International Moral Leadership

20 Feb 2014

Last month the Guardian reported that the Ministry of Defence has rejected any ‘Afghanistan/Iraq-repeat-military-invasions’ due to the multicultural society in Britain and its war-weariness. While I am a strong advocate of diplomacy to resolve international crises, I see this as a sad reflection of our moral compass. I’m a pacifist with a strong exception; I am of the strong belief that liberal interventionism is justified when it is used to free an oppressed people. The term ‘liberal interventionism’ has lost credibility in Britain thanks to its main propagator – Tony Blair. So there’s no misunderstanding, the intention of this article is not to vindicate the foreign policy of New Labour’s leader, rather the principle of liberal interventionism, or if that term still causes too much offence, ‘military emancipation’. When we think of British foreign intervention, immediately minds race to Iraq and Afghanistan, but we forget the prior successes of Kosovo and Sierra Leone. We also discount the achievements of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the dangers of non-engagement.


Often forgotten is that by intervening in Kosovo, Britain was able to emancipate the people of Kosovo from the ethnic cleansing being undertaken by the tyrannical Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic’s persecution of ethnic Albanians was a moral aberration, and it was Blair’s practise of liberal interventionism, backing NATO’s military action, that led to their safety and freedom. A little known fact is that one of the most common names for new-born boys in Kosovo after 1999 was ‘Tonibler’ after the Prime Minister who had the courage to back military action, who dared to stand up to injustice and put his reputation on the line in order to free an oppressed people from a foreign land. This is a prime example of when military intervention was both necessary and justified.

Images of Iraq and Afghanistan also cloud the national consciousness and memory when considering the British role in the Sierra Leone Civil War. Motivated by reports of child amputees and a sentimental colonial attachment, it was the interventionist British leader who overcame American opposition and forced the hand of the UN into its biggest peacekeeping mission in years. This was followed up by Britain taking lead of the mission and effectively taking temporary control of the country. The deployment of British troops was the largest since the Falklands, and a popular criticism at the time was that Parliament didn’t get a say. Describing the mission as an exercise in military diplomacy, Blair advocated the evacuation of foreign nationals, the training and logistical assistance of government forces, and even the capture of the main rebel leader Foday Sankoh, forcing the retreat of the Revolutionary United Front. While the nature of this military action was domestically undemocratic, it did much to boost Britain’s international reputation as a protector of human rights, and represents another moral intervention where Britain refusing to stand by in the face of injustice saved lives.

When studying the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the story is of course very different, as both were motivated by self-interest. Afghanistan was in direct response to the September 11th attacks in America, which Blair described as an attack on the west and “our way of life”. The war in Afghanistan was not a form of liberal interventionism and should not be labelled as such. The only argument one could place in favour of it being one, is to claim the war aimed to emancipate the people of Afghanistan from the severe Taliban rule; however this doesn’t stand up when one looks at the likes of Zimbabwe where no action was taken against Mugabe. Afghanistan was a war on terror, a war to capture Osama bin Laden and punish his harbourers, and a war to show the west would not quiver in the face of terrorism. It was a hawk-led campaign pushed for by America and hastily embraced by Blair not for liberal or moral reasons, but likely for vengeful or at least Atlantiscist reasons. By entering Britain into the Afghan war, Blair unwittingly provided terrorism with a new western target. He also allowed British intelligence and military operatives to discredit our international moral outlook by taking part in glorious rendition, torture, and unethical methods of imprisonment. Afghanistan, necessary or not, was anything but a form of liberal interventionism, so should not discredit that form of warfare.

The origins of Iraq meanwhile are well-documented. Blair tried to claim it was another form of liberal intervention; that Saddam was a tyrant and needed toppling for the sake of his people. It’s little wonder that the term ‘liberal intervention’ lacks credibility when Blair tried to associate the most illiberal of wars with it. The real reasons for military action came from America; Bush wanted revenge on Saddam for the attempt on his father’s life. Saddam had been an embarrassment to America ever since they’d put him there, they saw a chance to link him to terrorism, and Cheney saw dollar signs due to the oil-rich nature of the region. Blair followed suit on flimsy intelligence about WMDs. In fairness, Intel did suggest Saddam was developing chemical weapons, but that Libya, Iran and North Korea were much bigger nuclear threats. Ever since the close relationship with Clinton, where together British and American leaders were able to advance the Northern Ireland peace process and free Kosovo, Blair held the ‘special relationship’ with America on a pedestal, and believed a great rift between the countries would emerge if he didn’t stay loyal now. Consequently, Blair effectively made himself a war criminal by impeding national sovereignty without UN backing. Iraq was not a war of military emancipation, it was an extension of the war on terror, on the axis of evil, and of bilateral US-UK military strong-arming.

Nonetheless, while not liberal interventions, the Afghan and Iraq wars have had some success. While taking heavy tolls on soldiers and civilians, the Iraq war has inadvertently emancipated Iraqis from a tyrannical government. A 2004 BBC poll suggested 57% of Iraqis thought their lives were better now that Hussein was gone. Also, the Taliban no longer rule Afghanistan, Karzai leads until the next democratic elections, and troops are leaving. Whether these achievements make up for the catastrophic loss of life, insurgency attacks, Guantanamo Bay mistreatments and breach of international law is down to the eyes of the beholder. I would lean towards no. However, as discussed, neither of these wars can be dubbed ‘liberal intervention’. Libya on the other hand can. Britain’s role in providing air support to topple Gaddafi freed the people of Libya from the dictator who was closely associated with the worst terrorist atrocities of the pre-9/11 era. Even France’s intervention in Mali to remove extremist rebel forces, while perhaps again due to a colonial attachment, succeeded in freeing the oppressed locals from enforced sharia law. 

So if liberal interventionism has proven successful, emancipating and morally justified, why didn’t we intervene early in Syria? Some argue it was due to the extremist influences within the opposition, others the war-weariness of Britain and the legacy of Iraq. Either way, we have let our Middle-Eastern military campaigns overshadow morally justified forms of intervention elsewhere. If we continue to be blinded by our unjust wars, we shall never stand up for a just cause on the global stage again. How can we reject intervention without considering the victims of non-engagement? If our leaders turned their guns on us tomorrow, would we not beg for international liberation? We must reattach ourselves to the principle of military emancipation. We must reclaim the moral high ground and once again become a shining light of human rights defence. We must show international moral leadership once again and denounce tyranny and oppression wherever it lies. If not, British foreign policy will go down as a footnote in history, and our national moral compass will erode beyond retrieval.

By Nathan Phillips

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