26 Jan 2017

Theresa May: era of ‘foreign intervention’ is over

Theresa May tonight ripped up the Tony Blair/David Cameron approach to foreign intervention in a speech to Republican senators and congress members in Philadelphia.

Seventeen years after Tony Blair gave his speech in Chicago supporting wars of liberal intervention, 13 years after the invasion of Iraq, Mrs May told Republicans that the years of “intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image” are over.

A souvenir shop decorated with the US and British Union Flag is seen before the visit by the US president Barack Obama and his wife US First Lady Michelle Obama to Windsor Castle in Windsor on April 22, 2016. US President Barack Obama plunged into Britain's poisonous European Union membership debate Friday, arguing strongly against a "Brexit" as he kicked off a visit to the UK. / AFP / DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS (Photo credit should read DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Mrs May backed Tony Blair’s military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a member of David Cameron’s Cabinet she supported the action he led, jointly with President Sarkozy, in Libya. By the time of the Libyan intervention, friends say, she was extremely sceptical about the merits of that action and the principles behind pre-emptive wars.

Many in her audience will have backed the Iraq war but her words will be music to some and definitely to President Trump’s ears. He’s denied widespread reports that he initially backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and certainly likes to paint himself as a longstanding critic of the war.

In other parts of her speech Mrs May applauded the active leadership that the US and the UK have given the world and the need to continue to do just that. It’s not clear whether she will feel comfortable with whatever Trump plans emerge for taking on ISIS in their remaining strongholds. A central point to the trip is trying to get close enough to be fully consulted as plans emerge.

Theresa May talked of the fear in the US and elsewhere that an “eclipse of the West” with the rise of India and China was happening. She told her audience that “with leadership, nothing is inevitable.”

Mrs May went out of her way to praise international institutions that Mr Trump has attacked in public: NATO and the World Bank. Mrs May told reporters on the plane on the way to the US that in her private phone conversations with President Trump, the President has “always confirmed his commitment” to NATO. But she threw him a little red meat acknowledging that NATO needs reform.

I asked her if she found it confusing trying to work out what Donald Trump thought about issues like NATO given that he says contradictory things in a short space of time. She said she was sure “I’ll leave very clear” on his beliefs.

Mrs May struck to her backing for the Iran nuclear deal which President Trump dearly wants to bring down. She threw another rhetorical bit of red meat to the man in the Oval Office calling Iran’s influence on the world “malign.”

Despite her withering criticism of the last dozen years of active foreign policy, Mrs May made a passionate case for the role of the US and the UK together shaping the world, calling the special relationship “one of the greatest forces for progress the world has ever seen.” But she knows she has arrived here at a time when the US has elected a President that much of the UK looks at with horror and mistrust.


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