Ed Miliband. Image: Flickr
Challenged by Jeremy Paxman on whether he was “tough enough” to be Prime Minister on the Sky News/Channel 4 programme ‘Cameron & Miliband Live’, Labour leader Ed Miliband replied:
“In the summer of 2013 this government proposed [military] action in Syria, the bombing of Syria, right? I was called into a room by David Cameron and Nick Clegg because President Obama had been on the phone, The Leader of the Free World, right? I listened to what they said and over those days I made up my mind and we said ‘No’, right?”
Miliband has also repeatedly pointed out that he opposed the 2003 Iraq War. Desperate to shore up the Labour vote, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee has been only too happy to confirm Miliband “rejected the Iraq war”.
However, before everyone starts labelling ‘Red Ed’ as anti-war, it’s worth taking some time to consider his positions on recent British foreign policy.
2014: The bombing of ISIS in Iraq
After he had unironically referred to Barack Obama as “The Leader of the Free World” on the Sky News/Channel Four programme, Miliband went on to explain he did not want to “repeat the mistakes of the 2003 Iraq War when Labour was in power, which was a rush to war without knowing what your strategy is and without being clear about what the consequences would be.”
Given these – apparently sincerely held – concerns, one would presume Miliband would be opposed to, or at least very sceptical of, the on-going US-led airstrikes on Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq. However, he fully supported the airstrikes in the House of Commons in September 2014 – and continues to do so as far as I am aware.
He supported the war for a number of reasons. “Iraq is a democratic state. It is a government that we would want to support”, he said. As I’ve argued elsewhere this statement conceals the deeply authoritarian and undemocratic nature of the present Iraqi government, and the West’s role in helping to create it.
Miliband also referred positively to the regional support the proposed airstrikes had from Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Side-stepping the question of whether being in a coalition with the most fundamentalist nation on earth is a good thing, it is important to remember Saudi Arabia and Qatar have played an important role in the rise of ISIS.
In September 2014 the Director of the FBI told Congress the US-led airstrikes were increasing support for ISIS. Similarly, the former head of counterterrorism at MI6 has warned the airstrikes could “increase the risk” of terrorist attacks in the West. In terms of the military action itself, President Obama recently said the war against ISIS is likely to take up to three years, with the US Defence Secretarysuggesting this was probably an underestimate. And what of the democratic Iraqi Government Miliband was so keen to protect?
In February 2015 Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report arguing the widespread abuses perpetrated by the government-enabled Shia militias could well be war crimes, while an October 2014 HRW commentary noted the "relentless arson and pillaging" carried out by Shia militias in Iraq have displaced over 7,000 families in recent months.
After recently visiting Iraq, award-winning US journalist Matthieu Aikins explained that “Iraq has become a militia state”. With US arms sent to the Iraqi government ending up in the hands of Shia militias the “US risks helping to perpetrate the same violence and state corruption that led to ISIS's stunning rise last year”, he noted.
2013: The proposed US-led bombing of Syria
Miliband told Paxman he had stood up to the Prime Minister and “The Leader of the Free World” over Syria in September 2013. The normally questioning Labour backbencher Michael Meacher MP declared Miliband’s actions on Syria will be “recognised as an act of courage and statesmanship that shows his mettle as a leader.”
The reality is a little less heroic than Miliband and Meacher would have us believe.
A read of the parliamentary debate about the proposed military action shows the Labour motion was very similar to the defeated Government motion, a fact not lost on some of the more experienced foreign affairs experts in the House of Commons. “I can find no difference of substance or principle anywhere in the two offerings”, said Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Foreign Affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats. Likewise, former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind noted “virtually all” of Labour’s list of requirements for supporting military action “appear in the Government’s own motion.”
Moreover, in the parliamentary debate Miliband explained he would support military action against Syria without a United Nations Security Council Resolution – essentially agreeing with the Government again. As Jonathan Steele, the Guardian’s former Chief Correspondent, noted “Cameron and Miliband used dubious legal grounds to try to justify bypassing a veto in the UN Security Council by saying western military strikes were needed to protect Syrians.” Does Miliband’s self-serving position on the UN remind you of any other Labour leader?
2011: The NATO intervention in Libya
Along with the vast majority of British newspapers and 557 MPs, Miliband supported the NATO intervention in Libya, supposedly carried out to stop a massacre of civilians in Benghazi. Accepting the government’s – highly questionable – narrative of the crisis, Miliband cited his parents’ experience of the Holocaust in the House of Commons debate.
The NATO intervention arguably escalated the violence and elongated the conflict, plunging the country into a militia-dominated Hobbesian nightmare. Fast-forward four years and, as I have argued elsewhere, Libya is a chaotic mess:
“In November 2014 Amnesty International warned that ‘lawless militias and armed groups on all sides of the conflict in western Libya are carrying out rampant human rights abuses, including war crimes.’ The same month the UN refugee agency reported that nearly 400,000 Libyans had been displaced by the ongoing violence, while the Associated Press noted the Libyan city of Darna had become the first city outside of Syria and Iraq to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State group.”
With this reality in mind, again it is worth reminding ourselves of Ed Miliband’s supposedly sincere concerns about Iraq in 2003: “a rush to war without knowing what your strategy is and without being clear about what the consequences would be.”
2003: The US-UK invasion of Iraq
In attempt to disassociate himself with New Labour’s 2003 illegal, aggressive attack on Iraq, Miliband has repeatedly boasted he was opposed to the invasion. Miliband was in the US in the run-up to the war, teaching at Harvard. However, he has said “I did tell people at the time that asked me that I was against the war.” Ed Miliband’s biographer Mehdi Hasan claims that Miliband Jr rang Gordon Brown from the United States to try and persuade the then Chancellor of the Exchequer to resist the push to war.
Speaking at the Labour leader hustings in 2010 Ed Balls labelled Miliband’s claim to be anti-war as “ridiculous” noting that Miiband “did not tell people” he was against the war. Speaking at the same hustings, Former Foreign Secretary David Miliband made a rare honest statement: “Diane Abbott [who was also standing to be Labour leader] is the only candidate that can say she was against the war at the time, and if that is the sole criterion, she is in a different position to every other candidate. She did not just think she was against it, she said she was against it, and she marched against it.”
And this is the key point. There were numerous opportunities for Miliband to make a public stand against the impending war – which arguably would have had a far greater impact than his supposed behind the scenes advice – including speaking at the biggest protest in British history. That Miliband, at best, opposed the war in private strongly suggests to me that he was thinking more about his future political career than the welfare of Iraqis or the British soldiers being sent to fight in Iraq.
And we should not forget that Miliband voted against an official inquiry into the Iraq War being set up on four occasions.
2001-14: The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan
Though it’s difficult to find out Miliband’s position on Afghanistan prior to him becoming Labour leader in 2010, his record of support for the bloody and deeply unpopular British occupation since then has been clear. “I want you to know that our mission in Afghanistan is not a matter of party politics”, he told British troops when he visited Afghanistan in 2011. “It is about what is right for our country. A more stable Afghanistan will lead to a more safe Britain… above all I want you to know you have our support, our respect and our admiration for what you are doing for our country.”
Compare this pro-military guff to the brutal reality of the British occupation. “In practice, we ended up killing a lot of people, destroying lots of bazaars and mosques. We absolutely knew it was not what we were there to do, and would not be helpful”, explained General David Richards, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, about what went wrong in Afghanistan. Mike Martin, a former British Army Officer, notes that in summer 2006 British forces dropped 18,000 pounds of explosives on the town of Now Zad alone, “flattening the bazaar” and killing civilians. This “injudicious use of firepower was reminiscent of Soviet military operations” and “made funding and recruitment non-issues” for the Afghan insurgency, Martin explains.
Unsurprisingly, these actions have not led to stability. Far from it. Former British military intelligence officer Frank Ledwidge: “Britain’s efforts have resulted in the ‘stabilization’ (i.e. the temporary pacification) of 3 of the 14 districts that make up the province of Helmand – just one of 34 provinces in a country with a population that is half that of the UK. In terms of overall political significance, this might be the equivalent of three large market towns in rural Lincolnshire. Before the British burst onto the scene, Helmand was ‘stable’, in the sense there was almost no Taliban presence and little prospect of any.”
As for the British occupation of Afghanistan making “a more safe Britain”, it is likely the opposite is true. In the words of Anatol Lieven, a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London: “What we can surely say is that UK policy has been an absolute disaster in the perception of the Muslim population and has produced a significantly increased terror threat.” The justification given for the murderous attack on British soldier Lee Rigby suggest Lieven’s analysis is correct.
Miliband supports the renewal of Trident, which is estimated to cost the UK over 80 billion over the next 100 years, with a lower-cost deterrent. “I’m not in favour of unilateral disarmament”, he explained in January 2015.
And the rest
In addition to the big set piece interventions set out above, it is important to note Miliband’s lack of criticism of other parts of British foreign policy that either has already had, or will likely have, serious, deleterious consequences: the UK training of Syrian rebels; the UK training of Ukrainian Government forces; the UK support for the Saudi Arabian attack on Yemen; the UK’s support for the Bahrain Government’s deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests; the on-going diplomatic and military support the UK gives to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies; Obama’s drone wars.
What all these examples show is that far from being anti-war Miliband has repeatedly supported wars of choice, often with dubious legal and moral justifications (Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq 2014), most of which have turned out to be a disaster for the country he claimed to be protecting and the wider world (Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq 2014). Like the deeply unpopular Tony Blair, Miliband has publicly stated he would support military action without a UN Security Council resolution. When he did oppose military action this was either done in private, thus minimising the danger to his future political career (Iraq 2003), or has been presented as a clear, moral stand, when in actual fact his position was difficult to distinguish from the government’s own position – and based on ignoring the will of the United Nations (Syria).
If this is how Miliband acts in opposition, what can we expect from him as Prime Minister when he is likely to be under intense American and domestic pressure (from a combination of the armed forces, the intelligence services, the press, his own cabinet, his own party, the opposition party) and is keen to show he is “tough enough”?
It is clear the fight against the UK’s aggressive foreign policy will have to continue after the election, whether it is David Cameron or Ed Miliband sitting in 10 Downing Street.
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