By Chris Bambery
There is a strange silence in the current British general elections, a silence that has fallen across the three main parties. The silence is about British foreign policy, and given what is going on in the world, it is strange, very strange.
After all, in Iraq, British warplanes are carrying out air strikes against ISIL – admittedly these are few in number and have proved rather ineffective – and British politicians and the media were warning prior to the election campaign of the danger returning British militants pose. This week, when Prime Minister David Cameron was asked about what keeps him awake at night, he cited exactly that.
Britain has joined the United States and European states in imposing sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea and its supposed involvement in the war in Eastern Ukraine. The excitable British tabloid press has compare Russia President Vladimir Putin to Hitler and warn that Russian warplanes and naval vessels threaten our borders.
The recent terrible loss of life as migrants drowned in the Mediterranean trying to find security and opportunity in Europe highlighted the instability in Libya from whence they sailed in their coffin boats. This is a country falling apart and is where ISIL has established a presence. The tragedy of the drowned migrants, mainly from war-torn Syria and from repression in Eritrea, did cause some debate in the election campaign; but, that quickly reduced itself to where the parties stood on immigration into Britain.
ISIL and al-Qaeda have also established a presence in Yemen, where the Saudis are carrying out murderous airstrikes to try and halt Houthis. Another refugee crisis, like those in Iraq and Syria, is developing there, meaning more people will risk taking the Mediterranean crossing to Europe.
Given all this, you would expect British political leaders to at least attempt to outline what solutions they might offer to these and other problems of the world. But no... just silence.
The reason for this lies in their mutual embarrassment over their own record in international affairs.
The main opposition party, Labour, is haunted by the fact that back in 2003, its then leader and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was one of the key architects of the invasion of Iraq, which proved a disaster and is at the root of the chaos now spreading across Iraq and much of the region.
Current Labour leader Ed Miliband must have breathed a sigh of relief that the official Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War will not report its findings this year because there is widespread expectation it will criticize the British government’s reasons for going to war.
Neither of the two parties that formed the coalition government that has been in office since 2010, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, wants to talk about foreign policy because their record is embarrassing and has seen Britain’s presence on the world stage visibly shrink.
In 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy took the lead in launching air strikes against Libya, which were crucial to the overthrow of the North African country’s Muammar Gaddafi. They ordered these airstrikes after the United Nations Security Council voted to create a ‘no-fly zone’ over Libya to protect civilians. Both Russia and China voted for this and were angered when Cameron and Sarkozy took it as the go-ahead for a bombing campaign, something Ed Miliband supported.
Perhaps haunted by the failure in Iraq, British military chiefs warned against this campaign if there was no plan to reconstruct Libya, which there was not, but Cameron dismissed their warnings. The result today is apparent to all as the country descends further into chaos and ISIL warns they will use it as a base to strike Europe.
Cameron, of course, faced an unprecedented defeat two years ago when British members of parliament voted him down over airstrikes in Syria. They sensed better than him that post-Iraq, there was no taste in the country for further military adventures.
Over Russia and Ukraine, the Cameron government was left sidelined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Holland as they took the lead in bringing the Russian and Ukrainian presidents together to broker a peace deal.
Regarding Yemen, when in March of this year, the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister warned they would take military action to stop the Houthis, sitting beside him in Riyadh was his British counterpart, who seemed proud that weapons sold by Britain to their Saudi ally would be used in airstrikes. Since then, despite mounting civilian casualties, Britain has stood by the Saudis and the arms trade between the two states goes on uninterrupted.
The sheer horror of the dead bodies of migrants being hauled out of the waters of the Mediterranean led to British politicians making pious statements expressing their grief. But Britain was one of the European Union states that refused to fund the Italian search and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, which led to its scrapping (despite it saving thousands of lives).
Under pressure, the European Union put in place a much reduced operation. Defending Britain’s position the Foreign Office, Minister Joyce Anelay said in Autumn 2014, “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. We believe that they create an unintended ‘pull factor,’ encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.”
She was noticeable by her silence when 850 migrants drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Now Britain is sending a warship to the area and says the priority is to destroy the boats of Libyan people traffickers. That takes priority over dealing with the mounting refugee problem across the Middle East and much of Africa or in trying to restore stability to Libya.
I could record more embarrassments which might come to light if international affairs were to come under focus in these elections. At the beginning of the campaign, Tony Blair was trotted out to express his support for Ed Miliband but was quickly shuffled off the stage. Not only does his appearance remind everyone of the Iraq invasion but someone might mention he remains the US and European Union’s peace envoy in the Middle East; a strange choice and a job where he is happy to pocket his substantial financial returns for zero achievement. The Cameron government defended last year’s assault by Israel on Gaza.
All in all it’s a sorry record. Which is why, as Britain’s political leaders travel up and down the country on the campaign trail, they remain silent on British foreign policy. There are, literally, too many bodies buried there, so best to pass by in silence.