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.


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.


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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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.