By Matthew Parris
Britain’s woeful list of recent foreign interventions ought to be the final proof that we are no longer a great world power.
Nobody writes obituaries for political enthusiasms. Like old soldiers they never die, they simply fade away. One of these enthusiasms came to dominate the entire middle part of my career as a Times columnist. Has anyone seen liberal interventionism recently?
For more than a decade after millennial American drumbeats for war began, and right up until 2013 when parliament stopped the British government joining airstrikes in Syria, I was caught up as a political commentator, travelling extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Optimism was endemic. But after I saw for myself the stinking mess we British were making of our responsibilities in Basra in southern Iraq, and compared this with the self-regarding stories of grateful natives and deft, “light-touch” British command that appeared in the media here at home, I never again trusted military reports.
Let us now review those theatres of war and occupation, and look at outcomes from what at first was called the Arab Spring. We’ve had almost 20 years of this adventuring, and it’s worth taking stock.
The most recent is Syria. After the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in 2011 we British came late to intervention, with parliament blocking David Cameron in 2013. Barack Obama too was sceptical. Stalwart neo-conservatives insist that if the West had intervened earlier, the good guys could have got on to the front foot before Assad could punch back or Islamic State (Isis) take root.
But there’s scant evidence that “the West” really knew who the good guys were, how capable, or how close to being a genuine, popular national movement. Our ambassador at the time announced that Assad would be gone within months. We plainly knew nothing.
Has it, belatedly, worked? The British contribution has been token, with a few warplanes helping bomb after Assad’s chemical attack. It seems the Russians, Iranians and Kurds may have finished Isis off.
Assad has gained ground and, as our foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt acknowledged this week, looks dug in. Mr Hunt is now whimpering that the Russians “need to make sure there really is peace in Syria”. At least half a million have been killed and it’s hard to see the situation would be worse if we had left the murderous Assad to it.
Peter Ford, a former British ambassador to Syria, said this Christmas that our Foreign Office had got the country wrong at every step. “They told us that the opposition was dominated by these so-called moderates . . . and now they’re telling us another big lie: that Assad can’t control the rest of the country. Well . . . he’s well on the way to doing so.”
Or take Libya. Still in chaos after we waded in alongside the French and Americans in 2011 to stop Gaddafi. We committed about half the French total: two nuclear subs, a destroyer, 16 Tornados, 10 Typhoons, with more support aircraft. We got Gaddafi but everything else fell apart.
A UN-brokered truce has recently failed. The Times’s Anthony Loydsays this: “Political power in the splintered country is chiefly divided between a Government of National Accord . . . which . . . relies largely on militias, some of them Islamist, for its security and the Libyan National Army in the east.” Our problems today with migrant Mediterranean crossings arise in large part because of Libya’s disintegration.
In 2016 the Commons foreign affairs committee said that David Cameron, “through his decision-making in the National Security Council, [was] ultimately responsible for the failure to develop a coherent Libya strategy”. Fair enough, but the whole enterprise was based on a promise of quick in-and-out and no occupation. Otherwise we’d probably still be there.
Afghanistan? We’re still there: some 1,100 “non-combat” UK troops supporting Afghan forces. Donald Trump appears to be giving up. At the height of this 17-year conflict there were more than 130,000 Nato troops on the ground. We have lost 456 personnel, the Americans five times more.
Has it worked? The best our Ministry of Defence can say is that “pressure” on the Taliban is being maintained (the al-Qaeda threat having morphed into the threat from the Taliban, who are now in control of much of the country). Our command in Helmand was a failure. On Christmas Day 43 people were killed in a suicide attack in Kabul and civilian deaths are at a record high.
I end with Iraq, where the US commitment also seems to be faltering. There’s no space for a resumé of the war and occupation commenced in 2003. Saddam Hussein is gone, the weapons of mass destruction never existed, and there appears now, after the huge expense of blood and treasure by America, Britain and our allies, to be a sense of relative calm but political vacuum. Iran has been greatly boosted, and there has been an incalculable loss of American standing in the world.
France stood aside without apparent cost, and Britain’s considerable contribution was never needed; we know this because George W Bush told Tony Blair as much at the outset. Ask yourself if Mr Blair (whatever he protests) would do it again if he had a second run at history. I doubt it.
It is fair to say that, starting with Iraq, I developed a strong streak of pessimism about the possibilities of political and cultural change through military action. I became a sceptic of the whole principle of what had come to be called “liberal interventionism”.
I made headway with that, my first argument. This column will not read nearly as controversially today as at the time my 50 or more Times columns saying the same thing did.
But I failed, and continue to fail, to make any headway with my second argument, that whether great powers should wade in was a different question from whether we British, who are not a great power, should pile in behind them. I have never been able to drag British protagonists for liberal intervention off the ground of general principle and on to the question of what is in British interests and lies within British capabilities.
In so many post-imperial British minds we are still a great world power. To such a mind the belief that something should be done leads automatically to the belief that Britain should be doing it. For us the harvest has been a blow to our prestige, many hundreds killed, billions squandered, and a serious loss of confidence in our own military capability.
I reached the melancholy conclusion that we British have a tremendous problem with post-imperial dreaming. It’s an embedded virus that, even when shifted from one part of our national imagination, only moves to another. And so we see today.
Matthew Parris joined The Times in 1988. He worked previously at the Foreign Office, as Margaret Thatcher’s correspondence clerk and as Conservative MP for West Derbyshire. He was the paper’s parliamentary sketch writer for 13 years and he now writes a diary column on Wednesdays and an opinion column on Saturdays. In 2015 he won the British Press Award for Columnist of the Year. Matthew is also a regular columnist for The Spectator and presents the biographical program Great Lives on Radio 4. He has authored a number of books, including Chance Witness, his autobiography which won the Orwell Prize in 2002.