Labour and Libya

Shadow Foreign Minister Douglas Alexander has an interesting piece in The Independent today.  The following is noteworthy in the context of my present project:

… while Iraq should inform us, it should not paralyse us. So – notwithstanding the difficulty of the decision to once again commit our forces – Labour has steadfastly supported the military action to protect the Libyan people.

The question not answered by the Libyan intervention is exactly how far Iraq should inform the centre-left’s foreign policy?  Would Labour have stood steadfastly behind a decision to commit British forces had Russia or China vetoed resolution 1973? Would it have supported an illegal war for humanitarian reasons? The lack of any dissent concerning the interpretation of 1973 – i.e. the argument that NATO went way beyond the UN mandate by pursuing regime change – suggests that it might.  In fact Alexander describes 1973 as ‘a clear UN resolution’.

Alexander chooses defense cuts to put political distance between Labour and the ConDems.

In Britain we can be proud of the professionalism, skill and bravery shown by our armed forces personnel over Libya. They have undoubtedly helped to save many civilian lives. But the Libyan mission has been conducted using military capabilities the Government plans to scrap – which is why one of the legacies of Libya should be the reopening of the botched Strategic Defence Review.

This is not just party politics. It is a serious point.  One of the emerging themes among recent retrospectives (see Chris Brown at the LSE and NY Times) is that the Libyan operation has opened up serious questions about Europe’s ability to act in situations where the US wants to take a backseat.  

As for ‘helping to support Libyan civil society directly’, I’m sure the neo-Gramscian critics of ‘democracy promotion’ will have a field day with that.

About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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4 Responses to Labour and Libya

  1. Greg says:

    Three things Jason:

    1 Good Blog and good project
    2 Surely you are above things like ‘ConDems’ – that is one meme that Kevin Maguire is so proud of
    3 How far should Iraq inform left of centre politics? It should remind people that legal need not necessarily mean right and vice versa. In my view Iraq was illegal and wrong (because it was undertaken on a false premise) but it could quite easily have been legal and wrong had a second resolution been sought and won. Getting a UNSC does not make you right, it makes you powerful. The question for left-of centre politics is how far a party or a country should sub-contract its foreign policy to the politics of the UN Security Council – hardly a body constituted to make properly considered law – the law of the UNSC is force majeure.

    • Jason Ralph says:

      Thanks Greg. On 2. Yes guilty as charged. Can I plead shorthand in mitigation? On 3. This really gets to the heart of the problem. The UNSC has obvious legitimacy problems but does that give states a license to ignore it? You suggest that getting a UNSC resolution ‘does not make you right’, but where does your definition of ‘right’ come from? The value of public deliberation – and this is at the heart of the republican/Wilsonian ideal – is that it tests the validity of any claim to be acting in the common interest or, in the language of diplomacy, acting ‘on behalf of the international community’. I think Blair realised this, which is why he tried so hard to square the US intention to invade Iraq with the Security Council. I’d suggest that it was in part because of the public airing of the issues at the Security Council that we could confidently conclude that the invasion was wrong. However, Blair ultimately concluded that he could still be right without explicit authorisation of the Security Council and pointed, as you do, to the unreasonable practices (i.e. the veto) of the Security Council. That is conviction not democratic politics. The danger of ignoring the Security Council is that the accusation of (liberal) imperialism sticks a little more firmly, as it has done post-Iraq. So, I agree with you that the Security Council has legitimacy problems, it does act unreasonably. But the centre-left should not accept that as an excuse either for unilateralism, coalitions of the willing or, on the other hand, non-intervention. It needs to find a way of squaring its commitment to public deliberation and human rights that protects it against the charges of inaction and imperialism.

  2. Audry Bayona says:

    As it stands Colonel Qaddafi had 40 years to unify the Libyan Nation behind him but in the end failed. All that remains now is to hope that the type of government that is established by the rebel movement is an improvement and ultimately brings more peace and prosperity to the Libyans! Audry Bayona in Bolivia

  3. Greg says:

    I agree with your analysis Jason, but disagree with your conclusion.

    first – I do not see what is particularly left or right wing about observing the rule or law (international or not) – nor what balance is struck between multi-lateral or unilateral action.

    I also think that when dealing with the international context left or right is redundant – it is more about national culture ie a left or right wing German Government would not act in the same way as left or right wing UK or French Government. A ‘right’ wing French Gov said yes to Libya, a ‘right’ wing German gov said no.

    The problem the centre-left has is in defining what it considers to be the trigger for intervention (multi-lateral) or otherwise – ie what is a ‘just’ intervention as opposed to an ‘unjust’ one.

    Having a security council resolution is a method not a reason.

    The question is when should you seek a security council resolution for intervention

    Blair had a go at this in his Chicago Doctrine – you would be more in the know as to whether anyone on the left has attempted to redefine this post Iraq.

    I would argue that the vehicle [UNSCR (Libya-Afghanistan) or customary international law (Kosovo) or coalition of willing (Iraq) or unilateral action (Falklands)] is less important than moral case.

    I do agree with you however that that moral case can only really be tested objectively by public deliberation.

    The trouble I have with the UNSC is that law is not formulated based on the strength of the moral case, it tends to be formulated on the basis of political expediency and the national interest.

    I am not even arguing against that – I am simply arguing it is not the same as the rule of law.

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