Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A new history of the 21st century

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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Greg Falconer

is a political risk consultant and former civil servant


  • Progressive? In the sense that imperialism is ever progressive? All makes sense from the World Establishment’s perspective, no doubt, or yours from a comfortable office on a fat salary, but not if you are at the bottom of the pile or want a better World not based on exploitation and war……and yes, 10 years on I am still angry at Blair over Iraq. You minimise deliberately the death toll in your article to hide the scale of the crime. You skirt over the untold and unseen misery, and even suggest that what we see in Iraq today is semi-democratic. What a low base you start from.

    Obama does look progressive set against the likes of Bush or Blair, perhaps, or Mitt – but that really isn’t saying very much, is it? When you write under the label ‘progressive’ I think it should come with a health warning.

  • The piece seems to miss the point – the use of the drones is not a problem because of the technology per se but because they are being used secretly and not as a clear part of a coherent foreign policy in the Middle East; also they are used in violation of national sovereignty (in Yemen, Sonalia, and Pakistan as well as Afghanistan) exemplifying a form of mission creep without any accountability at all. Certainly Labour should not be following this model, but should adopt a coherent and ethical foreign policy with clear objectives and a clear strategy for achieving them; foreign policy should lead military policy and not be effectively driven by it..

  • What you quaintly refer to as ‘Obama’s non-ideological approach’ is outside the rule of law, as far as the UK and ECHR are concerned, surely?

  • Falconer adds further confirmation – if any were needed – that even if ‘Progress’ has any meaning in domestic politics, it has no meaning whatsoever either in regard to international politics or indeed more generally in the mouths of adherents of ‘progress’. Widespread torture, mass murder of innocent civilians, nothing shocks Falconer or even gives him pause for thought as long as it is in the interest of – what? As in other Progresspersons’ commentaries, no recognizable or even intelligible criterion is advanced. Political, ideological and moral bankruptcy is their stock-in-trade; in Falconer’s case it is his boast.

  • No doubt Greg Falconer, William Hague and Jim Murphy, and perhaps Douglas Alexander (none exactly critics of the imperialist intervention in Libya) will point out how this latest outrage vindicates their policy, how it would have been even worse under Gaddhafi, how we must “stay the course”, press on to help the “Free Syrian Army” to murder even more of their prisoners, etc etc:

    Chris Stevens, 52, and three other American officials died as gunmen protesting over a film they say insults the Prophet Mohammed fired rocket-propelled grenades and set fire to the US compound.The Libyan doctor who treated Mr Stevens said he died of “severe asphyxia”, apparently from smoke inhalation, and tried for 90 minutes to revive him.Mr Obama said he “strongly condemned” the “outrageous and shocking” attack. “Make no mistake – justice will be done,” he added.Libya’s deputy prime minister Mustafa Abu Shagur also condemned the “cowardly” attack in a Twitter message. Speaking in Cairo, British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the assault as “brutal and senseless”.In Afghanistan, Taliban leaders called on Afghans to “take revenge” on American soldiers for the US-made, anti-Muslim film.Gunmen attacked the compound on Tuesday evening, clashing with Libyan security forces before the latter withdrew as they came under heavy fire.Reporters at the scene said they could see looters raiding the building, walking off with desks, chairs and washing machines.It followed an attack in the Egyptian capital Cairo, when protesters climbed the walls of the US embassy, tore down an American flag and burned it.The protests were sparked by outrage over a video being promoted on YouTube by extreme anti-Muslim groups in the US.Demonstrators say the $5m film, called The Innocence Of Muslims, insults the Prophet Mohammed. It apparently depicts him as a fraud, showing him having sex and calling for massacres.Sky’s Defence and Security Editor Sam Kiley said the attack was a “violent and systematic” reaction to the film which he described as an “amateurish production”.”I have watched 15 minutes of it. It is contemptible, idiotic and very crude, and deliberately rude about the Prophet Mohammed. It was deliberately intended to inflame exactly the sort of reaction that has come now,” he said.”The tragedy is of course is that it’s been successful. There are groups out in the Muslim world that rather than ignore this with the contempt that it is due, in my view, have been inflamed by it, or rumours of it.”Sam Bacile, the man behind the film, went into hiding on Tuesday. The 56-year-old property developer, who identifies himself as an Israeli Jew, said he produced, directed, and wrote the two-hour film.Speaking by phone to the Associated Press from an undisclosed location, he remained defiant, saying Islam is a “cancer”. He said he hoped his film would provoke reaction and expose what he described as Islam’s flaws to the world.Libyan officials said it remained unclear whether the two protests in Benghazi and Cairo had been co-ordinated.BENGHAZI WAS THE LAUNCHPAD OF LAST YEAR’S REVOLUTIONWHICH OVERTHREW COLONEL GADDAFI AND IS A SEAT OF ISLAMIST POLITICS IN LIBYA.

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