What on earth? USA/UK foreign policy and domestic politics

The war in Iraq was a very significant historical event. Who went to war with Iraq? Well, if you had to narrow it down to two people: Tony Blair and George W. Bush. But they had a lot of political backing. For our purposes keep in mind that both Hillary Clinton and David Cameron—prime minister of the United Kingdom from 2010 to 2016—voted to support the war early in their political careers. Clinton voted as a US senator and Cameron as a member of parliament.

After the USA invaded Iraq it descended into sectarian conflict. Despite the Iraq experience though, in 2012 the same type of people—lets keep following Cameron and Clinton as significant representative characters—thought they had the answers for Libya. Cameron—at this point PM of the UK—was particularly eager to get involved and Hillary Clinton— oversaw the USA’s participation as Obama’s Secretary of State.

But Libya turned out badly as well. Muammar Gaddafi—Libya’s longtime strongman leader—was killed and an anarchic division of the country followed. The situation hasn’t yet been as violent as Iraq, but the basic picture of outside intervention creating a power vacuum is the same.

Crucially for the purpose of this essay, post-intervention Libya—a North African country on the coast of the Mediterranean—became a staging point for desperate people from all over Africa and the Middle East to attempt passage to Europe by boat. This so called “migrant crisis” would come back to haunt both Cameron and Clinton. In addition, it’s said that the intervention in Libya greatly angered Vladimir Putin, deepening the chasm between Russia’s leader and the Western political elite.

Now we’re back to 2013 and ISIS hits the scene, at least in terms of Western attention. Remember those guys? ISIS itself—with its media savvy, brutal stunts and worldwide recruiting base—was a disturbing precedent, and cause for much apocalyptic handwringing at the time. ISIS was a creature bred by the invasion of Iraq mind you—only the hell of war could create an absurd monster like ISIS. Specifically and tellingly, the leadership of ISIS coalesced in a US army jail.

That brings us to Syria. It was a complicated situation—and genuinely beyond my understanding at this time—but in 2013-2014 ISIS, Syria and Iraq were one sprawling disaster. In the USA and UK there was a huge debate about what to do. David Cameron wanted to get heavily involved but was held back by “backbench” Conservative MPs who voted against him after a dramatic parliamentary debate. Interestingly, some parts of the right-wing media like the influential tabloid Daily Mail also sided against Cameron.

In the USA there was a similar thing happening. Republicans like John McCain hosted “townhalls” where they were shouted down by old white conservative guys who didn’t want another foreign entanglement. In both countries it was the “moderate” political establishment—people like Cameron, Clinton and McCain—facing anti-war opposition from a pacifist left and an isolationist right.

Back to Syria itself. Bashar al-Assad—who is still president—got crucial support from Vladimir Putin. Putin’s intervention in Syria stabilized the country and kept Assad in power. With Syria, Putin got a sneaky upper hand on the Western political establishment—undoubtedly a historic moment. The unhinged debate about whether or not Assad used chemical weapons can certainly be seen in light of Iraq’s non-existent WMD’s.

That brings us to 2016—a year when countless chickens came home to roost. The “migrant crisis” peaked in 2015 and—if you take a long comprehensive view—was fueled by Syria, Libya and Iraq. David Cameron was forced to be very defensive about the UK’s open borders within the EU as the “Remain” leader during the 2016 Brexit battle. Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban” was a theatrical response to this same context of public perception.

During a Republican primary debate in South Carolina Trump trashed none other than Jeb Bush—brother of the original Iraq invasion guy—by breaking the longstanding “taboo” in the Republican Party on questioning the whole Iraq episode. It was a brilliant move. Remember those old white guys who yelled at John McCain about Syria? Trump was just echoing them. And who did Trump go on to beat? Hillary Clinton of course—she of Libya and Iraq.

In the UK the same political forces that defeated David Cameron over Syria—backbench conservative MPs and right-wing tabloids—made his life hell during the Brexit debate, eventually retiring him. Even Tony Blair returned to the political scene in the context of Brexit and offered up sage commentary about the “migrant crisis” and its contribution to public feeling. Thanks Tony!

The whole story has a slightly uncanny feel to it. Figures like Cameron and Clinton did lots to bring about the political context that would eventually dispose them. The debate over intervention in Syria is particularly informative in hindsight as it immediately foreshadowed Donald Trump’s appeal and Brexit.

The politics of foreign policy over the last twenty years seem to have been coloured by a weird “triple game” wherein the Anglo political establishment created chaos “out there” in the world—with consequences increasingly encroaching on the “over here”—all the while offering themselves as the “moderate” response to that same instability.

Chris Bickerton on Technocracy

  • How do you define technocracy? It means different things to different people but the consensus core is “rule by experts.”
  • Plato is often cited, Plato rejected the distinction between polis/politics and what the ancient Greeks called oikos/household. Plato said that we can think about them in the same way because both are a matter of craft/skill. “Philosopher king” rulers have that capacity, combining expertise and power.
  • From the end of the 19th century into the 20th century “technocracy” is associated with modern technology, engineers, and technological developments. It’s a movement within modernization with engineers and technical know-how at the center.
  • Is technocracy opposed to democracy? The Platonic conception is opposed to democracy. In Plato’s formulation specialists should rule over others. Closer to the current day it’s more complicated.
  • Silicon Valley boosterism is a form of post-political technocracy but that’s not the main notion of technocracy at work today.
  • People tend not to go so far as saying it’s an alternative but rather a compliment to democracy with the aim to identify realms best staffed by experts.
  • It’s accepted that central banks are the domain of the experts, ie. a legitimate realm for the technocrat.
  • But who decides? In many cases it’s technocrats themselves, the state or outside experts.
  • At one time pre-2008 there was consensus in economics on models for policy makers. Economists were vested with independent technocratic power for this reason.
  • If there is consensus it becomes easy for politicians to say “let’s hand it over to the experts.” When there isn’t consensus the technocratic model breaks down.
  • If there isn’t a consensus view the technocratic model breaks down—even in terms of appointments—and the situation is back in the realm of political debate.
  • The more leftwing economics vision—Keynes and skepticism of the price system—lost out in the late 20th century and the outcome was consensus.
  • In the UK politicians have left decisions like quantitative easing to the Bank of England. Politicians are happy to foist responsibility onto the BoE where there is ambiguity about who should act.
  • Some politicians see themselves as technocrats.
  • The emphasis on “competence” and the “CV” demonstrate a technocratic element in UK politics.
  • Tony Blair said “my ideology is what works.”
  • The above is a technocratic statement because it’s an either/or frame that doesn’t acknowledge another view. The other more democratic position is that views represent different values. More recently the values view has given way to right or wrong and right or wrong turn in politics is dangerous.
  • The Micheal Gove statement “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts” was against the notion that claims to expertise should be decisive.
  • Trump is a populist but a clear “what works” person. His supporters used a “plumbing” metaphor. Trump emphasizes “my business has been successful” etc.
  • There is a wonkish side to the technocratic view of politics as opposed a deal making or populist political strain in the current day but they are opposed to the same thing.
  • Both views oppose the sclerotic political class, excessive partisanship, interest groups, rent seeking etc.
  • If you accept that technocracy doesn’t want to replace democracy then it’s in a weak position vs. populism as populism has a democratic mandate.
  • There haven’t been many technocratic governments in Europe since WW2.
  • Macron is technocratic. In terms of what he says, his great emphasis on expertise, how he has brought state administration into his office and the fact that he came to power without much of a party structure. His party En Marche is new and top down. Macron is an “I get things done” or “what works” person. A “voice of people” who are tired of French politics.
  • Is technocracy straight-forwardly opposed to politics? Yes. Party politics is not premised on a right or wrong answer. There is an in-built relativism with party politics.
  • The sense of right and wrong is really important to the technocratic view.
  • Is the current Chinese political system basically technocratic? There is no democratic political competition and party rule rests on a claim of “what works” ie. market economy and prosperity.
  • The problem when legitimacy rests on “what works” is what happens when it stops working? In a democracy if something doesn’t work the system isn’t challenged you just vote the party out.
  • Who are the technocrats in Britain today? The UK is a front runner in terms of the “regulatory state” ie. investing power in independent institutions. The element of technocracy in British politics is shown in the competence/CV view.
  • The British state as a whole over the last 30 years has increasingly oriented to institutions run by experts. This trend is very powerful and present in UK politics and undermines what people think parliament can do. That said, increasingly people are questioning this tendency.

France vs. England in the 14th Century (the Estates vs. Parliament)

Quoted from The Age of Adversity by Robert E. Lerner

“There are many reasons why the history of the Estates is so strikingly different from that of Parliament. The fact that the Estates were normally called only in major crises made them appear more revolutionary than constitutional and thus alienated the large majority of their potential supporters. Furthermore, the French were more deeply divided than the English not only by class but also by local loyalties. Both the use of free farmers, or yeomen, in the army and the fact that the lesser nobles or knights sat as county representatives alongside the burgesses in the House of Commons are cited as examples of social integration in England that could not be matched in France. There the peasants were rigorously excluded from any but servile occupations and the townspeople were considered social inferiors and political rivals by the nobles. To this social prejudice must be added the fact that provincial loyalties were often stronger than those to the monarchy and that the interests of the northern and southern halves of the country were frequently quite disparate. As a result, the establishment of a unified constitutional opposition was extremely difficult; and the very failure of the Estates, at least by contrast, served to enhance the prestige of the crown.”

Arron Banks’ Leave.eu Brexit social media campaign

Arron Banks is one of the biggest political donors in British history. He funded and ran Leave.eu, the insurgent right-wing Brexit campaign. Here he is talking about that organizations successful use of social media:

“Within our office we had an office setup that was for Leave.eu. It was a call center and we were getting a tremendous number of phone calls from our.. obviously the website, from Twitter, from Facebook and from the whole thing and as part of that what we had was a creative department that basically created Facebook tiles and Twitter.. and one of the reasons we were so successful as you can appreciate in politics, we were able to create some of the stuff that was in real time and was topical, quicker than anybody else. So effectively what we would do was take something that was being talked about and turn it into relevant material and I think that’s much more relevant to how you get traction on social media. You know we have one video that had fourteen million views. If I look through the campaign statistics, we had more traction than Labour, Conservative, Liberal social media put together”