The not-so-fantastic Mr Fox

We always knew he was a hawk not a dove.

From today's Guardian:

William Hague was forced to clarify the government's thinking on Afghanistan today when he declared that he would be "very surprised" if Kabul's military was unable to take the lead by 2014 . . .

He clarified the government's thinking after [Liam] Fox waded into a row in Washington over the withdrawal of Nato forces. In a speech to the right-wing Heritage Foundation he said an early withdrawal would risk a return to civil war and betray the sacrifices of soldiers who gave their lives.

An early draft of his speech made no mention of [David] Cameron's declaration last week. In the final version of his text Fox endorsed Cameron's view, though he later told the BBC that British troops would be among the last to leave Afghanistan.

There has been much discussion in right-wing circles about the prospect of a split between Fox and Cameron over the direction of defence and foreign policy, in general, and over the strategy in Afghanistan, in particular. But as the Spectator's James Forsyth rightly argues:

There is, though, a feeling in Westminster that Fox is vulnerable. Fox has already used up a rather large number of his nine lives -- think of the "13th century" comment on the eve of a visit to Afghanistan, saying that military pensions are ring-fenced when they are not and publicly announcing the departure of the Chief of Defence Staff outside of the Downing Street grid.

But Fox has a significant source of protection. He's one of the few representatives of the Tory right in the coalition cabinet. Only he, Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson are regarded as being on the right by the right of the Conservative Parliamentary Party. If Fox was to leave government, Cameron would find his right flank dangerously exposed.

Fox is not just a right-winger; he is, as commentators on the left and right have argued, close to the hawkish and neoconservative faction inside the party on foreign and defence matters. He set up the Atlantic Bridge think tank in 1997, with the aim of "strengthening the special relationship" with the United States (though it is now being investigated by the Charity Commission). The Defence Secretary was also an ardent supporter of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

So it was surprising to see his earlier non-neocon remarks on Afghanistan:

We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken, 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened.

He sounded a bit like a realist, more Ken Clarke than Paul Wolfowitz. But the not-so-fantastic Mr Fox is now back on form, telling the Heritage Foundation in his speech that he did not favour what he called "premature withdrawal" (and, in fact, he plans to keep British troops in Afghanistan longer than other allied nations, according to the BBC) because:

To leave before the job is finished would leave us less safe and less secure. Our resolve would be called into question, our cohesion weakened, and the Alliance undermined.

It would be a betrayal of all the sacrifices made by our armed forces in life and limb.

Who says Afghanistan ain't like Vietnam? Here are the same sort of absurd and illogical arguments from the same sort of cold, dead-eyed defence officials -- we have to stay longer because we have lost lots of men already, so we have to stay longer and lose more lives, and then we have to stay even longer to make sure those lives weren't lost in vain, and so on and so on, ad infinitum . . .

Perhaps the Defence Secretary should be reminded of John Kerry's remarks to the Senate foreign relations committee on 23 April 1971. Then a decorated, 27-year-old navy veteran of Vietnam and a high-profile member of the anti-war movement, Kerry asked:

How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

Four decades on, does Liam Fox have an answer to this question?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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