The House of Commons comprises 650 individuals who encompass the incompetent, weak, and dishonourable as well as the principled, visionary and effective just as much as any other walk of life. In earlier days, I was too ready to see the worst in my opponents and the best on my own side. This is bad politics. With this in mind, I praise three Conservatives with important things to say about foreign policy issues.
The first is Robert Halfon, the shrewd campaigning MP for Harlow who I asked to join the all-party parliamentary group when he was elected in 2010. This was surprising for both of us because one of my oldest friends had been his Labour predecessor, whom my family and I actively supported and, therefore, opposed Robert's election. It was never personal, though.
We certainly agree on Iraq. Robert recently wrote that: "When people ask me if the Iraq war was worth it, I usually answer with just one word: 'Kurdistan'. Without the intervention of Prime Ministers John Major and later Tony Blair, it is likely that there would be no Kurdish nation now in Northern Iraq."
But my admiration extends to Conservative MPs with whom I differ. One of the most interesting new Conservative MPs is Rory Stewart who was recently profiled by Decca Aitkenhead of the Guardian. Aitkenhead sketches the MP's very unusual biography: a Scot born in Hong Kong, raised in Malaysia and educated at Eton, who studied at Oxford while tutoring two royal princes. He joined the Foreign Office and was posted to Indonesia to tackle the East Timor problem and then Montenegro to deal with Kosovo. He walked 6,000 miles through Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, staying in villagers' houses, before being sent to Iraq to run two provinces and help write the country's new constitution. He is just 41
Stewart has strong views about Iraq. Amid all the nonsense from the usual suspects in a Commons debate last year about the Iraq intervention - a lie by Bush and Blair to secure oil and protect Israel, in a nutshell - his comments "about how we got stuck there and why we find it so difficult to acknowledge our failure" shine through. He believes that it was "probably the worst British foreign policy decision since the Boer war or the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1839."
In essence, he believes that our diplomats, security people and ministers - "people living in heavily defended compounds, moving around in armoured vehicles, generally unable to speak a word of any local language, unable to interact with an Iraqi for more than half an hour or an hour at a time, except if surrounded by heavily armed men and operating through translators," and abroad for short periods of time - barely scratch the surface. Or worse, kid themselves that their policies are doing the trick when they are failing. It is confirmed by the disastrous policies of the occupation which put disaffected Sunnis with guns out of work and exacerbated a Baathist/jihadist insurgency.
It is a point put pointedly perhaps to overcome complacency but Stewart's central point about here-today, gone-tomorrow practitioners is mitigated by the third Conservative - the former Middle East Minister, Alistair Burt. He was a Foreign Office minister for over three years and won great praise from all sides. Sadly, this diplomat's diplomat was then sacked to make room for others. He remains an active foreign affairs specialist and has recently become the vice-chair of the all-party group.
He exudes optimism about the Israel/Palestine conflict and invites us to imagine the difference that its resolution would make. He confesses long-term optimism about the unexpected Arab Spring, citing the novel fact that Yemen, for instance, now has a living ex-President.
Burt criticises the refusal of the Commons to endorse military reprisals against Assad's use of chemical weapons and describes the Russian-sponsored deal decommissioning chemical weapons as a " ruse," which sustains Assad's policy of ruthless attack and the false narrative of Assad as a bulwark against jihadis.
Burt also questions the new parliamentary veto over foreign policy as an unwitting mess that unreasonably limits executive action. He worries, for instance that Parliament would now veto the Syrian opposition buying British weapons with which to defend themselves. He says that "just occasionally politicians need space and time to take unpopular action that they believe in the long run is in their nation's interest", provided they are ultimately accountable to the public through elections or a parliamentary vote of confidence.
In their different ways, the Tory trio are seeking to learn the right lessons from Iraq, and deepen the UK's foreign policy debate. Liberal interventionism has been undermined since 2003 but careless insularity, combined with a puerile anti-imperialism, does nothing for current and future victims of tyrants everywhere.Suggest a correction