are we following the French into folly?
Guest article by ALASTAIR PAYNTER
“History does not repeat itself,” Mark Twain is reported to have said, “but it does rhyme.” When it comes to recent Anglo-French intervention in Africa, there is much rhyme, if little reason. On January 29th, the British government announced that 300 troops would be sent to the region in a strictly non-combat role. Of these, 40 could be deployed inside the troubled African country itself, while a further 200 are preparing to train troops from other African countries. There are already 70 military personnel there, operating a spy plane, while 20 RAF crew are aiding the transportation of French equipment.[i] Only a few weeks ago the British public was told that there was no risk of being drawn into another conflict and that our involvement was in a purely supply and transportation capacity, to help our Gallic neighbours in their effort to stanch the rise of Islamism in Mali. Now, it seems likely that British troops may be in the West African country for a year.[ii]
There is a great sense of déjà vu about this whole episode. It has only been a couple of years since Britain and France decided to intervene in the Libyan civil war and engaged in a campaign of air strikes targeting government forces. That campaign was relatively short-lived, but the consequences were not. The wiser observers of British foreign policy have already drawn attention to the salient fact that the current spate of terrorism and unrest in Africa might itself be down, in large part, to the destabilising effect of the earlier intervention in Libya. The Third World is becoming increasingly littered with the wreckage of Western intervention. It seems those in favour of military action rarely acknowledge that the problems the new intervention is supposed to counter were themselves the products of intervention.[iii]
Those who imagine that such foreign military adventures are short-lived and can be pre-determinately restricted to a short timetable by office-bound bureaucrats are deceiving themselves. The Afghanistan campaign began as a response to the atrocities of September 11th, 2001. Over a decade later, the mission still goes on, although its purpose seems to have altered over time, variously concerning itself with nation-building and preventing the resurgence of the Taliban, all the while propping up a highly corrupt and dysfunctional regime which will probably collapse soon after the eventual, inevitable Western withdrawal. The government has been warned about the likelihood of a similarly drawn-out campaign in Mali, some even suggesting that it could become “Britain’s Vietnam”.[iv]
The potential cost, both human and economic, should dissuade all but the most zealous interventionists from undergoing such a futile engagement. The British population at large has no desire to be drawn into yet another conflict, which despite the best persuasive efforts of its advocates, bears no real resemblance to recognisable British interests. The notion that perpetual peace can be obtained by engaging in perpetual war is a hard sell to voters whose faith in the wisdom of their government’s foreign policy is considerably less firm than it was little over a decade ago. In addition to this, the likely high economic cost is unthinkable, at a time of prolonged recession. There is nothing conservative about such military exertions. Indeed, as this writer has previously noted, the Conservative-led coalition’s foreign policy has been markedly un-conservative, both in its abandonment of a tangible national interest and its faith in the guidance of abstract principles.
One thing which does much to perpetuate a sense of unease about these interventions is the curious way in which pro-interventionist parties seem able to rapidly acquire intimate knowledge of an region of which most surely knew nothing previously. Ministers and shadow ministers speak gravely of the threat from Islamists in this area and that area, the need to aid fellow Western powers in their security missions and the necessity of providing support to our allies in the region. Rarely does anyone in such realms of decision-making authority seem to pause and admit with all candour that their knowledge of Mali is limited. Few people could probably even locate it on a map, let alone hope to explain its internal dynamics, and cultural and social machinery. Perhaps the most famous place in Mali, Timbuktu, is itself a byword for the exotic and mysterious. It was, after all, a place shut off to Western eyes for much of history, until 1828 when the French explorer René Caillié became the first European to enter, and then return alive.
For their part, the French appear to have embarked upon a completely different course of action to the one they chose ten years ago when their refusal to embroil themselves in the Iraqi escapade made them the brunt of a bout of neoconservative fury in the United States, when choice champagne was unceremoniously poured into the street and French fries became known as “freedom fries”.[v] Sarkozy’s elevation to power marked a change in French foreign policy. Not wanting to be seen sitting on the sidelines when there was glory to be gained in the War on Terror, his efforts helped warm the relationship between Paris and Washington. In 2011, it was France which led the calls for intervention in Libya and since pressed for action in Syria. It now falls to his successor, the Socialist François Hollande, to demonstrate his tough foreign policy credentials. It is probable that the timing of the action in Mali was useful to bolster his image as a tough leader, firmly committed to the preservation and protection of French interests. Of course, his concern for actual French interests has proven highly doubtful in the mind of many, following on the back of an attempt to introduce a spiteful 75% tax rate on France’s top earners, a move which re-emphasises the general socialistic contempt for individual achievement and its institutionalisation of collectivist greed and envy.
The transition to a more militaristic French foreign policy may have allayed the erstwhile doubts of some of their English-speaking allies. The contempt that is quite common in the Anglosphere for French military ability, manifested mostly in playful banter about white flags and dropped weapons, but more seriously in 2003 around the time of the invasion of Iraq, is misplaced. France has a very long and impressive martial record, and considerable experience in West Africa. The New Imperialism of the late 19th century witnessed France’s acquisition of a sizeable portion of Africa, its empire second only to Britain in its reach and influence. The problems of that ailing continent are surely not analysable apart from reference to the fateful Berlin Conference of 1885. The effects of that monumentally arrogant exercise in colonial diplomacy are clearly evident in a brief glance at a map of Africa – the rigid, almost mathematical boundaries drawn up by the European powers seemingly oblivious to the cultural and ethnic borders already existent.
Unfortunately, the same disregard for local realities seems to live on in the mind of the policy makers of today. The British government may imagine that by involving itself in another far-flung conflict, it can gain a glorious swift victory and bask in the resulting adulation. The reality will probably be different. It is one of the unfortunate by-products of the democratic age, that there is a complete separation between those who make the decision to go to war and those who actually fight it. Once, kings and nobles made war but they also rode off at the head of their troops, knowing well that the price of defeat could mean an untimely and unpleasant end (in the case of Richard III ending up buried underneath a council car park). In our modern age, politicians who decide to go to war, do so knowing that they will never be accountable in quite the same way, and, should the conflict endure longer than initially planned, be able to pass responsibility to their successors after the election.[vi]
Of course, at the time of committal, prolonged and costly interventions are not usually expected by the protagonists. The risk of not heeding the warnings should be too perilous not to consider. Rather than persist in this present course of action, the government should reverse its present policy and avoid an unnecessary expenditure in blood and treasure. At the very least, they should be subjected to serious, probing questioning in Parliament. Whether the French decide to persist or not is a matter for discussion in France. Britain, however, should not follow them into further folly.
ALASTAIR PAYNTER is a Masters graduate in history
[i] “More than 300 UK troops set for Mali mission” in Telegraph Online, January 29th, 2013 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/mali/9834115/More-than-300-UK-troops-set-for-Mali-mission.html
[ii] “British troops could be in Mali for longer than a year”, in Telegraph Online, January 31st, 2013 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/9839771/British-troops-could-be-in-Mali-for-longer-than-a-year.html
[iii] “Blair backs intervention in Mali” in FT.com, February 3rd, 2013
[iv] “Mali Mission could become Britain’s Vietnam” in Telegraph Online, January 29th, 2013 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/mali/9834558/Mali-mission-could-become-Britains-Vietnam.html
[vi] For a scholarly evaluation of the respective attitudes to war in monarchies and democracies, particularly with respect to time preference, see the extensive work of Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe