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Leader: The summer of blood

Western powers have been chastened by their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as by the financial crisis and the recession that followed it.

Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war – until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.

Robert Lowell, from “Waking Early Sunday Morning”

In 1967, at the height of the anti-Vietnam war protests, the poet Robert Lowell was part of a delegation that marched on the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Before a huge and sympathetic crowd, he read his great poem of public protest “Waking Early Sunday Morning”, in which he imagines the United States in its lonely role as the world’s policeman, doomed to fight one small war after another, a ghost orbiting forever lost.

At present, as unimaginable violence sweeps the Middle East and Russia continues to menace Ukraine, the American dilemma has become ever more acute. The world’s policeman has grown weary of its responsibilities and burdens in a world riven by religious conflicts and scarcity wars. If not exactly overwhelmed by imperial overreach, the US is retreating into isolationism as China, India and Russia re-emerge to challenge its dominance.

The best instincts of President Obama are restrained and sceptical. He attempts to address the world as it is, not as he would wish it to be. In many ways, he is a classic foreign-policy realist. He opposed from the beginning the US-led invasion of Iraq and its subsequent occupation and he entered the White House determined to pull troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and to build new alliances – even with Iran – if he perceived them to be in the American interest. He prefers to fight his small wars from afar using drones and “strategic” air strikes, rather than by having troops on the ground. He never speaks idealistically of imposing regime change. He haseven confessed that he has no strategy for dealing with the rise of Islamic State, whose militants continue to behead western hostages (most recently, the journalist Steven Sotloff).

In addition, the shale gas revolution is making the US increasingly energy-self-sufficient and thus less dependent on the oil- and gas-rich Gulf autocracies of the Middle East. This is encouraging its new isolationism.

The western powers have been chastened by their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and by the financial crisis and the recession that followed it. The rush to intervene in Libya – with President Obama “leading from behind” – has been a failure. The desert state, once the fiefdom of the nefarious Gaddafi family, is being torn apart, with Islamist militants in control of much of the country, just as they are of swaths of Iraq and Syria. It is as if the western powers are locked into a dialectical struggle: under-intervention in the Balkan wars and Rwanda in the 1990s was followed by over-intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, which in turn has led to under-intervention in Syria.

In his report from northern Afghanistan on page 18, John Simpson, the BBC’s world affairs editor, writes: “Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Nigeria: in one way or another, they are all in danger of becoming black holes in which the nastiest and weirdest groups can thrive. The only serious answer is to turn them back into real countries once again. But that takes long-term commitment from outside interests, especially (though not exclusively) the US and Europe. It certainly can’t be achieved by firing off a few rounds of missiles.”

Yet there is little stamina in the west for this kind of intervention and commitment to nation-building. The west’s enemies know this and are emboldened to act. Meanwhile, in a month in which the right-wing Netanyahu government annexed more land in the West Bank, a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains as distant as ever.

These are dangerous and unstable times. Our lead book reviewer, John Gray, has written of how we are witnessing the return of classical geopolitics – “a struggle for resources between contending empires not unlike that in the late 19th century”. What is new is the ferocity of Islamist extremism and the threat it poses, in the form of returning jihadist fighters, to the security of the European democracies.

The US can no longer be relied on to operate as the world’s policeman. The threats that we face – from climate change to a new cold war – are far too complex. Nor are there simple solutions to the present crises. Our best chance is for the democratic nations to redouble their efforts to work together more effectively through multilateral organisations in an attempt to dampen the flames of the conflicts that have raged throughout this summer of bloodshed. 

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage