As if the Middle East has not already seen enough mayhem, enough to embroil the great powers and a few smaller ones, the assassination of the Iranian military commander, Qassem Suleimani threatens even more. There cannot have been a more ominous start to the new decade.
Despite the impression of a completed tit for tat exchange, it may yet be seen to have presaged yet more bloody turmoil for a part of the world that has seen at least four decades of war, even if you count back only to Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 and the ensuing eight years of war between the two countries.
Only two years of uneasy peace passed after the 1988 Iraq-Iran ceasefire before Saddam Hussein’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait that prompted the first Gulf war, led by the USA but also involving a coalition of 35 countries. At least that action was endorsed by UN Security Council resolutions.
The same could not be said of President George Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq – a continuation of his ‘war on terror’ that had started with the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan had the full backing of the UN, but the legality of the 2003 invasion of Iraq was contested at the time and has been ever since. It cost Tony Blair his reputation.
Over these decades the body count in the Middle East has reached nightmare proportions. At least 500,000 soldiers dead in the Iraq-Iran war, another half-million in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq since the turn of the century and yet another half million – mostly civilians – in Syria alone in a civil conflict that is now in its tenth year. This, without counting the full cost in injury, displacement, physical devastation and wider terrorism.
One cannot absolve the authoritarian rulers of Middle East states or servants such as Qassem Suleimani, of their own culpability. They have not been friends of their own people or, in many instances, of their neighbours. They have often encouraged others to do the dirtiest work beyond the boundaries of their country and their influence. But neither have our own interventions, or those of Russia, done anything to reduce the body count.
The record of both the USA and UK in the Middle East over the past century is not one to be proud of, comprised of a mixture of self-interest and miscalculation cloaked in scarcely believable high-mindedness. Russia substitutes undisguised cynicism for the high-mindedness.
The decline of the UK as a world power has at least brought us a modicum of humility that often eludes the US. In the current instance, no detailed justification in law or even access to evidence of a specific threat has been offered. We are asked to take in on trust from Donald Trump.
America’s friends need to remind it that, from time to time, it has a disturbing habit of defining international law as whatever justifies the decision it has already taken. The law it seems is whatever this President says it is.
Whenever international obligations prove irksome it seems they can be discarded, whether they be the resolutions or even the funding of the United Nations, or international agreements on climate change or attempts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It does no credit to a country that has sought until recently, to be a beacon of liberal democracy.
The fact that our Prime Minister and our Foreign Secretary have had to find weasel words to avoid giving offence to President Trump, while at the same time having to make common cause with Germany and France in seeking de-escalation, is a vivid demonstration of what will be, imminently, post-Brexit realities.
For nothing has highlighted more clearly that while our relationship with Europe is one between equals, our posture towards America is, post-Brexit, more likely to be one of cautious subservience, both militarily and economically.
This would be true even if the White House were occupied by a more principled President than this one. For make no mistake about it even the most enlightened American presidents know their power – both military and economic – is second to none. Other Commanders in Chief may be more cautious in the use of military power than Donald Trump, but none will put a brake on the country’s economic might.
At the start of 2020, this is something that should give our new Prime Minister pause for thought. On the military front, it would be good to know which Labour Prime Minister he would prefer not to emulate: Tony Blair who signed up to the Iraq War or Harold Wilson who refused to sign up to the Vietnam war.
On the economic front, Mr. Johnson might ponder not only the continental realities, as outlined in London this week by the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, but also the most salient facts about our relationship with America:
- that the USA accounts for only 19% of UK exports, whereas the EU accounts for 45% (for Wales the EU figure is 61%)
- that the USA accounts for only 11% of imports to the UK, whereas the EU accounts for 53%.
Put another way, at the end of this month we will be leaving an economic entity whose total GDP is currently 107% of that of the USA – with all the bargaining power that implies – to become a single country whose GDP is only 15% of the USA figure. As Donald Trump might say: ‘Do the math’.
This week we have already seen the sizeable Conservative majority in Parliament wielded to ensure the Withdrawal Agreement Bill did not include a commitment to the EU’s Erasmus scheme that has facilitated study periods and vocational training for students across the EU. This is a scheme that in recent years has widened the experience of nearly 17,000 annually.
The same majority was used to block heartlessly any commitment to allow unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with their parents in the UK.
The former may prove to be only a symbolic act – a flexing of muscles – but it is another question for Mr. Johnson to ponder alongside the long list delivered with a combination of sadness and resolution by the Commission President. We can but hope that he will put aside his theatric adherence to an unrealistic timetable for our discussions with Europe and, in our national interest, return to the instincts he seemed to display as Mayor of London.
It has been a dangerous and dramatic week which has demonstrated starkly the dynamics of power. It will be a deep irony if we have to thank President Trump for rekindling thoughts of a softer Brexit in the minds of our Prime Minister. That may be one positive if unintended consequence of the assassination of Qassem Suleimani. One can see few others.