British strategy further undermined after the war in Lebanon

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During the Israeli offensive against Lebanon during the summer Tony Blair tried to present Britain as a key player in the search for a solution. In the end what passed for a solution was concocted by France and America. Blair was deliberately excluded. After announcing that he was delaying his holiday to deal with the crisis and waiting for several days for a phone call, he had to accept reality and accordingly left for his holiday. The episode not only revealed that Blair’s shift towards America after 9/11 had backfired, but also that the whole attempt to construct an independent policy between the US and Europe, which the British bourgeoisie has followed since the collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1989, is failing. Far from Britain increasing its position and influence in the world it has declined. Blair himself was faced with a fierce campaign from within the ruling class that culminated in September with the attempt to remove him. This failed, but he was forced to curtail his stated plan to serve a third full term and to confirm that he would be gone within the year.

The struggle over imperialist strategy continues

In the immediate aftermath of the conflict in the Lebanon there has been a continuation of the struggle within the ruling class that we pointed to in the article on the Lebanon in WR 297 but there has also been the first signs of changes in approach.

In his speech to the Labour Party conference shortly after the conflict in the Lebanon ended, Tony Blair maintained his defence of the current policy, using the same, almost messianic, language as in previous speeches. He renewed his claim to a central role in resolving the world’s conflicts, declaring: “I will dedicate myself, with the same commitment I have given to Northern Ireland, to advancing peace between Israel and Palestine. I may not succeed. But I will try because peace in the Middle East is a defeat for terrorism”.

However, the pressure on Blair from the ruling class has been unrelenting. In particular, the military has become openly critical. Just a day or two after his conference speech an internal Ministry of Defence paper was leaked that directly contradicted Blair’s rejection of any link between Iraq and the growth of terrorism: “The war in Iraq ... has acted as a recruiting sergeant for extremists across the Muslim world ... Iraq has served to radicalise an already disillusioned youth and al-Qaida has given them the will, intent, purpose and ideology to act.” (Guardian, 28/09/06). It also stated that Britain had sent troops into Afghanistan “with its eyes closed” (ibid). A second leaked document asserted that: “British armed forces are effectively held hostage in Iraq - following the failure of the deal being attempted by COS [chief of staff] to extricate UK armed forces from Iraq on the basis of ‘doing Afghanistan’ - and we are now fighting (and arguably losing or potentially losing) on two fronts.” (ibid). This was followed by leaks that senior military figures wanted a change in policy and in mid October the head of the army publicly criticised the government’s policy, arguing that “[we] should get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence only exacerbates the problems” (Guardian 13/10/06). Such open criticism by a serving senior officer flouts the conventions of the British ruling class but the general was not dismissed or punished in any way. On the contrary, he remained in place, winning widespread praise while Tony Blair actually said that he agreed with the comments! This attack, far from being the words of a humble soldier concerned for his men, was a calculated blow that exposed Blair’s weakness and humiliated him in public.

Signs of change

Over the last two months there have been hints of a change in approach as the emphasis has shifted to a timescale for the troops to withdraw and the Iraqi government to take over responsibility. In late October Blair reportedly discussed this with the Iraqi Prime Minister while a junior minister said publicly that Iraqi forces would be able to take over in 12 months. It was also reported that British military forces would soon be withdrawn from Bosnia. A month later the Foreign Secretary declared that control in the south of Iraq could be handed over in the Spring. Perhaps significantly the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, entered the discussion when he suggested during his first visit to the country that troop numbers could drop in a few months time.

During his annual speech on foreign policy in mid-November Blair defended his policy, saying that giving up either the relationship with the US or with Europe was “insane” since “in today’s world a foreign policy based on strong alliances, is the only ‘British’ policy which works”.  He went on to call for a “whole Middle East” strategy, beginning with Israel/Palestine and moving on to the Lebanon. Despite subsequent media reports about offering an opening to Syria and Iran, he referred only in passing to the former and was strongly critical of the latter, accusing it of following a strategy of “using the pressure points in the region to thwart us” and called for a counter strategy to defeat it. In fact Britain’s aim seems to be to separate the two. Thus in early November a senior envoy was sent to Syria for talks while Britain’s military participated in exercises off the Iranian coast to practice blocking its oil exports. The overriding aim seems to be to regain some influence in the Middle East. This was dealt a direct blow in the middle of November when Spain, France and Italy launched a peace initiative for the region from which Britain was completely excluded.

The dilemma of British imperialism

None of these steps amount to an alternative policy. In fact British imperialism now lacks a coherent strategy. At the immediate level this is a result of the struggle that continues to be fought out within the ruling class. Blair has repeatedly defended his policy and while he has had to give ground the attempt to get rid of him failed. This suggests that while the pressure being put on him comes from the core of the British ruling class, the faction around Blair remains quite powerful. Moreover, as we showed in the article on the disarray in the Labour Party in WR 298, there are signs that this struggle is leading to a loss of discipline and stability within the ruling class.

More fundamentally the difficulty of developing a coherent strategy that unites the ruling class reflects the reality that Britain’s situation, like that of all lesser powers, is essentially determined by factors outside its control.

In the first place any strategy will be defined by the historical reality of Britain’s position between the US and Europe. This became apparent in the 1920s and 30s when the British ruling class was first confronted with the fact that it was no longer the dominant world power. Despite the humiliation of Suez in 1956 the Cold War made this less acute because the confrontation between the two blocs was the dominant issue. After the collapse of the blocs Britain’s whole claim to be a significant power was based on the fact that it was not subservient to one or the other and that by playing one against the other it could wield influence above its actual means.

Secondly, as a consequence of this, British imperialism’s actions tend to be defined by the actions of others, which above all means those of the only world superpower. Blair’s error was that in moving too close to the American flame British interests got burnt. As a result the impasse of America’s imperialist strategy has resulted in Britain being trapped in Iraq and Afghanistan. And on top of this Britain has not gained any influence within the leading circles of American imperialism. As a State Department analyst disclosed: Britain’s relationship with the US has been “totally one-sided” and “we typically ignore them and take no notice”.

Although we should never forget the historic strengths of the British ruling class - their pragmatism and intelligence in times of crisis - their continuing disputes in developing a coherent strategy cannot be ignored. In the period to come the difficulties facing British imperialism can only grow.   North, 2/12/06