By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Monday, May 8 2017
The U.K. House of Lords has been dubbed the Bermuda Triangle of British politics. It’s where elderly or unwanted politicians are sent by their party leaders to disappear and be forgotten about.
For the Lords is the largely toothless second chamber of the U.K. Parliament. Its members are unelected. Around 10 percent are so-called hereditary peers, those who sit in the chamber courtesy of the historical deeds of their ancestors. The other 90 percent are political appointees; some are rich political donors, but most are former government officials, who on elevation to the House of Lords get a grand title, a robe made from rabbit fur, and a $400 a day attendance allowance (plus expenses). Nice work if you can get it.
And part of that nice work caused a minor stir last week when the House of Lords International Relations Select Committee published a report calling for an overhaul of U.K. policy in the Middle East. The gist of the peers’ report was that the U.K. must end its slavish reliance on U.S. leadership in the region.
Now you could be forgiven for thinking there hasn’t been much in the way of U.S. leadership in the region over the last decade. But it’s correct to say the U.K. has happily fallen in line with Washington’s indolence.
However, lest there be any doubt, the Lords singled out the “mercurial and unpredictable” nature of current U.S. President Donald Trump, whom it warned “has the potential to destabilize further the region,” rather than the laconic foreign policy of Barack Obama.
On Iran, where Trump has vowed to rip up the deal Obama struck with Tehran over its nuclear program (although he has taken no action to do so), and the Israel-Palestine situation, where the president has effectively abandoned the long-standing, but largely meaningless, U.S. commitment to a twostate solution, the report said: “The U.S. president has taken positions that are unconstructive and could even escalate conflict.”
The committee’s chairman, Lord Howell, said: “In a world less automatically dominated by the U.S. underpinning security in the region, it is no longer right to have a stance at every stage of ‘If we just get on with the U.S. everything will be alright.’”
Fine words. However, in the post-Brexit world U.K. policy in just about every sphere, from foreign policy and especially international trade, is entirely focused on getting on with the U.S., even, as we have seen, a U.S. led by the “mercurial and unpredictable” Trump.
Indeed, Howell, a former foreign policy adviser to ex-Prime Minister David Cameron, appeared blissfully oblivious to the reality of Brexit as he insisted the U.K. distance itself from Trump’s “destabilizing postures” in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. He instead called on the U.K. to play an active role in European diplomacy to solve the conflict. Come again? Whatever influence the U.K. has in European diplomacy is diminishing on a daily basis. Last week Prime Minister Theresa May accused European politicians of making “threats” against the U.K. in a bid to influence the country’s general election, which takes place in June.
A few days after May’s broadside, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was speaking in a conference in Florence. He began his speech in English but switched to French, because, he told the audience, “Slowly but surely, English is losing importance in Europe.” He then accused the U.K. of “abandoning the EU.”
Far from helping drive Europe’s international diplomacy, the U.K. is hurtling toward Washington at a rate of knots, regardless of Trump’s policies on NATO or anything else.
To borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton, it’s the economy stupid, and as the U.K. exits the largest single market in the world it is desperate to secure a trade deal with the largest economy in the world (in nominal GDP terms).
Indeed, the U.K.’s efforts to ingratiate itself with Washington are becoming ever more desperate. Kicking off the election campaign last month Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the government could join any future U.S. military action against Syria without parliamentary approval. He added it would be “very difficult to say no” if Trump asked for help.
Moreover, it is worth pointing out that while the peers fired several broadsides at Trump’s “destabilizing” impact on the Middle East they studiously avoided discussing the disruptive role of some of the committee’s members in the region.
Howell himself was a cheerleader for the 2011 “intervention lite” in Libya, which failed to put boots on the ground following the overthrow of Col. Moammar Gadhafi and created the vacuum that is filled today by the bloody chaos of myriad murderous militias. Baroness Helic, another member of the committee, was also an adviser to the Cameron government during the Libyan intervention.
The most famous member of the committee though is Lord Reid of Cardowan, better known as John Reid, the combative former U.K. defense secretary under Tony Blair. At the time of the invasion of Afghanistan Reid famously opined British troops might be able to carry out their mission without actually having to fight the Taliban. Later he was a vocal cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq, the event that is arguably at the root of most of what ills the Middle East today.
For Trump’s critics, his two big interventions in the region – the decision last month to drop the “Mother of All Bombs” on suspected Daesh (ISIS) fighters in eastern Afghanistan – rather than targeting the Taliban – and his missile strike against Syria, reinforces the “mercurial and unpredictable” nature of the president.
It would be wonderful if Trump’s airstrike on President Bashar Assad represented the start of a proper U.S. engagement with the region, but it doesn’t. It’s simply a cheap expression of moral outrage. Assad remains free to use more conventional weapons to murder many more defenseless Syrian men, women and children.
But one can argue that Trump did at least show both the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers that there is a limit to how much barbarism the West will tolerate. Maybe it’s not worth much applause, but it hardly warrants condemnation. After a decade of Western inertia, it has not made the situation in Syria any worse.
Where the peers did hit the right notes were in their criticism of the U.K.’s policy on Syria, which the report said was characterized by “confusion and disarray.” Sadly it offered no solutions, beyond a bland statement that “lessons of intervention, or nonintervention, in Iraq, Libya and Syria must be thoroughly learnt.”
The peers’ call for the U.K. to give “serious consideration” to recognizing Palestine as a state in order to boost the Middle East peace process is laudable, but again highly unlikely in the post-Brexit political landscape.
The peers also called for the government to take a tougher line with Saudi Arabia over its actions in Yemen, including the possibility of suspending some arms exports to the kingdom. That will certainly go down well with Trump. Washington is in talks with Saudi Arabia about tens of billions of dollars worth of new arms deals as Trump seeks to honor his election pledge to boost U.S. manufacturing.
On the whole, this report is proof of the great 19th-century journalist Walter Bagehot’s maxim: “The cure for admiring the House of Lords was to go and look at it.”
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in the United Kingdom. A version of this article appeared in The Daily Star on Monday May 8 2017.