With a rhetorical flourish, President Obama last week drew to a close an era of war. The President's speech on Afghanistan attracted attention, but not as much as it should have done, given its historical moment.
Twenty years ago this summer, Communism collapsed with the failed coup in Russia and the final lowering of the hammer and sickle over the Kremlin in December 1991. That ushered in, courtesy of Francis Fukuyama, the declaration of the "end of history" and the start of the hegemony of the single superpower: one ideology reinforced by values and, just in case anybody didn't quite get it, by military power too.
Even then it took some persuading closer to home. It was Tony Blair who bore down on Bill Clinton to intervene in Kosovo. The world had watched the massacre of Srebrenica, and other summary killings in the former Yugoslavia; it had turned a blind eye during the genocide in Rwanda.
A new philosophy, and a new industry, was born: liberal interventionism, the notion that the international community had an obligation to intervene in defence of human rights, irrespective of state sovereignty. That was taken one step further by Blair and George Bush with the idea that democracy could be "promoted" by force.
Iraq destroyed a noble idea. Many who had defended intervention in the Balkans, even in Afghanistan – even though the Americans and Brits didn't seem to know which of their two war aims was more important – saw the credibility of intervention collapse in 2003. The sheer scale of the folly is still hard to comprehend. The Chilcot inquiry has, in its quiet Whitehall way, unmasked even more abuses of power and sleights of hand. But the ennui and time lag have rid these revelations of political salience.
Cameron came to power promising no repetition of Blair's messianic fervour. Democracy, he famously said, could not be imposed from 10,000 feet. Within months of taking office, the new Prime Minister seemed to forget his own mantra when he, alongside President Sarkozy, began their aerial bombardment of Libya. At least the process was not cavalier. Libya was properly debated in parliament and cabinet; UN endorsement was secured rather than imagined. Yet in other areas Cameron fell into the same trap – no coherent aims, no analysis of an end point and no idea of cost. The figure of £250m had to be dragged out of them.
Cameron, in his defence, had faced a classic no-win. If he and the French had done nothing, the world would have watched the massacre of Benghazi and the summary execution of the remaining rebels. Yet the haphazardness of the response reflects a deeper malaise. Recent conversations I have had at the Foreign Office have left me dispirited. There is no joined-up approach to human rights – beyond some window dressing and an ever-platitudinous annual report.
In case anyone has forgotten, on the eve of the Arab Spring uprisings, Cameron was busily trying to flog British arms to Middle Eastern potentates. Beyond Libya's borders, it has been business as usual. Bahrain remains our friend no matter how many doctors are arrested for trying to save the lives of protesters. As for the Saudis, we wouldn't want to upset them.
The crisis in Syria is the most telling reminder of the limits of what our Government, and others in the West, believe they can achieve: virtually nothing. Ministers point to the UN Security Council and to the determination of China and Russia to block any resolution against President Bashar as evidence of the futility of action. They are, technically, right. Now that this Government is determined not to cut legal or diplomatic corners, UN approval for action – military or otherwise – is central. But, through the EU and other forums, much more could be done.
Dogged resistance from China, Russia and others requires deft thinking; but it is no excuse for inertia. Defending human-rights activists in both countries is more difficult now than it has ever been; the release on bail of Ai Weiwei, and of Hu Jia after serving his time, do not represent any loosening of China's appalling record – rather a growing self-confidence that their criminal justice system is secure. The UK continues to engage – Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is being lavishly entertained on a business and culture visit – having convinced ourselves that there is precious little we can do. Certainly that is what Obama seems now to believe. "We take comfort in knowing the tide of war is receding," he said. As he prepares for election year, he could not have been clearer: "America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home."
For sure, the Americans still have huge numbers of troops, more than 100,000 in Afghanistan, and they will stay for a few more years yet; for sure, we will continue to bomb Libya for a few more months, before a narrative is arrived upon which will enable ministers to proclaim "job done". But the Americans are turning inwards, asking themselves why in straitened times they need to be expending their energy overseas. We and the rest of Europe are following suit. As this newspaper put it in an editorial last week: "A bungled liberal intervention is exacting its true price, a return to a pungent strain of isolationism."
Iraq made all of this inevitable. That was the last hurrah, the last demonstration of Western hubris. Libya will be seen as little more than a blip in a historical development that has already seen the restoration of state sovereignty and the embedding of authoritarian capitalism.
We have decided to sit it out and watch. Perhaps that is no bad thing. The assertion of human rights and justice is best left to forces on the ground. The Tunisians and Egyptians did it without us. Embedding more open societies and more just politics will be a messy process in these two countries and beyond. The brave women carrying out their car-driving protests in Saudi Arabia are doing it without us. Closer to home, the opposition in Belarus has been viciously put down, but remains determined, no particular thanks to us.
We are rapidly removing ourselves from the field. But that doesn't mean the battle is over.
John Kampfner is chief executive of Index on Censorship and author of 'Freedom For Sale' and 'Blair's Wars'
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