How new is Jim Murphy’s approach to military intervention?

February 15, 2013 3:21 pm

Even prior to delivery, Jim Murphy’s speech on why the UK needs a new model of preventative intervention, had elicited controversy as a result of the decision to have the Henry Jackson Society host the event. Defence and security policy is still a sensitive subject, at least among Party members and supporters; and the issue of whether it was right to invade Iraq has yet been laid to rest, despite Ed Miliband’s 2010 conference admission that the Iraq war was ‘wrong’.

Heralded as a major policy intervention, the question is whether Jim Murphy’s speech announced a new direction for Labour defence and security policy.  The speech outlines a new model of preventive intervention to be utilised to protect British interests in situations where instability and weak governments permit extremism to thrive.  The approach should be comprehensive – encompassing development, diplomacy and defence – and proactive – seeking to prevent threats from materialising.  Intervention would be by the invitation of local governments, with UK forces working in partnership with their hosts.  As Jim Murphy states:  ‘The core component of preventive intervention must be an enhanced focus on investing in the capacity of at-risk nations to defend themselves’.  Also highlighted are the needs for Britain to cooperate with other European States in doing so, and to engage with regional organisations, helping them to improve their ability to respond to local crises.   More precise, technical prescriptions are also advanced.

However, prevention cannot always work and: ‘Military intervention will of course at times be necessitated in response to events’, by reference to Sierra Leone and Kosovo (but not to Iraq).  According to Jim Murphy:

‘Such action should rest on the principles of international law, certainty of strategic objectives; acting under the banner of multilateral institutions; working with regional partners; and clarity over our national interest.’ 

Here, it might be thought, is the rub, at least for those viscerally opposed to the use of military force.

In his 1999 speech on the doctrine of the international community, Tony Blair set out five considerations for deciding whether or when to intervene militarily: Are we sure of our case?  Have we exhausted all diplomatic options?  Are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?  Are we prepared for the long term?  And do we have national interests involved?  A reading of Jim Murphy’s speech does not suggest a new approach.

There is less rhetoric about the international community and more talk about interests rather than values; but these are simply differences in nuance.  The new model is one proposed for reasons of efficacy, not least given the UK’s necessarily limited resources, not of the result of a decision to eschew, as a matter of principle, the use of military force abroad.

One might think Labour’s credibility in defence matters demands no less, despite the reservations of elements within the Party.  But, as the past has proved (and many consider that Tony Blair did not practice what he preached when deciding to participate in the invasion of Iraq), it is when applying general principles to specific cases that difficulties arise, particularly when some of those principles are very general indeed.  Given this, perhaps the decision to have the Henry Jackson Society host the event should be seen as the signal which some of the group’s detractors claim it to be.

Matthew Happold is a member of Labour International and the Lëtzebuerger Sozialistesch Arbechterpartei

  • robertcp

    I was opposed to the war in Iraq but Murphy’s approach seems to be sensible. The invasion of Iraq was wrong because not all diplomatic options had been exhausted, the inspectors should have been given more time and the war was opposed by the United Nations.. Murphy seems to be hinting that the Iraq war was wrong in his view.

  • http://twitter.com/waterwards dave stone

    The Labour Party deserves better than Murphy can manage: “At a time when the US – our most important partner in defence – pivots to Asia Pacific” – i.e. challenging China’a growing influence on the Pacific rim, the UK and EU “must demonstrate their commitment to NATO and modernising deployable Forces” – in our own backyard and challenge China’s growing influence in Africa.

    One outcome will be the burying of Blair’s Iraq catastrophe beneath further catastrophes* – thus diminishing the apparent scale of Blair’s treachery. How this is going to advantage the UK remains unclear.

    * http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barry-lando/china-business-africa_b_2468659.html

    • TomFairfax

      It’s not clear to me what the fears are of China. The territories around her coasts were historically Chinese, and in the case of the dispute with Japan, islands that were supposedly to be handed back at the end of WW2. Should China make a move for territory with inhabitants, not wrested away under the unequal treaties of the colonial period then we should worry about expansionism. The Japanese so far would have it difficult to handle their current dispute worse. I ask you, paying the private owner of some islands so that it makes unclear sovereignty clear and at the same time effectively poking a stick in the eye of a country that they so mistreated the citizens of within living memory. Is that supposed not to be deliberately provocative?

      As for Africa, China has taken steps to make investments in countries with natural resources vital to her economy and actually taking actions to cosy up to the governments. Just because they can be bothered is hardly grounds for anything other than a wake up call to stop treating these places so badly and try treating them as economic partners as well.

      If we had credible armed forces we wouldn’t have to worry so much about keeping the French sweet. JM’s policy doesn’t sound wrong, but it’s a bit vague if one has no means to implement it because we’d rather pay BAe three times the going rate for every thing we buy from them.

      • TomFairfax

        There’s a lovely book from a few years back about the MOD’s disfunction called ‘Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs’. One to refer to whenever John Arbuthnot comes up with another defense of BAE’s interests in favour of this nation’s and it’s taxpayers.

      • http://twitter.com/waterwards dave stone

        Some have characterised the 20th century as century during which which established superpowers were unable to to adjust to new emerging centres of power, hence wars both hot and cold.

        One of the main challenges of the 21st century will undoubtedly require adjustment by the US and EU to the emergence of China. How best to do this, avoid disasters like the Iraq adventure and preserve democracy at home while strengthening it elsewhere, including Africa, should be a primary concern for anyone with an interest beyond their next meal.

        Murphy’s enthusiasm for “Adaptable units [&] strong supportive expeditionary capability and enablers alongside force protection. C4-ISTAR, naval resources, unmanned technology, helicopters, airlift, close air support and refuelling capabilities”* no doubt pleased his interventionist neo-con hosts but, in my view, indicates a failure to engage with the problem.

        * http://www.labour.org.uk/how-the-uk-responds-to-extremism-in-north-west-africa-and-beyond,2013-02-14

        • TomFairfax

          No doubt he is also enthusiastic about those other cliches as well, such as Mom and apple pie, and hard working families.
          I agree with what you’ve written but JM is just saying he wants armed forces, but added some filler to the statement.

        • TomFairfax

          Just checked some figures from the RN’s website as an example of why root and branch reform of the MOD is needed.
          Currently we have 28 Admirals and 24 ships in the surface fleet. Not all of these are commissioned currently. (At Trafalgar, Collingwood and Nelson had 29 ships between them. It wasn’t a much different ratio at Jutland.)

          When the MOD was created in it’s modern form in 1964 the Armed forces were just under 420 000 strong. The current projections are for less than 150 000 in all services over the next few years.

          The lessons from the 1700’s onwards is that a lot of good ships is better than a smaller number of brilliant ones. Unfortunately now we have a small number of mediocre ones. The Darings cost three and four times the amount of the equivilent Aegis vessels used by the US and our other allies. But those Aegis ships went into service with functioning weapons systems.
          JM can talk until his blue in the face about what we need are forces to do, but it’s meaningless unless his prepared to give them the tools to do it when they are needed.

          We could arguably reduce expenditure and increase strength if the MOD wasn’ta subsidiary of BAe systems.
          The same applies to the RAF and the Army procurement. The fantastically expensive Typhoons were beaten in exercises held in Turkey recently by Pakistani airforce pilots flying 1980’s vintage F-16s.

          A progressive government should be working to sort the MOD out before even thinking of intervening anywhere, it just acts as an excuse not to sort things out until the intervention is over.

          • http://twitter.com/waterwards dave stone

            Thanks for reply. Your comment re MOD being a subsidary of BAe Systems was, perhaps, a little too accurate for comfort.

            Whatever happens, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more military Keynesianism.

        • TomFairfax

          Just checked some figures from the RN’s website as an example of why root and branch reform of the MOD is needed.
          Currently we have 28 Admirals and 24 ships in the surface fleet. Not all of these are commissioned currently. (At Trafalgar, Collingwood and Nelson had 29 ships between them. It wasn’t a much different ratio at Jutland.)

          When the MOD was created in it’s modern form in 1964 the Armed forces were just under 420 000 strong. The current projections are for less than 150 000 in all services over the next few years.

          The lessons from the 1700’s onwards is that a lot of good ships is better than a smaller number of brilliant ones. Unfortunately now we have a small number of mediocre ones. The Darings cost three and four times the amount of the equivilent Aegis vessels used by the US and our other allies. But those Aegis ships went into service with functioning weapons systems.
          JM can talk until his blue in the face about what we need are forces to do, but it’s meaningless unless his prepared to give them the tools to do it when they are needed.

          We could arguably reduce expenditure and increase strength if the MOD wasn’ta subsidiary of BAe systems.
          The same applies to the RAF and the Army procurement. The fantastically expensive Typhoons were beaten in exercises held in Turkey recently by Pakistani airforce pilots flying 1980’s vintage F-16s.

          A progressive government should be working to sort the MOD out before even thinking of intervening anywhere, it just acts as an excuse not to sort things out until the intervention is over.

  • uglyfatbloke

    Tom Fairfax…what excellent contributions. You might like to have a look at ‘The Baroque Arsenal’ if you have n’t already read it.
    Dave Stone…of course Labour deserves better than Murphy, but look at the tradition of Labour Defence ministers; Healey was a disaster and Robertson was a wilful ignoramus; Murphy is really no worse than usual.

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