The developing spat over foreign policy between Ed Miliband and the Tories is interesting. It is very rare for specific parts of foreign policy to be debated in a partisan fashion during an election unless they relate to macro longterm issues such as Europe etc.
From the BBC reporting Miliband:
“David Cameron was wrong to assume that Libya was a country whose institutions could be left to evolve and transform on their own,” he said.
“The tragedy is that this could have been anticipated. It should have been avoided.
“And Britain could have played its part in ensuring the international community stood by the people of Libya in practice rather than standing behind the unfounded hopes of potential progress only in principle.”
The West’s response to the so called “Arab Spring” has been problematic. Initially it was greeted as a wonderful flowering of democracy and viewed through a similar prism to that which saw the collapse of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Unfortunately all too often the replacement of largely secular semi pro Western dictatorships or near dictatorships has been problematic.
In Egypt the Mubarak government was replaced by a democratic election which saw Mohammed Morsi being elected. His fairly Islamist government was unpopular in the west. That it was overthrown by a military coup seemed to surprise some commentators who regarded such events as relics from the 1980s or before. The surprise was not, however, equaled in its intensity by condemnation. In this case the suspension of democracy by military force was, if not welcomed, certainly tolerated with marked good grace.
Egypt, however, did not cause the greatest problems for the West but rather its neighbour Libya. In Libya Colonel Gadaffi‘s regime had gone through a number of manifestations: as semi Communist, Arab nationalist and Pan African anti imperialist. He has been a supporter of international terrorism (nowhere better known than in Northern Ireland) and then supporter of the west in the “War on terror” with his acolytes involved in rendition and torture of Al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners.
If Gadaffi thought his support for the west had bought him survival post 9/11 he was wrong. Despite fraternising with Tony Blair, when the Arab spring came to him, he found the west unwilling to provide him with a metaphorical summer house. His military would have crushed the uprising but the British and French airforce jets found it easy to pick off Libyan armoured vehicles in the open scrub and desert just as their predecessors had seventy years before against Rommel’s panzers.
There were indications that the anti Gadaffi rebels might be less than wholly pro western when members of MI6 and the SAS were apprehended near Benghazi even before Gadaffi was overthrown. Support for the anti Gadaffi groups continued, however, and relatively quickly he was overthrown. His subsequent torture and murder was no more than tutted over by the triumphant British and French leaders (though in fairness it was difficult to summon up too much sympathy for such a tyrant) and Cameron walked the streets of Tripoli in a fashion reminiscent of Blair in the Balkans after his military adventures. Cameron pledged to “stand by” the people of Libya but as law and order have degenerated with the American ambassador murdered and the country descending into anarchy that standing by has been notably prostrate.
Back to Miliband: he supported the bombing of Libya which somewhat weakens his criticisms of the Prime Ministers actions. He is, however, correct that there was clearly no proper understanding of how the Libyan situation would develop after the roar of the Tornados and Mirages had stilled and indeed he could not have known how little planning had been done. Except of course as a Labour minister he had already seen the lack of post conflict planning during Blair’s military adventures both in Iraq but also Kosovo.
Where Miliband is on stronger ground in foreign policy terms is, however, Syria. In August 2013 America was poised to launch airstrikes in support of another Arab Spring uprising of the democrats against another tyrant: Bashar Al-Assad. In time honoured fashion the British military where ready to provide support / an internationalist fig leaf, to this American military adventure.
On this occasion, however, Miliband refused to follow the British government and international consensus, opposing airstrikes: This stopped Cameron’s attempts to use military force which in its turn lead to the Obama administration scrapping airstrikes. Subsequently it has become clear that Assad’s opponents are in the main far from cuddly democrats but rather extremists from Al-Qaeda and those who denounce such wishy washy liberals as Osama’s sidekicks. Now we do have American airstrikes (along with the six RAF Tornados still semi serviceable) but they are coordinated with Assad’s MIGs. All these (and ironically some middle eastern airforces) are trying to save what is left of the Syrian state and its long tradition, not of democracy, but as a secular state protective of multiple ethnic and religious minorities and not given to forced religious conversions, mass murder, rape and destruction (though the greater lamenting of some Western Liberals over ISIS’s destruction of the heritage of Nineveh than their attempt to annihilate the Yazidis as a people seems hypocritically misplaced).
As such if Miliband wants to criticize Cameron’s foreign policy he has a certain credibility. Although he was criticized in a number of quarters after his decisions on Syria some then and probably more now support the stand he took. As the Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator Peter Osborne (no friend of the North London right honourable member for Doncaster North) said at the time of the Syria vote:
“Not since Hugh Gaitskell unsuccessfully tried to avert the Suez invasion in 1956 has an opposition leader diverged from the government so dramatically, or so honourably, on an urgent issue of war and peace.”
Whether or not Miliband will become the next PM or, like Gaitskell, fail is of course still unclear. However, despite the current criticisms it is difficult to claim that he has acted other than honourably in foreign affairs or that his judgment has been sound: over Syria sounder than either Cameron or Obama.