British imperialism: a chronicle of humiliation

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There can be no doubt about the government's determination to defend the interests of British national capital abroad. We have only to look at the UK involvement in the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Britain isalways pronouncing on current conflicts, even if it is powerless to influence, as it was in Georgia, and even more now with David Milliband proposing an EU force on stand-by for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Recent events indicate the very great difficulties in the way of Britain making a successful defence of its interests on a global scale.

Unwanted in Iraq

Britain is not so much withdrawing from Iraq, as being told it is no long wanted: "the presence of this number of British soldiers is no longer necessary. We thank them for the role they have played, but I think that their stay is not necessary for maintaining security and control", as PM al-Maliki said in the interview in The Times. It's difficult to see why Iraq would want the 4000 troops holed up in Basra Airport. Their defeat was already obvious in February last year when Blair announced a partial withdrawal, "By March-April 2007, renewed political tensions once more threatened to destabilise the city, and relentless attacks against British forces in effect had driven them off the streets into increasingly secluded compounds. Basra's residents and militiamen view this not as an orderly withdrawal but rather as an ignominious defeat. Today, the city is controlled by the militias..." (‘Where is Iraq going? Lessons from Basra' June 07, International Crisis Group). And "Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, asserts that British forces lost control of the situation in and around Basra by the second half of 2005" (The Independent 23.2.07).

Britain also showed it was not capable of standing up to Iran, the main regional threat in Southern Iraq, when it captured 15 UK Naval personnel in March 07. A year later the Iraqi government called on US forces to help them with their push in Basra, rather than British troops from much closer. Why would they want to keep them?

Ill-equipped in Afghanistan

The UK commander in Helmand has warned we should not expect a decisive victory, as Britain finds itself bogged down with its much bigger US ally in Afghanistan. The whole situation is one of spreading chaos as the US makes more incursions into the Taliban's bases within western Pakistan - attacking one of its erstwhile great allies in the ‘war on terror'.

Meanwhile an SAS commander has resigned in disgust at the poor equipment provided for soldiers, in this case the Snatch Land Rover which becomes a death trap, offering no protection when it hits a landmine. There was a similar scandal over "serious systemic failures" condemned by a coroner after unnecessary deaths due to lack of explosion suppressant foam. This should remind us one more time that when the ruling class is determined to defend the national interest abroad, it always makes the working class pay for it - by increased exploitation at home, and in the blood spilt in adventures abroad. When the country finds its resources stretched by participation in too many conflicts it will send in its soldiers without the protection expected by a modern army.

Buffeted by events

British imperialism's difficulties should not lead us to think it is no longer a significant military power, far from it; but it is a declining power, one that ruled the world a hundred years ago, one that still has interests worldwide but no longer has the strength to act independently to defend them - a point made very forcibly at Suez in 1956. To defend its interests now is to ‘punch above its weight', and this can only be achieved by positioning itself in relation to stronger powers and trying to play them off against each other. When the USA and Russia faced each other at the head of two military blocs armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, Britain was clearly positioned behind the US bloc. When Russia collapsed it had the space to play a more independent role, particularly in the break-up of Yugoslavia where Britain and France gained some influence in Serbia, while Germany encouraged Croatia and the USA based itself on Bosnia. But this success could not last, and after 9/11 the UK positioned itself closer to the USA under the force of its ‘war on terror', joining its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. This brought scant reward - it had to face the July 7th bombing in 2005, and by summer 2006 Britain was humiliated again when Blair waited for the call to negotiate at the top table over the Lebanon crisis, a call that never came.

The British bourgeoisie needed to find a new position less closely identified with the US and better able to play it off against Europe. Blair had to be forced out of office, through the loans for peerages scandal, before he was ready because "...Mr Blair's room for pragmatic  manoeuvre in foreign affairs was limited by his partnership with George Bush... his insistence on seeing problems of the Middle East in purely Manichean terms - as a global struggle between Good and Evil, between Western Civilisation and apocalyptic terrorism -  does not lend itself to good policy-making. Stabilisation in Iraq, Iran's nuclear ambitions, Israel's occupation of Palestine - these are problems that require separate treatment" was a typical comment in the Observer 29.4.07. When Brown finally became PM the change in foreign policy was illustrated by the appointment of David Milliband, a critic of Blair's policy on Lebanon, as foreign secretary; Shirley Williams, who had opposed the Iraq war as an advisor; and another critic, Mallach Brown, as minister for Africa. Mallach Brown's appointment was described as "inauspicious" by John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN.

The problem for Britain however is that its closeness to the USA was a result not so much of Blair's relationship with Bush as its weakness as a declining power in the face of the pressures from America's ‘war on terror'. Indeed, steering a path between the US and Europe will only get harder, whoever is in no 10. Essentially the British bourgeoisie has been unable to extricate itself from the disaster of its close relationship to the USA and still finds itself bogged down and increasingly humiliated in unsuccessful military adventures. As the economic crisis worsens so will the barbaric military conflicts around the world, further exposing Britain's weakness, damaging its prestige and reducing its margin for manoeuvre in future conflicts.

Alex (1.11.08)