War in Lebanon exposes the difficulties faced by British imperialism
Tony Blair seems to be increasingly isolated in his position over the conflict in the Lebanon. In the G8, the EU and the UN, Britain opposed calls for an immediate ceasefire. The Foreign Office, the Cabinet, the Labour Party, and the media all seem ranged against him. A former ambassador openly called for him to go. For some this is just another expression of Blair’s subservience to Bush, summed up in the “Yo Blair!” exchange overheard at the G8. In fact, what the conflict in the Lebanon has done is to put the strategy of the British ruling class under intense pressure and expose more sharply than before the enormous difficulties it faces.
The impasse of the American superpower
The difficulties go right back to the collapse of the eastern bloc in 1989. The collapse meant that the western bloc, led by the US, lost its reason to exist, and its constituent parts increasingly went their own way and began to challenge their former leader. This could be seen throughout the conflicts of the 1990s when countries pursued their own interests, and alliances tended to be short-lived and unstable. For the US, as the only remaining superpower, this confronted it with a situation where, despite its military and economic power, things seemed to slip away from it. In the former Yugoslavia for example, it faced Germany, France and Britain all struggling for their own advantage and initially having some success in frustrating the US. The US responded by asserting itself through force, by giving exemplary displays of its might to any who would dare to challenge it. The first Gulf war seemed to restore some order but was immediately followed by renewed challenges around the world. The Dayton Accord imposed a momentary order in the carnage of the former Yugoslavia, only to be followed by renewed fighting culminating in the bombing of Kosovo. While no country can openly challenge the US for global dominance the chaotic nature of the international situation presents opportunities to disrupt US plans and frustrate its ambitions. The bombing of the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 allowed the US to launch a new offensive, dressed up as the ‘war on terror’. This was aimed at countering its most powerful rivals in Europe and led to the invasion first of Afghanistan and then Iraq. Today this strategy has run into the ground with the US mired in increasingly bloody wars that are sapping its military resources. This is one of the reasons it has held back from taking action against Iran.
It is not yet clear whether Israel launched its offensive against Lebanon with American blessing or not. Tel Aviv has shown in the past that it is prepared to take action to defend its interests in defiance of Washington. Although still heavily dependent on US support, especially military, the present situation has given it the initiative and, predictably, the offensive itself was presented as part of the war on terror. The attacks on Hizbollah, in that they also had the potential for striking a blow against Iranian and Syrian influence in the region, fitted in with American strategy. Israel was given the time and weapons to complete the job, but Hizbollah emerged with enhanced prestige in the region – further evidence of America’s increasing lack of control.
The dilemma of British imperialism
Following 1989, the main part of the British ruling class defended the need for an independent strategy, which essentially meant manoeuvring between America and Europe and playing one off against the other. Another part, which had a particular strength in the Tory party, defended the need to remain much closer to the US and was one of the reasons for replacing the Tories with Labour in 1997. The Blair government defended the independent strategy through its so-called ‘ethical foreign policy’. However, with the American offensive after 9/11, it was forced to reconsider how it positioned itself between the US and Europe and this seems to have opened up a debate within the dominant circles of the ruling class. The faction around Blair sought to position Britain closer to the US, not in order to be subservient, but as the best position from which to continue the previous independent strategy. In the wake of the second Gulf war, unease about this strategy changed into criticism and pressure to distance London further from Washington. The Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly saw the civil service break its own rules to release incriminating documents while Blair was called before the inquiry and humiliated. As we said at the time, this marked the British bourgeoisie’s biggest crisis over imperialist orientation since the late 1930s and the change from the policy of appeasement.
The London bombings last year led to a revival of criticism, with a group of former high ranking officials publishing a report asserting that the foreign policy of Blair was responsible for making Britain a target, and that keeping so close to the US was a dangerous strategy. The fact that the US offensive of the last five years has seriously faltered - that the US itself is beginning to seem like a declining power - can only intensify imperialist rivalries by emboldening their rivals and goading America to lash out. This deepens the existing dilemma of British policy and is beginning to move the discussion from one of tactics to one of fundamental strategic orientation. The question is being posed of whether Britain should decisively distance itself from the US. Fifty years ago the Suez crisis forced the British ruling class to concede that it was no longer a first rank power and that America was the dominant world force. For the next thirty-odd years it became one of the more stable parts of the western alliance. It did not give up the defence of its own interests but recognised that this could best be done from within the heart of the alliance. Today, a question of equal weight is being posed and the conflict in the Lebanon is bringing it to the fore.
Re-opening the divisions of the ruling class
Over the last few months Blair has defended his policy and tried to show that it is effective. In the June ’06 issue of WR we noted that Britain had been able to take advantage of the US’s difficulties to advance its own interests: in Iran where to some extent it succeeded in playing Europe, China and Russia against the US; in Afghanistan where it has sought to take a more prominent role through the deployment of additional troops; and in Iraq where it was able to hand over one area to the Iraqi government and reduce the number of troops. However, we warned then that all of these initiatives were fraught with dangers and noted especially that new military action by the US, which we suggested could be against Iran, “would cut the ground from underneath Britain since it would be forced again to take sides” (WR295, ‘British imperialism: the difficulties of maintaining an independent role’). The Israeli offensive against Lebanon has accomplished this, while in Afghanistan and Iraq the military seem to be more and more bogged down.
The confrontation within the ruling class
From the first bombing of Beirut the British media gave extensive coverage of the destruction, listing the dead, interviewing the survivors and showing the agony of the injured. We have been given a glimpse of the reality of war in advanced capitalism. But this coverage, which runs from the main television channels, through liberal papers like The Guardian and The Independent to tabloids of the left and the right like The Mirror and The Mail, is not an exposé of a humanitarian nightmare as they would like us to think. Rather it is a weapon in the struggle that has broken out within the British ruling class. One only has to compare it with the coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the daily atrocities, which are every bit as bad, and often worse, are briefly reported. A UK general in Afghanistan has recently admitted that British troops haven’t faced such ‘persistent, low-level fighting’ since the Korean or Second World Wars. Or even more clearly in the coverage of the Democratic Republic of the Congo where some four million have been slaughtered in recent years with only a flicker of interest.
As the weeks of the Israeli offensive went by more and more voices were raised against Blair:
- officials of the Foreign Office were reported to consider the bombing disproportionate and counter-productive;
- Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, was attacked within the Foreign Office and by MPs and former ministers for her poor understanding of the situation;
- a former senior Foreign Office official openly called on Blair to “use his credit in Washington and Israel to persuade President Bush and prime minister Olmert that their strategy has failed, and must be abandoned” (Guardian Unlimited, 1/8/06);
- Kim Howells, a Foreign Office Minister, denounced the Israeli campaign in a visit to Beirut: “The destruction of the infrastructure, the death of so many children and so many people: these have not been surgical strikes. If they are chasing Hizbollah, then go for Hizbollah. You don’t go for the entire Lebanese nation” (Observer, 23/07/06);
- reports emerged of splits in the cabinet, one minister saying of Blair “we could do with sounding a little more like Kim [Howells] and a little less like Condi [Rice]” (Guardian 29/7/06);
- a Commons committee revealed that arms sales to Israel have doubled in the last two years;
- Jack Straw, the previous foreign secretary, denounced the attacks in words similar to Howells: “There are not surgical strikes but have instead caused death and misery amongst innocent civilians” (Observer, 30/07/06). It was also revealed that Kofi Annan, the head of the UN, had phoned Straw to express his concern;
- a senior UN official called for Britain to keep out of negotiations and follow the lead of powers like France;
- two former ambassadors attacked Blair, one Sir Rodric Braitewaite asserted “Mr Blair has done more damage to British interests in the Middle East than Anthony Eden, who led the UK to disaster in Suez 50 years ago…Mr Blair’s total identification with the White House has destroyed his influence in Washington, Europe and the Middle East itself; who bothers with the monkey if he can go straight to the organ grinder?” (Guardian Unlimited 3/8/06). He accused Blair of making Britain vulnerable to terrorist attacks and called on him to resign immediately;
- a memo from Britain’s retiring ambassador to Iraq was leaked to the press. This foresaw a future of war and chaos: “The prospect of a low intensity civil war and a de-facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy” (Guardian, 4/8/06).
Despite this onslaught Blair did not bow down and defended his policy. While in America in early August he described an “arc of extremism stretching across the Middle East” and called for an “alliance of moderation” to confront it. He defended the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as part of a global confrontation between values: “We are fighting a war – but not just against terrorism, but about how the world should govern itself in the early 21st century, about global values” (Guardian 2/8/06). This was the third in a series of speeches begun earlier in the year and echoed what he said in the first: “The different aspects of this terrorism are linked. The struggle against terrorism in Madrid or London or Paris is the same as the struggle against the terrorist acts of Hezbollah in Lebanon or the PIJ in Palestine or rejectionist groups in Iraq” (Guardian Unlimited, 21/3/06). Blair has also consolidated his position by replacing Straw, who had firmly rejected the idea of military action against Iran, with Beckett, who has limited experience of foreign affairs but is loyal to Blair.
On his return from the US Blair made a slightly stronger criticism of Israeli attacks, but rejected calls for an immediate ceasefire: “I have got to try and get a solution to this, and the solution will not come by condemning one side, it will not come simply by statements that we make, it will only come by a plan that allows a ceasefire on both sides and then a plan to deal with the underlying cause, which is the inability of the government of Lebanon to take control of the whole of Lebanon” (Guardian 4/8/06). Shortly after this America and France began to draft a resolution to go to the UN and froze Britain out. According to a report on Channel 4 news this was at the insistence of the French who expressed irritation about the way Britain is pro-Europe when in Europe and pro-America when there; in short, that it is two-faced. Initially Blair announced that he was delaying his holiday to stay in London to deal with the crisis but after a couple of days he gave up the pretence and left to join his family.
Towards a new crisis for British imperialism
The options facing the ruling class are all very risky: the way Britain was pushed out of the negotiations between France and America over the war in Lebanon gives an indication of what the future may be like. The essential point is that while Britain may still have options at the imperialist level, the one that it doesn’t have is to be able to resolve the fundamental contradiction of its position. Playing America off against Europe was the way Britain sought to ‘punch above its weight’, to quote the former Tory Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. With reduced opportunities for playing this card British imperialism faces the prospect of a further decline in its standing. In this sense it is confronted with an unpalatable reality just as it was fifty years ago.
With the struggle within the ruling class, Blair
will face yet more pressure. The demands for a recall of parliament, the
resignation of a junior member of the government, Labour MPs calling Bush’s
policy ‘crap’, and the continuing media chatter in what should be the holiday
‘silly season’ all confirm that. What is clear is that this is a deeper crisis
than at any time since 1989, and possibly since the Suez crisis of 1956, and
that the difficulties facing the ruling class and the divisions within it can