In August 1998 massive bombs were detonated in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam. The deaths of hundreds of Africans brought Osama bin Laden to the attention of the world; he was a thug, a fanatic, a misogynist, a man intolerant of the views that differed from his own, a man who regarded the furtherance of his own medieval understanding of the world as taking priority over the lives of thousands. But who benefits from his death?
Back in 1991 the Coalition forces were sweeping north through Kuwait; crushing an ill-equipped Iraqi army. Alec, my neighbour, a countryman not given to radical opinions, watched the progress on his small television. “Do you know, Mr Poulton, if Kuwait had fields of cabbages and not oilfields, no-one would have gone to help them”.
I nodded agreement, but felt that I should demonstrate some sort of establishment view, “But Alec, isn’t it right that we should defend a country against aggression?”
“Aye, certainly”, he said, “but it seems odd that we can only do the right thing when there’s something in it for us”.
My mind went back some twelve years from that conversation, back to 1979 and David Owen speaking at a student union meeting. The government in which he had been Foreign Secretary had lost power the previous May and Owen felt free to express his own views. “The first duty of the Foreign Secretary”, he asserted, “is to protect the national interest”. No high principles;, no doing what was right for the sake of it; no asking what is good and what is true; the national interest, plain and simple.
Perhaps it was always thus, perhaps self interest and profit have always been the determinant of policy; even the religious wars of the Middle Ages, fought for supposed reasons of ‘faith’ were deeply motivated by the belief that if one engaged in such conflicts it would bring tangible eternal rewards.
Read an account of Rwanda in 1994 to see that principle counts for little in international politics . The British, French and Americans did not intervene because there was nothing in it for them. Foreign forces came into Kigali to take out the foreign nationals; the Africans were completely incidental. The United Nations force lacked the strength to save more than a minimal number of lives. Nearly a million people died in Rwanda while the outside world listened to reports on the radio. There was no profit in intervention.
How many genocides have passed while the world discussed the merits of intervention and passed resolutions at international conferences? A blind eye was turned to the atrocities in Darfur because the Chinese were actively involved in the Sudan and none of us can afford to alienate the Chinese; it would not be in the national interest.
The killing of Osama bin Laden, apart from satisfying a desire for justice, serves little strategic interest; he was isolated and irrelevant, but it seems inconceivable that anything would be done simply in the interest of justice. If justice mattered Robert Mugabe would have been seized in Rome last Sunday and taken to The Hague for trial; if justice mattered the dozens of dictators and murderers who rule most of sub-Saharan Africa would long ago have been deposed; if justice mattered we would not have done business with the Assads and Mubarraks and their ilk for so many years.
Justice is adduced as a reason when it coincides with national interest. What national interest was there in justice in Abbottabad? Who so wanted this man dead that they would risk the loss of American lives, both now and in the future, to achieve that end?