Labour’s defence policy seems about to go disastrously wrong

Because of the horrors unfolding in Libya, voices are again being heard calling for ‘humanitarian intervention’ by the west to protect the defenceless Libyan population from their deranged ruler.  This activist climate seems to be affecting the Labour opposition’s front-bench spokesman on defence.

According to a Guardian report on 22 February 2011, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, plans to “resurrect the principles of liberal intervention espoused by Tony Blair but discredited by the Iraq war with a message to his party that they have a “responsibility beyond the UK’s borders”:

In an interview with Total Politics magazine, Jim Murphy has begun the task of persuading his colleagues they may have to intervene abroad again – despite many of them still being preoccupied by events in the run-up to and fallout from Iraq.

Referring to the 1999 intervention to defend Kosovans against Slobodan Milosevic, Murphy says: “If Kosovo were to happen in 2017, so we’re out of Afghanistan, I don’t want to get into a position where we would say, post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, ‘we couldn’t do another Kosovo’.”

“It’s important to make that argument. I’m not trying to nudge things in favour of another military intervention anywhere but you shouldn’t let the residual real anger that there is about the Iraq war defeat the pride that we have in what we did in Kosovo.”

Ed Miliband, who spoke during his successful Labour leadership campaign of the “catastrophic loss of trust” between the party and the electorate over Iraq, is thought to agree with the sentiments in Murphy’s interview that new principles for intervention should be established.

Murphy’s thoughts will inform the two-year defence policy review he is undertaking while fellow Labour shadow cabinet members review their own policy areas.

He will build on his ideas in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute on March 3, in which he is likely to emphasise the need for greater public diplomacy ahead of interventions abroad. [Emphasis added.]

In all this, Mr Murphy is disastrously wrong in virtually every way, as I tried to point out in a letter published in the Guardian on 25 February 2011.  In the slightly longer text submitted to the Guardian I wrote:

Someone needs to sit Labour’s shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, down somewhere comfortable and teach him about the failure of the disastrous NATO attack on Yugoslavia over Kosovo, and the elementary flaws in Tony Blair’s attempt to justify it with his discredited doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ (Labour urged not to rule out military intervention, February 22nd):  otherwise some future Labour government may be tempted to repeat past blunders instead of learning from them.

Contrary to the received wisdom, Mr Blair’s cheerleading of the NATO bombing failed to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo (the exodus of refugees out of Kosovo began only after the launch of the NATO attack), or to replace Serbian control of Kosovo by an international administration (that was achieved by flexible US-Russian-Finnish diplomacy when the bombing was going nowhere), or to topple Milosevic (the Serbian electorate did that months later). The NATO intervention was illegal (never authorised by the UN), based on a false prospectus (the Rambouillet conference concocted a pretext for attacking Serbia, not a basis for a peaceful settlement), unnecessary (the possibilities of a peaceful solution had not been exhausted) and incompetently executed (thousands of innocent civilians killed, non-military targets destroyed).  If all that sounds familiar, it’s no coincidence.  The delusion that the Kosovo aggression was both a success and a personal triumph for Mr Blair clearly encouraged a repetition of all the Kosovo blunders in Iraq, four years later.  Never again, thanks, Mr Murphy.

Brian Barder

In his first speech as newly elected party leader to the party conference, Ed Miliband courageously risked the anger of the New Labour Old Guard by dissociating himself and the party from the criminal folly of the aggression against Iraq in 2003, although in somewhat more cautious language than mine (“I do believe that we were wrong. Wrong to take Britain to war and we need to be honest about that. Wrong because that war was not a last resort, because we did not build sufficient alliances and because we undermined the United Nations. America has drawn a line under Iraq and so must we…”)  But precisely the same indictment needs to be levelled at the Kosovo intervention.  Labour party supporters and members, including those who have joined or re-joined the party since last year’s election, will be dismayed if Mr Murphy is allowed to come up with a defence policy for the party which implicitly or explicitly endorses either the illegal and unsuccessful NATO aggression against Serbia over Kosovo (for which Tony Blair was self-appointed cheer-leader), or the deeply flawed doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ preached by Mr Blair in his Chicago speech of 1999, at the height of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, later comprehensively dismantled and replaced by the UN-inspired “Right to Protect” (R2P) which has a completely different basis and which ensures respect for the UN Charter and for international law.  Perhaps his more level-headed friends and colleagues will urgently draw Mr Murphy’s attention to the multiple failings of the Kosovo misadventure and to the replacement of Mr Blair’s Chicago doctrine by R2P, whose provisions will repay study, if possible before he enters into ill-conceived commitments in his speech to RUSI on 3 March.


7 Responses

  1. John Miles says:

    When he was elected leader Ed Miliband said, “The era of New Labour has passed.  A new generation has taken over.”
    So why hasn’t  he  pensioned  off the likes of  Murphy, Alexander, Balls.  Hain, Benn, Burnam, Harman, Jowell and Cooper?
    Or do leopards now change their spots?

    Brian writes: Because it’s not in his power to pension anyone off. When Labour is in opposition, the shadow cabinet is elected, not chosen by the party leader.

  2. John Miles says:

    Thank you, Brian, I didn’t know that.
    Who actually elects them?
    Looks like Ed got it wrong then?

    Brian writes: The Labour shadow cabinet is elected by the members of the Parliamentary Labour party who are members of the house of commons (i.e. not including Labour peers) when the party is in opposition. When Labour is in office the members of the cabinet are appointed by the Labour prime minister. In opposition the party leader allocates the portfolios among those elected to the shadow cabinet. I don’t know of any way in which “Ed got it wrong” as you suggest, unless you mean that he should not have given the shadow defence portfolio to Mr Murphy. I wouldn’t necessarily infer from a single misguided speech about Kosovo as a model for military intervention that Mr Murphy couldn’t be an effective shadow defence secretary. But it’s certainly a worrying sign.

  3. John Miles says:

    Mr Miliband raised our spirits – raised my spirits anyway – by his announcement that New Labour was a busted flush, and that yesterday’s men’s days were over at last.
    Do you really think he knew what he was talking about?

    Brian writes: I’m sure he knew exactly what he was talking about. But he’s in a delicate position. More than half of all Labour MPs didn’t vote for him as leader and he has got to work steadily and unprovocatively to win their trust and loyalty. He has got both his brother and Ed Balls breathing down his neck and ready to grab the steering wheel if he falls out of the car. He can’t just change the party’s stance on a raft of controversial policies by personal decree: he has got to proceed by persuasion and sweet reason. Unlike a Labour leader who is also prime minister, he almost entirely lacks even the power of patronage to get his followers onside. He rightly issued his personal manifesto at the beginning of his leadership, making it clear that (unlike any of the other leadership candidates apart from Diane Abbott) he intended to make a clean break with New Labour, especially over Iraq and civil rights — and even that aroused antagonism from his brother and from the old guard, including hard cases like Straw and Blunkett, who will fight hard against being disowned. It’s still early days and I think we should give him time and space to win over doubters, gradually establish his authority, and slowly move the old rustbucket’s course in a new and more progressive direction. Don’t give up on him yet!

  4. John Miles says:

    If your analysis of Mr Miliband’s predicament is correct – and I believe it is – one can only hope against hope he has the breadth of vision and soundness of judgment to justify the support you think he deserves.
    Don’t hold your breath.

  5. ObiterJ says:

    I agree that this is a worrying sign within the Labour political hierarchy.    All British politicians ought to learn from the past.  One lesson would be to consult the excellent  international law fraternity within our leading Universities so as to ensure that their policies measure up to required standards.  Failure to do this lies at the heart of the UK’s problems with Iraq.
    Of course, in relation to Libya,  we have seen Cameron not ruling out use of “military assets” and talking of “no fly zones.”  This is utterly risible given the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) cuts.  The SDSR looked out of date when they wrote it never mind now in the light of events in North Africa.
    Some interesting items re the International Criminal Court and Libya and also whether the British government have “de-recognised” Gaddafi as Libya’s Head of State.   Thought you might be interested:

    Brian writes: Many thanks for this. The article about recognition is fascinating and important. The formal position clearly remains that Gaddafi is a head of state, however unpopular, repressive and regrettable — like a good many other heads of state around the world — and that international law as defined in the UN Charter and other instruments applies to Libya as to any other country. Confusion between legality (a legal matter) and legitimacy (a political one) is rampant. 

  6. John Miles says:

    Mr Miliband has apparently invited Cherie Blair to lead a Labour Party policy review.
    A  strange choice for the man who told us that ” The era of New Labour has passed.  A new generation has taken over.”

    Brian writes: What makes you think that Cherie Booth QC was ever ‘New Labour’?

  7. John Miles says:

    No good reason at all really.
    On the other hand I suppose I’d be mildly surprised if I were to learn your better half was an ardent Thatcherite.

    Brian writes: So would I!