Julia Hartley-Brewer

Ed Miliband should be careful when discussing foreign policy errors

Ed Miliband should be careful when discussing foreign policy errors
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If someone accuses you of doing something that you haven’t done, there’s a really easy way of convincing them that you are not in fact guilty. The first thing you can do is deny the accusation. Very clearly, emphatically and categorically. Let me give you an example taken completely at random:

'Are you accusing David Cameron of being personally to blame for the refugee crisis in Libya and hence the deaths of hundreds of desperate people in the Mediterranean?'

Now, can anyone think of a good way of answering that question which would be unequivocal and make it clear beyond any doubt whatsoever that this is not in fact what you are doing? One suggestion might be to say something roughly along the lines of this:

'No, I am not.'

See, it’s really easy. And yet for some bizarre reason the Labour leader Ed Miliband, when asked a similar question after his foreign policy speech this morning, chose not to go down the unequivocal route but instead to take the long and winding road of obfuscation and misdirection.

His actual response was to accuse the Conservatives of trying to 'whip up a storm' and said his position was 'absolutely clear', adding:

'As far as what is happening with the tragic scenes of people drowning in the Mediterranean, that is the result of the people traffickers.

'But nobody can disagree with the idea that the failure of post-conflict planning has been responsible for some of the situation we see in Libya and indeed people then fleeing.'

This came after his shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander had toured the TV and radio studios all morning to deny that Miliband was accusing Cameron of anything remotely connected to having 'blood on his hands'.

Yet, when given the opportunity, on camera, Miliband quite deliberately and blatantly refused to make that denial himself. Which suggests that he wanted everyone to think he had made the accusation but wasn’t quite willing to go so far as to actually make the accusation himself. Which is a strange state of affairs. But not when you consider how one of Miliband’s closest aides justified it to me, with the words: 'We got into the papers, didn’t we?'

What the Labour leader had said in his speech to the Chatham House thinktank in London was rather less incendiary than the papers had suggested:

'David Cameron was wrong to assume that Libya's was a country whose institutions could be left to evolve and transform on their own. The tragedy is that this could have been anticipated. It should have been avoided.'

'And Britain could have played its part in ensuring the international community stood by the people of Libya in practice rather than standing behind the unfounded hopes of potential progress only in principle.'

So where on earth did the nasty tabloid right-wing press (I’m paraphrasing) come up with the notion that Miliband was directly pinning the blame for those hundreds of tragic deaths on the Prime Minister?

This came in the form of a briefing note released by Labour ahead of the speech which suggested (according to the BBC) that Miliband would say the refugee crisis and tragic scenes in the Mediterranean are in part a direct result of the failure of post-conflict planning for Libya.

Now, this is not a party-political point. There are questions to answer about the foreign policy decisions of not only this coalition government over the past five years , but also the last Labour government, both over the decisions to act and those to not act. And there’s the rub.

Because it’s all very well for Miliband to criticise Cameron for backing the EU’s decision last year to end the funding for the search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean. I myself went on the radio at the time to publicly criticise the decision as immoral and self-defeating. But, as the Tories have been at pains to point out today, if the plight of the Libyan people and the failure of their state has been such a pressing concern for Miliband all these years, why has he chosen to raise the issue with the Prime Minister precisely, well, never before?

It’s easy to judge foreign policy decisions in hindsight, but if Miliband honestly believe that inaction is as morally culpable as action, then perhaps he should take a long hard look at his own decisions before criticising those of others.

After all, if Cameron is partly to blame for the failure of the Libyan state and the refugee crisis that exists today (and there may well be an argument for that), then on the very same basis, isn’t Miliband partly to blame for the crisis in Syria and the many millions of refugees forced to flee that country because of the abject failure of the West to act against President Assad?

Who was it who blocked the British government’s 2013 bid to join with the US in bombing the Syrian government forces who were massacring their own people? Step forward, one Ed Miliband. Indeed it was Miliband himself, during his first big campaign leadership interview with Jeremy Paxman, who chose to highlight the Syria vote as the best proof of his suitability to be Prime Minister, when he led Labour and other MPs to vote down the government’s plan for military action.

Some 200,000 or more Syrians have died and millions more have been forced to flee the country to refugee camps – and some to lawless Libya where they pay people traffickers to put them on a boat to Europe.  Could that 'tragedy', like the one in Libya, have been 'anticipated' and possibly 'avoided', to use Milband’s own words?

It may well be the case that western military action in 2013 might have turned the tide for the Syrian government and, in doing what he did, Miliband may have cost many more innocent Syrian lives. But we will never know because that is the nature of foreign policy decisions.

If Miliband believes Cameron is to blame for what’s happened in Libya and the subsequent loss of life, then he should say so clearly and unequivocally, and not hide behind Labour briefing notes. And if he believes political leaders should be held accountable for their foreign policy decisions then he may find he has rather more blood on his own hands.