Regular readers of this site will know that the way the argument for our continued engagement in Afghanistan is framed is something of an obsession of mine. The assumption that we are incapable of grasping strategic concepts except through the prism of ethics is one of the most frustrating aspects of the whole debate. So you can imagine my response when I read the latest offering from Bronwen Maddox in The Times this morning. Chief Foreign Commentator of The Times is a position of considerable influence. Maddox has access to privileged information and an extensive network of contacts. Her position affords her considerable opportunity to shape the debate. It also carries with it a responsibility to ensure that readers are reliably informed about major aspects of policy. That is why this morning’s piece was so disappointing. Instead of setting out the main national interest arguments in support of the mission, she begins with a perfunctory nod to what she calls the 'new realism' before arguing that we should place women's rights at the centre of our approach.
We are given no reasons why. These are left unstated, as though the argument needs no further elaboration, as though the case is so self evident that no further proof is required. Instead, she makes a direct appeal to what she imagines to be our shared ethical intutions. The problem is that this kind of fleeting emotional attachment is no basis on which to build a long-range foreign policy. Emotional commitments of this sort are far too unstable. They dissipate over time and they are always vulnerable to competing claims on our affections and our attention. So we need a much more durable foundation.
The key is to develop an overarching concept of the national interest. Luckily, that is precisely what we have. Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander delivered a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace setting out the main features of the new approach just last week, this following Foreign Secretary David Miliband's recent speech (pdf) at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. Combined with recent announcements by Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth, this amounts to a concerted effort by the government to sell the new policy. Now, Bronwen Maddox is no foreign policy neophyte. She will have listened to the debate, absorbed the arguments and be fully aware of the strategic significance of the humanitarian and development effort. So why does she not articulate it? Discussion of the national security aspect of policy is entirely missing from her piece. She makes no national interest argument for women’s rights, no attempt to place the effort to educate girls in a wider strategic framework and no attempt to relate the humanitarian effort to higher strategic objectives. There is no acknowledgement of the connecting threads that link what happens to women and girls in Afghanistan to the British national interest, and no attempt to get beyond the moral argument.
Instead, we are treated to an extended discourse on the horrors of life in Afghanistan for women and girls. This is all admirable and worthy stuff, but we are essentially being invited to empathise, not intellectualise, and that is something I find astonishing. Not only does this kind of emotional discourse have an infantilising effect on the public - the assumption being that we are incapable of grasping complex strategic arguments - the failure to develop the argument beyond these basic moral categories is hopelessly counterproductive. At a time of heightened public concern, and considerable confusion about the purpose of the mission, it is important that the strongest possible case is made for our involvement there, and of all the arguments in support of the mission in Afghanistan, the humanitarian one is the weakest. There are a set of solid strategic arguments for our presence in Afghanistan, and they need to be laid out before the public with precision and focus. Maddox simply fails to do this and so one is left wondering just who this article is designed to convince.
It will certainly not carry any weight with foreign policy professionals. Policy professionals do not talk to each other in these terms. Though they acknowledge that there is a moral dimension to policy, for them morality is never the driver of policy. Only when the debate is opened up to the wider public do strategic arguments give way to moral ones. In part, this is an indicator of just how devalued the concept of the national interest has become. There is a real reticence on the part of elites to frame the argument in national interest terms, as though pursuing the national interest is somehow illegitimate. This must be overcome. We need to purge the debate of this sort of moralism, get beyond ethics and place the national interest back at the centre of foreign policy. We are urged always to recognise that other powers have legitimate interests and to consider these when formulating policy. The flipside of this argument, of course, is that the West too has legitimate interests and it is right and proper for it to pursue them. With that in mind, the appropriate response when justifing our presence in Afghanistan is to set out the national interest argument often, with conviction and without apology.
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