The UK´s successful attempt to persuade the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to attribute blame for chemical weapons attacks has aroused much discussion. It has been correctly interpreted as a means of giving the UK an excuse to launch more attacks on Syria. But it is not as simple as that.
This action is not specifically aimed at Syria. It is a means of establishing a new international identity for a UK which has been forced to do this by Brexit. With no signposts, as no one has left the EU before, it has to go back to first principles. But it is discovering it has none, as Brexit goes against everything the UK believed it stood for: tolerance, progress, continuity and the fundamental English trait of muddling everything together in a vaguely acceptable manner and not taking any idea or project to its logical conclusion.
The UK has to show it is still internationally credible. As Brexiteers are fond of pointing out, its traditional role was as a leader, which had a large empire and spread its culture, main language and values everywhere. But it has now had to face the fact that if it turns its back on the values and institutions of others, they will do the same. You can´t lead if nobody follows, and those who saw the point of following the UK before, willingly or not, don´t do so now
So the UK has to carve out a new position which reflects today’s realities. It has to ask the question the former BBC religious correspondent, and Orthodox Christian, Peter France once asked the leaders of other UK churches – “what is the irreducible minimum of doctrine which makes you what you are?” This still has to be something in which the UK is a leader, in line with its traditions. But it can´t be something more characteristic of other EU countries, as the UK wants to be something different, whatever that is.
Consequently the UK has discovered a new default position in international affairs. It has never adopted this position before, despite many temptations to do so. But now it has left itself with no alternative but to face the bleak reality of what it is left with if it no longer wants to be in Europe – and however much some may rejoice in it, it is not a pretty sight for most of the UK population.
Payback is everything
Some in the UK are quite relishing the destruction Brexit is already causing, and will continue to cause according to the forecasts of its own official bodies which its government is obliged to accept. No matter how bad it turns out to be, it serves the purposes of a certain constituency.
Anyone who has ever been publicly criticised, such as the politically incorrect masses who have seen their former securities eroded by mechanisation and wilful policy they often voted for to begin with, is motivated above all by getting their own back. They dream of the day when the tables are turned, and they can tell the people who look down on them that they are now in charge.
If Brexit were a success, or likely to become one, the liberal elite who now object to it could reinterpret it as an extension of their existing policies, and reclaim ownership of the idea. They don´t because it is clearly a mistake, and also a big con; now they have ever more reasons to criticise those who support it.
But those dispossessed “ignorants” won the referendum, and the more they are criticised for their choice the more they can crow about the victory itself. Being wrong, but still winning, is even more attractive a proposition than being right and winning, because it makes the victory even more of an achievement. The boot is on the other foot big time, and if that is a bad thing it will kick even harder to make that fact felt.
The Brexit supporters amongst the political class are predictable for this reason. The cause of leaving the EU was a lost one for a very long time, and those Conservatives who kept the faith, such as former minister John Redwood who advises his financial clients to put their money in the EU and not the UK, want the glory now.
Labour will not oppose Brexit because it claims to represent the dispossessed, and is trying to recast itself ever more as the party of fringe outsiders under Jeremy Corbyn. The Liberal Democrats, the most pro-EU party, are only going as far as asking for a new vote on the final deal, because they were the traditional party of protest, and now a fraction of their former size, driving them back to the anti-everything brigade who hated the EU just because it was there.
Under these circumstances, no one has an incentive to adopt policies which work, or are compatible with those of other countries or the consensus of thinking behind them. A native British solution, the worse the better, is the only practical option. Unfortunately the UK has found it in the one place no one wanted it to look, simply because it has closed all the other doors.
She who laughs least laughs longest
The Liberal Democrats ended up in this position because they went into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, and then supported a wide-ranging austerity programme which involved reneging on some previous commitments, which all governing parties do at some point. The problem was that these policies were traditional Conservative territory, but Liberals had always opposed them unless there was a very clear vision of the benefits they would bring.
Liberal Democrat local administrations had implemented tight fiscal policies with public support to pay for tangible improvements. Conservatives were popularly seen as cutting spending for the sake of it, for ideological reasons, regardless of the social cost, and Liberal Democrat supporters deserted the party when it was perceived to be going along with this without a fight, and thus betraying what people believed its principles were.
In themselves, these policies are often described as “liberal”. Even Americans, who associate the term “liberal” with wacky far-left tax and spend measures, are happy to describe Republican free market policies as such. But in the UK they are seen as Conservative territory because they were the defining feature of the long and divisive premiership of Margaret Thatcher, whose ideology reshaped the UK´s political landscape.
With the post-war consensus creaking, Thatcher encouraged a rampant individualism in which those who made money, by any means, were considered morally good and those who claimed welfare, or worked in the many industries which relied on government subsidy, were morally bad. This was what another group of previously dispossessed people wanted to hear, so it worked. Then as now, all the other parties adopted the same policies with slight modifications, needing to win back these electors, and then satisfy their pride, to regain and keep power.
No subsequent Conservative leader has made the impact of Mrs. Thatcher, even though several have been Prime Minister. Consequently Conservatives are still judged or how Thatcherite they appear to be. If a Conservative politician expresses fifteen ideas which are different from Thatcher´s, but supports a single austerity measure, this is taken as proof that they are still irredeemably wedded to these divisive policies, which were blatant attempts to punish the poor and dependent for being so.
At least, that´s what happened in domestic policy. The defining foreign policy feature of the Thatcher years was the Falklands War, which was nothing to do with imposing a “them and us” policy. Indeed, newspapers which attempted to demonise enemies Argentina, the same ones which would later demand Brexit, were mocked in spoof headlines such as, “Kill An Argy – Win a Car”.
Mrs. Thatcher famously negotiated a budget rebate from the EU, but the Conservatives fully supported the organisation at this time, while Labour was critical of it and had much the larger element which wanted to leave. The UK also prided itself on the size of its foreign aid budget, and took sides based on patterns of alliances rather than declaring whole peoples “bad”, even though this was standard practice at home.
Now the UK doesn´t have this luxury. If it wants to behave this way now, it will have to stay within the EU, which still does broadly the same as Thatcher´s foreign ministers did. It doesn´t have the means to conduct the same policies outside the EU, or the opportunity to lead from that position.
All it is left with is its old domestic policy – the “them and us” attitude it claims to despise. The UK routinely criticises Muslim states for thinking only Muslims are good, conveniently ignoring the hapless attempts of the Arab League to find a common Muslim position on anything. Now the UK has found the only distinguishing feature it has is this willingness to go down the same route – divide the whole world up into morally good and morally bad people, punishing the bad and lauding the good, without any moral justification for fitting people into either group.
Transformism gone mad
Serbs do not need to be told that the UK does not actually have the copyright on such policies. Whenever they have tried to unite in one country the rest of the world has prevented this happening, for reasons no one seems to know, including those who do it. Self-determination is only a principle if it is applied to Croats or Bosnians or Kosovars, with Serbs unable to exercise the same right to decide which country they want to live in, even when treated worse than they ever treated their new persecutors.
But as the Serbs themselves also say, this is not the usual practice. If the UK wants to play a leadership role post-Brexit., it will have to try and make it so. We may not see people being forced to wear yellow stars, as in Nazi times, but whole populations, and the countries they have to live in, might as well have these affixed to them if the UK gets its way.
Syria is a majority Muslim state where chemical weapons attacks have taken place, in all probability committed by both sides in the conflict. As such, it is an easy target for such labelling. Syrians themselves, including the members of its significant Christian minorities, routinely protest against attempts to divide the Syrian people to provoke further conflict. But as long as the label can be applied it will be, because the UK needs this and other countries will go along with it because they are too compromised to change course now.
The same UK was happy to fund and train the Afghan mujahideen, then al-Qaeda and other Muslim groups which have committed similar atrocities and are now regarded as terrorist. So there is not, and never will be, consistency in the application of these labels. But this will only make the UK more willing to do it, making ever louder noise to justify its previous actions. Indeed this is only to be expected, until it gets a Prime Minister with some authority over their Cabinet, who can actually sack ministers who are not up to the job.
Theresa May appointed Boris Johnson the Foreign Secretary just when he seemed washed up because she thought it would expose his weaknesses and prove the final nail in his coffin. Instead, he is one of the nails in hers. The worse his gaffes get, the more of them he makes to try and normalise such behaviour. Theresa can´t get rid of him because, as she discovered when she last tried to conduct a reshuffle, if her ministers refuse to leave there is no way she can make them, and they will keep on ignoring her and making up policy as they go along.
Boris Johnson has no idea who the “good” and “bad” countries are, or how to distinguish one from the other. But to remain Boris Johnson he will have to invent inconsistent and meaningless criteria, keep doing it to justify each previous decision and then get ever louder about doing it so his supporters, who know very well he is an idiot, can tell themselves that even idiots as big as him can be in charge, despite everything their former superiors said about them.
Apportioning blame for attacks will do nothing to prevent the use of chemical weapons. The way to achieve that is to locate the stockpiles and production facilities and destroy them. If you say a particular country is responsible for an attack, you commit yourself to destroying the facilities which made it possible. This will leave other facilities untouched, because blame has not been apportioned to the countries they belong to.
The US has huge chemical weapons stockpiles, held legally on its territory, as in Richmond Kentucky by Bechtel National. It also controls a number of chemical and bio weapons research facilities, such as the now-notorious Tbilisi biolab. If you want to eliminate such weapons, why aren´t these sites being investigated or actually eliminated?
Under the previous terms of the OPCW´s operations, they were just as likely to be destroyed as those in places like Syria. They weren´t because they are controlled by the “good” guys, so to us protect us from the “bad” guys. Theoretically, no such distinction should ever have been made. But now it is legitimised, and only the bad guys need to fear inspections, whoever the bad guys are presumed to be at a given time; however they ended up being called the bad guys.
All we can do is trust that the right choices will be made between “good” and “bad” guys. Hands up who thinks that any of the countries which support this measure can be trusted to make the right decisions.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.