Indulge me, if you will, in a thought experiment. Imagine your memory of the past 15 years has been erased, and you are learning about 21st century geopolitics for the first time.
In your history book there are two American presidents with different foreign policy approaches.
The first conducted a covert war, striking at his enemies from afar using semi-automated flying machines. He paid little attention to international norms and state sovereignty, and under his campaign civilians were often killed as collateral damage.
The implications of the strikes were far-reaching, not least for countries in the firing line where political instability grew and the US was viewed with increasing opprobrium. The president’s actions risked the emergence of a new generation of radicalised terrorists and triggered an arms race as world powers developed their own pilotless bombers. The nature of warfare was irreversibly changed as the campaign could be waged indefinitely, without pause.
The second American president launched a regular, overt war against a tyrannical leader who (it was thought) held stocks of devastating weapons he had proven willing to use in the past and had habitually hidden from international observers. After trying and failing to build international consensus at the UN, the president led his country, along with a handful of allies, in a short war against the tyrant, destroying his military threat within a few weeks.
Despite the war unleashing a devastating insurgency and latent sectarian strife, with thousands of civilians killed, the invaded country eventually became a semi-functioning democracy, though significant problems remain to this day.
Which president do you think was celebrated and admired? Which one was vilified and seen as a callous warmonger?
Not the one you might think.
Of course, both of these presidents are very real: President Obama, whose use of unmanned aerial vehicles to strike at terrorist suspects has come to define his first term’s foreign policy*; and President George W Bush, whose Iraq war has been regularly cited among Washington’s greatest military misadventures.
While the Iraq war is still widely condemned, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu even calling for Tony Blair to face trial, Obama’s drone campaign is tolerated, even celebrated. Back in February, eight out of 10 Americans approved of his use of UAVs in a Washington Post-ABC poll. Despite misgivings from certain quarters there has been no large-scale opposition on either side of the Atlantic. The Stop the War Coalition has flirted with anti-drone protests, but the venom of the Bush era has not materialised.
Commentators are undecided: some op-eds spit rage at Obama’s supposed callousness, while others praise unmanned-aerial vehicles as the cheap, bloodless (for the protagonist at least) future of international intervention.
For advocates of a progressive foreign policy, this ambiguity feels unnatural. We are used to Manichean debates about war and peace, good and evil, Bush versus everyone else. What are we supposed to think about ethically confusing automated air strikes that have broad-based domestic support and (at least in the short-term) seem to work?
As Labour develops its vision for the future of British internationalism, we are going to have to get used to this ambiguity. In an era of constrained budgets, overstretched armed forces and war-weary electorates, old certainties around intervention and moral purpose will be increasingly difficult to pin down.
What is clear is that we will need to put visceral opposition to particular policies to one side and develop a foreign policy framework that is able to achieve broad-based support. Obama’s drone campaign, for all its faults, meets this criterion.
The worst thing for Labour would be to back itself into a corner in an attempt to exorcise Iraq demons, or to cast aside potential policy approaches before assessing the broader landscape. Obama’s non-ideological approach to safeguarding US security has largely taken foreign policy off the table in November’s election – a rarity for a progressive candidate. Labour should take note.
*Though the use of UAVs began under Bush, Obama considerably increased the number and scope of such operations and has incorporated drone strikes into a broader counterterrorism strategy
Greg Falconer is a foreign policy expert and Progress contributor. He tweets at @gregfalconer
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