, and prefer toddlers’ slogans) adhere to, is it a sensible one worth all the subtle effort to get us here? I’d suspect not, but it’s worth thinking about. All of which has been a very long winded way of getting round to the thinking of the man, on the British side, who ought to have the most thoughts on this, and all other foreign policy topics: our foreign secretary, Jack Straw. And what a booby he is.

There hasn’t been much in the way of ‘great Labour foreign secretaries’, though arguably Ernie Bevin was the most able foreign secretary we had in the twentieth century. Jack Straw, however, is a limp excuse of a man, a career Labour flack, sometime barrister and student leader, turned cod-moral authoritarian, and soundbite hungry home secretary. For reasons related to obedience more than anything else, when Tony Blair cast off Robin Cook, and stretched fully those 2nd term prime ministerial wings (when it becomes very much a case of, ‘it’s the international junkets, stupid’), Mr Straw was the neutered henchman he turned to instead. The Foreign Secretary has now, a year and a half into the job, betrayed the bien-pensant assumptions that riddle his being, and reminded us yet again that no matter how awful, unrealistic and subservient to the Americans the Tories are, they’d still be better in power than this shower.

In an interview with the political editor of the New Statesman, Mr Straw goes out of his way to show to the left-liberal magazine’s readership what a voice for common sense he and other British ministers are in the counsels of those deranged folk on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s full of the usual sly, patronising asides that are designed to show, ‘well God only knows what those cowboys would have done if we hadn’t had a mature talk with them’. Then there was the habitual waffle about, for example, ‘Britain’s position on Israel’, as if we either had one, or it would matter if we did. But that’s all as may be – it was just domestic political suck-up anyway – the meat of the interview, leastways as far as anyone concerned with the marginally esoteric subject of British foreign policy, was in what Mr Straw revealed about the mindset he brings to the world beyond Britain. This, as you might have been able to guess, though not the full cringe-worthy awfulness, is lefty, beat-me-up guilt.

Almost certainly the prejudices I’m about to list are what Mr Straw really thinks, if he has to think about the world, but they’re not actually that important. He isn’t hugely interested in abstract matters of foreign policy, and such political principles as he’s ever held have always proven to be fairly disposable. So what does Jack Straw bring to the job – what sort of foreign minister does he want to be, and what does he hope he will achieve?

Democratic socialist, number one. Engaged. Active. Trying to secure a more peaceful and prosperous world, and one that is founded on, rooted in, our commitment to the UN and international law.

Stop laughing all you Serbs at the back when you hear a Labour foreign minister, in anticipation of bombing folk, drivel on about the sanctity of ‘international law’. Interestingly, and again, I think this is more to do with the nature of his pitch to a British political audience, and nothing whatsoever to do with what sort of foreign policy he thinks we should have, Mr Straw goes out of his way to have a slap at Robert Cooper. Far from being a ‘let’s impose democracy and smoke free zones and gender equality everywhere’ sort of man, the foreign secretary assures us that he has no time for this sort of ‘liberal imperialism’.

I don’t agree with that stuff. I’m not a liberal imperialist. There’s quite a lot wrong with liberalism, with a capital L, although I am a liberal with a small L . . .

. . . and words, let alone letters, mean whatever Jack Straw wants them to. No idea what all the small L, Big L stuff means, more a case of flaming ‘ell guv, you mean you don’t want to export Western notions of human rights at bomb point to strategically important bits of the 3rd world? You could have fooled me.

Now there’s a reason why Mr Straw has made this odd claim, because he was gearing up to divulge the following:

And there’s a lot wrong with imperialism. A lot of the problems we are having to deal with now, I have to deal with now, are a consequence of our colonial past.

We could stop the train and get off here because, even if this had a shed of truth to it, the question would remain, ‘why does that mean we have to go about the world "solving" things today? Isn’t your analysis rather that it was us going about putting people and things to rights that caused the trouble in the first place?’ More than methodological madness, what’s truly objectionable about the foreign secretary’s affected understanding of his own country’s past is the sheer ignorance of it all.

Let’s just run through the world – your problems remember, rather than Britain’s – according to Jack, and how we would be better off seeing it.

The Raj

India, Pakistan – we made some quite serious mistakes. We were complacent with what happened in Kashmir, the boundaries weren’t published until two days after independence. Bad story for us, the consequences are still there. Afghanistan – where we played less than a glorious role over a century and a half.

Strangely appealing clipped speech-pattern that, but that’s about the only thing you can say for this rubbish. Take Afghanistan (where we won more wars there than we lost): what exactly was our great historic crime? Er, to keep the Russians out, and to knock over regimes which got a bit too nutty and put in place ones we thought more highly of. Is this the history Mr Straw feels deathly embarrassed about? Or India for pity’s sake: whose fault was partition? The colonisers or the decolonisers? The Imperial power or the post-imperial power? Who killed the untold millions of 1947? The British? Not hardly. The only mistake we made about granting independence to India was granting independence to India.

The Arabs

The odd lines for Iraq’s borders were drawn by Brits. The Balfour declaration and the contradictory assurances which were being given to Palestinians in private at the same time as they were being given to the Israelis – again an interesting history for us but not an entirely honourable one.

By ‘Israelis’ this anachronistic arse means ‘Jews’; and though some of you may fear I’ve just eaten five stone of unsold Commentaries, it’s equally absurd to speak of ‘Palestinians’ in 1917. It’s a nice morality tale though, isn’t it? Where both sets of badly behaved foreign goon are actually, much like children, innocent the pair of them, because, lambs that they are, they were duped by the cunning British. It’s not that the foreign secretary necessarily needs to go off and learn by rote, it’s just that anyone with whatever limited pretensions to being a statesman might want to wise up just a touch. Gee, golly, gosh, Britain’s wartime declarations didn’t square up with what happened in the peace – should we have been more uncompromising in our imposition of the peace in the Middle East, so that we got our way, or should we have abstained entirely from the making of promises? The real childishness, however, and it’s reflected in the infantile Palestinian and Israeli discourses which still give voice to this, is that of assuming anyone was being sincere. That the Zionists as much as any of the Arab factions revolting against the Turks were being ‘honest’ in what they said, that they delivered, to the extent they could, what they promised, or that either [sic] sides’ goals were more congenial or realistic than those of the British. No alternative on offer was better than the one inter-war Middle East got.

Black & White

Mr Straw, it turns out, has private, presumably well-modulated, ‘huge arguments’ with President Mugabe (another promising product of decolonisation) over how best to run a country. You or I, picking up on the general drift of Jack Straw’s remarks thus far might have wondered, what business is it of ours what way Robert Mugabe governs his country, but seemingly not. ‘However’, the foreign secretary confides, ‘when any Zimbabwean, any African [they’re all the same you see], says to me land is a key issue . . . the early colonisers were all about taking land’.

Land ownership, a cause no doubt dear to Mr Straw’s fervent democratic socialist heart, in the pre-colonial space currently called Zimbabwe was about as honest and extensive as it is today in Robert Mugabe’s kleptocracy. The only time ‘land ownership’ was ever fairly, humanely and lawfully distributed was during the colonial period, and that self-same colonial government severely capped the number of whites who could buy land in Southern Rhodesia. Everything, every last lazy notion of Mr Straw’s is fantasy. That we should be ruled by men like this.

Apparently Jack Straw carries with him everywhere a copy of the UN’s charter, and quotes large chunks from memory on demand. Whatever Americans, or Frenchmen, or Russians might think of their foreign ministers, just be grateful you’re not saddled with this one. Jack Straw’s ambition for Britain is as non-existant as his grasp of our past: it almost makes you grateful how irrelevant we have made ourselves.