In 1964 former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson said, “A week is a long time in politics”. This has been a very long week for both high and low politics.
A week ago I was waking up in Brussels to the British ‘non’ to the Brussels Botch. This was European low politics at its worst as Euro-fanatics and the plain anti-British spurred on by Berlin and Paris attempted to shame Prime Minister Cameron into reversing his position and to blame Britain for a collective failure of strategy and politics. Sadly, they were aided and abetted by the strategically-inept back in London who a) illiterate in the language of power panicked at the thought of British ‘isolation’; and b) seemed willing to pay any price to keep the Germans and French happy. The British reaction was as one would expect – defiant. The British people were up for a fight and it showed.
Recognising the impasse Chancellor Merkel made a conciliatory speech mid-week in Berlin. Britain will remain an important partner, she said. Was this a new political demarche? No. Last night, Christian Noyer, the Head of the French National Bank, called on Britain’s AAA credit rating to be downgraded. On the ‘not very helpful right now’ scale of ten that got at least a nine. Well done, M. Noyer.
It saddens me that the elite of such a great nation for which I have a genuine liking and respect seems unable to resist pressing the anti-Brit button whenever it does not get its way. French low politics will only trigger more British low politics and thus make it far harder to find a solution and maintain political momentum in other crucial areas such as defence co-operation. More worrying M. Noyer would appear not to understand either the nature of the Eurozone crisis or the causes of it. Thankfully, London reacted in a measured and appropriate tone to M. Noyer’s engineered outburst, something I am sure Berlin will have noted.
Let me now switch to the other side of the ‘pond’. On Wednesday President Obama made a speech at Fort Bragg marking the end of nine troubled years of American military presence in Iraq. Since March 2003 over 100,000 Iraqis and 4500 Americans have died with many thousands more wounded, not to mention the dead and wounded from the other coalition partners who took part in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
If Europe is being broken by an excess of low politics, America is endeavouring to extricate itself from an excess of ill-considered high politics. President Obama said that whilst Iraq “is not a perfect place…we are leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people”. The President went on, “We are building a new partnership between our nations. Because of you [US military personnel], we are ending these wars in a way that will make America stronger and the world more secure”. With the hindsight of history the Iraq War as a mistake; there were no weapons of mass destruction, it distracted from the main thrust of post-911 strategy in Afghanistan, cost huge amounts of money and many lives; and tied down American forces in such a way as to embolden the world’s real mischief-makers. The US may not be the world’s policeman, but it is the actor of last resort.
Back in 2003 Germany and France warned against this adventure. Berlin and Paris were correct. The fact that Saddam is gone and some semblance of stability (and it is only a semblance of stability) has been achieved much of it due to the ability of American forces to adapt and learn, does not forgive the error of high politics America and Britain made. The 2011 consequences only indirectly reflect the 2003 war aim, “…to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s alleged support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people”. Critically, neither America nor its allies have been strengthened by this war and its aftermath, either in the ‘Greater Middle East’ (wherever that is) or the wider world.
The war crucially divided the NATO Alliance at a critical moment from which it has never really recovered and made America and the West seem far weaker than is in fact the case in the eyes of allies and adversaries alike. In particular, the American and British failure to properly prepare for the post-war stabilisation of Iraq was a profound mistake, much of it driven by Washington’s ideological belief that the invasion would be seen by all Iraqis as a liberation.
What conclusions do I draw? It is questionable whether Europeans are any longer capable of high politics in the face of crisis. The gap between the rhetoric of Europe’s leaders and their actions is now so wide as to border on self-deceit. Equally, the gap between what America has to do and what it is willing or can afford to to do is itself becoming dangerously wide. Indeed, for Washington the common ground between high and low politics in the international arena remains elusive.
Above all, these two political failures, the Iraq War and Eurozone crisis, have destroyed trust, that most precious of political commodities and the concrete foundation upon which all sound strategy must stand.
A week is indeed a long time in politics and this indeed has been a very long and a very bad political week.
Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.