Lord Richards, a former chief of Britain’s defence staff, is reported as opining that “David Cameron lacked the “balls” to take the military action in Syria that could have prevented the rise of Islamic State” (IS or ISIS). This suggests a breath-taking arrogance, lack of vision and irresponsibility. Evidently some ex-military men, like some politicians, love to appear strong and regard wisdom as a sign of weakness.
ISIS would also love to see Western ‘boots on the ground’ again in Iraq, knowing that they would eventually have to go home again demoralised; by continuing to provoke outrage in the West, ISIS is successfully mobilising Western public opinion to support just such an intervention.
Saddam Hussein was ‘defeated’ in a few months, but that action led to an enormous subsequent loss of life and an increase in regional instability – including the rise of ISIS. Doubtless the Syrian government could also have been toppled by military means, but the fallout afterwards could have been even worse. Both Russia and Iran were supporting the Syrian regime, so there was enormous potential for matters to escalate out of control.
As Simon Jenkins observed, in this week’s Spectator, “the drumbeat for sending troops back to Iraq has begun… It’s taking pride of place in the American election” and, based on his track-record, Cameron would want to appear equally ‘strong’.
On both sides of the Atlantic, politicians are being encouraged to demonstrate their virility by taking the country to war, without the agreement of the United Nations – but is it courageous or merely irresponsible to sacrifice the lives of one’s country’s troops and countless civilians (whilst one’s own life is not at risk)?
Sadly, politicians have often been unable to resist the temptation to look big for a few months so the ISIS strategy is likely to work. As Simon Jenkins said: “Here we go again”.
Today’s Iran deal, which is designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons in exchange for a lifting of sanctions, is the safest way forward for the Middle East – and for Israel in particular, despite opposition to it by some American conservatives and by the Israeli government.
Opponents of a peace deal with Iran should be prepared to say what alternative they would prefer. One article, on the Conservative News and Views website, advises a pre-emptive strike – which would be an act of war. Previous such strikes, against Iraq and against Libya, have destabilised the Middle East and have fanned the flames of tribal conflict; they have led to the formation of ISIS and have helped it to recruit young people from all over the world to a fight in a jihad against what they see as an existential threat to Sunni Islam.
Right now does not seem to be a good time to attack Iran, while it is helping to fight ISIS. A strike would constitute an attack on Shia Islam. Peace in this case is a difficult path to pursue, and inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities are clearly very important, but the alternatives are worse. If either America or Israel chooses to make a pre-emptive strike against Iran it would be very easy for Hezbollah to recruit more support in attacking Israel – which is a closer target than America. And it doesn’t make sense for America and Israel to be attacking both Sunnis and Shias at the same time. A peace process, even one as precarious as the Iran deal, is a safer choice.
What is good for the Greeks would also be good for Europe. Although some level of austerity was needed across Europe, to reduce fiscal deficits, it has been carried out in a very damaging way: it has depressed economic growth and has been inflicted on the poorest members of society. The widespread feeling that a country should be punished for past overspending has to be balanced against the need to look forward to the best way of recovering from Greece’s current predicament and Europe’s continued economic slump. The suggestion that Greece should leave the Eurozone – a ‘Grexit’ – is based on the assumption that Greece is the only country with a problem, yet this is far from the case.
Right-wing commentators have been arguing that austerity is the only way back to fiscal rectitude and that irresponsibility has to be punished. For example, a recent Spectator article argued that “austerity really is a virtue” and that “Greece is an incorrigible basket-case”; it also suggested that the IMF and the European Central Bank (ECB) agreed. On the contrary, the IMF has acknowledged that “Austerity is much worse for the economy than we thought” and a Wall Street Journal report suggested that the ECB “would like to do more to spur growth” but that Germany is holding it back. Studies suggest that austerity reduces growth. Paul Krugman and other prominent economists have argued that a Keynesian approach, of applying an economic stimulus during a depression, is more appropriate.
The application of austerity has been grossly unfair. In Britain, for example, wealthy individuals and corporations have not shouldered much of the burden of recovery; the government reduced the higher rate of income tax, and wealthy corporations moved their profits to Luxembourg to avoid paying corporation tax. Instead, the poorest members of society have been targeted with an artificial benefit cap and the ‘bedroom tax’ – which have been popular with the majority of the electorate, who are unaffected and who dislike ‘benefit scroungers’, but which have been a very blunt instrument for cutting the benefit budget. A large portion of the benefit budget now goes to the working poor, not to the unemployed and those who are unable to work; an adjustment to the minimum wage would have been more effective – simultaneously giving people more money to spend and reducing the government’s benefit payments. The minimum wage could also be a tool for addressing economic imbalances within the UK and between countries of Europe: its level should be set regionally, or even locally, to attract jobs to areas with a low cost of living.
Robert Skidelsky, in this week’s New Statesman, wrote: “I agree with Syriza: the way back to prosperity insolvency is not debt collection and austerity but debt relief and public investment. This is Europe’s choice.” This article, which was mostly available at eiranews.com, also reminded readers that some of Germany’s debt was forgiven after the Second World War and enabled its economy to recover. It cannot be denied that Greek politicians overspent, but the pain experienced by their population has been sufficient punishment to avert any temptation to repeat the mistake. Politicians now need to move forward in the best way for both Greece and for Europe as a whole – with some debt lightening and with less austerity.
Voters in the forthcoming Scottish referendum on Thursday should reflect upon the divergence of interests between politicians and the people they serve. David Cameron might feel that, without Scotland, he would have a substantial democratic majority in the remnants of the UK (RUK); on the basis of current voting patterns, he would no longer have to compromise with Liberals; the Labour Party would have little chance of forming a government; UKIP would be the only remaining threat to his dominance of RUK politics.
This is a depressing picture for anyone in England who believes that government is more likely to act in the interests of the people if there is a chance of replacing it when necessary. But it should also worry Scots who will continue to be affected by the UK economy and would, if independent, have no influence upon it.
It is easy to see why politicians might want to wield unchallenged power. That is the impulse which persuades them to argue for separatism. There are many in the Conservative party who want to be free of any need to defer to the European Court of Human Rights; Nigel Farage would prefer to be completely separate from the EU; Alex Salmond would wield more power in an independent Scotland.
The interests of the people, though, are better served by staying together. Scottish views currently have to be taken into account in UK Parliamentary arithmetic, so Scots wield real influence over their larger neighbours. Scots benefit from taxes raised in wealthier parts of the UK and they benefit from the resilience of a larger economy. Similarly, the British people currently have influence in Europe; if Britain were to leave the EU, it would continue to be much affected by it but would cease to have influence over it.
Politicians like to be independent and unchallenged, and they can make themselves look big by being confrontational. For the people, though, it is better that politicians are accountable and not too secure. For businesses it is beneficial to be in cooperative relationships with one’s trading partners. Life is better if you get on well with your neighbours.