The economics of conquest

Only a reinvigorated United Nations can bring the world's aggressors to heel

The other day I heard John Bolton - who lately resigned his post as US representative designate to the United Nations - saying how unforgivably evil it was of the Syrians to (allegedly) assassinate certain Lebanese politicians who were thought to be obstructing Syria’s ambition to gain political control of Lebanon. If true, that is certainly a despicable thing to do, definitely not the sort of behaviour we expect from a member of the community of nations.

Then, later, I heard that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had affirmed that the US expenditure of materials and human lives on a war intended to obtain political control of Iraq and bring to it US-style democracy is - and has been - as she put it, "a worthwhile investment".

Comparing these two projects, one can see that, although basically similar in purpose, the (alleged) Syrian investment is, in purely arithmetical terms, far more economical in outlay than the US one, in that only one or two lives were lost and little physical damage occurred, rather than the half-million or so lives that are thought to have been lost in the massive destruction unleashed by the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies.

Also, it is worth noting that neither of the projects can really be said to have been cost-effective. Syria has not obtained political control of Lebanon, and, if it ever had it, the US has long since lost political control of Iraq.

Arithmetic aside, we have to ask what has happened to the human race that these appalling projects should ever have been considered in the first place. The first key lies, I suspect, in the plastic weasel-phrase: “Regime-change”.

When one nation adopts the policy which is now called "regime-change", it implicitly arrogates to itself the right to remove by force the government of another nation, just because it, itself, doesn’t happen to approve of what that nation does.

When that happens, it follows that however virtuous its original intent, the nation which chose that policy has, by so doing, created a precedent which any other nation or group - however vile its intent - can legitimately consider itself entitled to emulate.

So now anybody and everybody can follow suit and have a go at the regime-change of their choice. While the world stands aghast at the piecemeal proliferation of random murder-projects that are destroying the once-civilized nation of Iraq, there is nothing anybody can do to stop it because it is all being done, inspired by the US example, in the name of regime-change, or in this case perhaps "regime-destruction".

The fact that Saddam Hussein was a complete despot does not alter the fact that to go to war and stamp on Iraq in order to get rid of him was, and still is, a piece of out-of-date pseudo-imperialist stupidity. Nor can it be regarded as having been cost-effective, because life for the surviving Iraqis is little better, often far worse and always infinitely more dangerous than it was in his time. American-style democracy doesn’t seem to take, perhaps because when you are dodging bombs and bullets, security seems more immediately necessary than enfranchisement.

Conquest?

There is nothing new about war and conquest and international power-politics. The Roman Empire was built on a programme of regime-change. So was the British Empire. So why can’t the American Empire manage it?

There are probably many reasons, but the main one is that old-style conquest just doesn’t work any more. The natives don’t have spears, they have Kalashnikovs. The world is now so awash with munitions that however swiftly the Abrams tank can sweep across the land and apparently conquer it, once the tank has arrived there, the soldiers inside it can’t get out, except in heavily-armed sorties from pre-fortified compounds.

The invaders can destroy the infrastructure of the country and disband its social systems, its police, its public services, but they can’t replace them because they are constantly, literally, under fire, not only from the people of the country, but from anybody in neighbouring countries who doesn’t happen to want the conquerors to be there, doesn’t want them to succeed in their objectives and sees, in the maintenance of chaos by random destruction, a way to keep them bogged down, leaving the world open for their own particular infiltrative brand of regime destruction.

God knows when or how that festering sore can be salved. The process cannot begin until the initial mistake is fully acknowledged and the outraged dragons of vengeance are no longer being nourished by brave gung-ho lies and glib posturings. If that day should one day come to Iraq, perhaps we can also hope that the innate internecine hostilities of its passionate people will burn out in a weariness with death, hatred and vain dominance, and let them walk in their streets again.

Civilization?

But again we have to ask the underlying question: What has happened to the human race that after thousands of years of civilization we are still unable to live in peace with our neighbours?

As individuals, in this country, we can, up to a point, manage to do this. In the square where I lived there were people of many types and colours living in different houses. If we didn’t like them we didn’t have a lot to do with them, but we didn’t shoot them, and certainly we didn’t buy an anti-tank gun and blow them up, house and family, and then take possession of their property. We put up with it or, as a last resort, we complained to the council or called the police, who dealt with it impersonally according to the law.

So why does this not happen in the big round square where nations live? The obvious reason has always been: because there isn’t any council with a real police force backed by impersonal law. This lack has been obvious for many decades. I have seen both the League of Nations, and later the United Nations, rise in hope and strength, and watched the former wither away in impotence and disdain, as the nations which had created the organisation and placed it in authority, shrugged it aside because they could not impose their will on it.

It has become fashionable to dismiss the United Nations as a complete waste of time and money because it is so cumbersome, slow to act and poorly supported, but the simple truth is that it has been deliberately betrayed by its own creators.

Today, now that international violence has finally been shown to be a self-destructive rather than a cost-effective option, the basic arithmetic of international relationships has to change; this time for good.

Now we have to realise that if the human race hopes to avoid committing mass suicide in the ecstasy of "regime changes" and doomed excursions into conquest that will otherwise result from the effects of climate change, nations must put together a proper United Nations, a supra-national body with fully independent dedicated members which is armed and empowered to act impersonally in the interests of the world as a whole, according to international law, rather than on behalf of any particular faction.

Perhaps, in 2007, we could allow ourselves to hope that Ban Ki-moon, successor to the unfortunate Kofi Annan as Secretary General of the UN, will have the courage - and at last be given the strength - to bring the dogs of hubris to heel.

Oliver Postgate was the creator of Bagpuss, the Clangers, Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog. His autobiography depicts his passage from grinning show-off to grisly old git, a journey that included not only a prison sentence but also a thirty-year period working with Peter Firmin in cow-shed and pig-sty, making small films. Oliver died on 8 December, 2008
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At Labour conference, activists and politicians can't avoid each other – but try their best to "unsee"

My week, from havoc in the Labour family to a sublime act of real-life trolling – via a shopping centre.

I like to take a favourite novel with me to party conference for when it all gets too much, and this year I took China Miéville’s The City & the City. It takes place in the fictional cities of Besžel and Ul Qoma, two metropolises that exist in the same geographic space but must dutifully “unsee” one another or risk the sanction of Breach, the secret police force. It turned out to be a better allegory for what was going on outside my hotel than I had expected.

Labour, as I don’t need to tell you, is badly split on almost everything. Now that the acrid leadership race has reached its inevitable conclusion, activists and politicians on both sides are operating as if they had a standing duty to “unsee” each other. The atmosphere feels a bit like a family dinner after a blazing row: everyone is aware that things have been said that will take years to be forgiven, if they ever will be, so the conversation is largely banal and superficial.

The exception is the conference floor, the only place where Corbynites and Corbynsceptics cannot unsee each other, which was therefore the scene of several acrimonious confrontations after tricky votes. It’s difficult to predict where Labour goes from here. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is largely against a split, but its members surely can’t spend the next four years dutifully pretending not to see one another,or their activists?

 

Chaos and confusion

Would it have been better for Jeremy Corbyn if his defeated challenger, Owen Smith, had done a little bit better against him – not just in the final vote but throughout the contest? All summer, Smith distinguished himself only through his frequent gaffes, to the point where it felt more appropriate to describe him as a participant in the leadership race rather than a combatant.

The difficulty for both Corbyn and his critics is that his opponents in the PLP have no clear leader. As a result, their dissatisfaction is amorphous, rather than being productively channelled into a set of specific demands or criticisms, which Corbyn could then reject or accept. The overwhelming feeling about his leadership among the PLP is that “something must be done”. So whenever an MP embarks on a freelance assault – Margaret Hodge’s no-confidence motion, say, or Clive Betts’s attempt to bring back elections to the shadow cabinet – the majority leaps on the scheme. Corbyn’s critics reason that at least it’s something.

Although fractious Labour MPs might not see it that way, the decision not to restore shadow cabinet elections helps their cause. Taking away the leader’s ability to choose his ministerial team was a recipe for chaos – chaos that would, rightly, have been blamed on them.

 

Custody rights

If the Labour family would be, as I suspect, better off seeking a divorce, there is an irony that one of the things that they all agree on is the fate of the kids. The party is entirely united behind its leader in his opposition to grammar schools – as is almost every serious thinker on education policy, from Policy Exchange on the right through to Melissa Benn on the left.

Still, Labour will encounter a visceral type of resistance to its stance from the alumni of grammars, who, regardless of what the studies show, attribute their success to their attendance at selective schools. I can understand that. Although I went to a comprehensive, the emotional pull of one’s upbringing is hard to escape. I can, for example, read all the studies that show that children in single-parent families do worse – but I find it hard to experience it as anything other than an awful attack on my mother, to whom I owe everything.

Winning the argument over schooling will require a sensitive ear to those for whom the argument against the schools seems like an attack on their parents.

 

Pudding and pie

One of the nice things about being from a single-parent family is that I don’t have to admit to flaws – merely to unresolved kinks that would have been ironed out had my absent father stuck around. One such kink is my capacity for procrastination, which
results in my making decisions too often at the last minute.

This always comes back to bite me at party conference. At dinner events, I frequently put off picking my meal options to the point that I have to eat whatever the kitchen has left. At one meal this year, I was lucky enough to have three courses of pudding, but at another, my hastily cobbled-together starter seemed to consist entirely of pesto, taramasalata and rocket.

 

Too late

The best thing about party conference is sharing a panel with a politician you don’t know very much about who turns out to be highly impressive. It’s particularly cheering now, when my optimism about politics is at a low ebb. I try to meet them properly for coffee afterwards, although because of my capacity for putting things off, that doesn’t always happen.

Last year, I was chairing a particularly testy fringe on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The then shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, was running late and an MP from the 2015 intake had to field all the questions on her own. She did this with immense poise and knowledge, while clearly having a sense of how unhelpful some of the louder, angrier voices were – during one lengthy monologue from the floor, she turned and rolled her eyes at me. Her name was Jo Cox.

I kept meaning to get to know her, but I never got around to ringing her office, and now I never will.

 

Banter and bargains

A colleague alerts me to a sublime act of real-life trolling. When Everton opened a second branch of its team store in Liverpool’s shopping centre, it picked an innocuous name: Everton Two. Innocuous, that is, until you realise that the shopping centre is called Liverpool One. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories