Analysis: Lib Dems anti-war sentiment

By HANNAH K. STRANGE, UPI U.K. Correspondent   |   Sept. 21, 2006 at 11:00 AM
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LONDON, Sept. 21 (UPI) -- Since his election as British Liberal Democrat leader in March, Sir Menzies Campbell has been criticized for failing to capitalize on the ills of the ruling Labor Party and consolidate the electoral gains made by his predecessor Charles Kennedy. But now his fortunes look set to be reversed, as Campbell returns to the theme which saw the party's popularity soar in recent years -- its opposition to the foreign policy of the Blair government.

As Lib Dem shadow foreign secretary during the run up to the Iraq war, Campbell was a principle architect of the anti-war policy which led the party to its best election results since the 1920s. But since he took over the top job he has failed to display the statesmanship and astute knowledge of international affairs which established him as an icon of the anti-war movement, and has been accused of failing to deliver effective opposition to the ruling Labor party.

However his attack on Blair's foreign policy at the Liberal Democrat annual conference in Brighton Thursday may change all that. At a time of widespread disquiet about Prime Minister Tony Blair's unquestioning alignment with the Bush administration in its "war on terror" -- concerns which were at the root of recent Labor attempts to oust their leader -- Campbell is advocating an alternative approach to foreign policy based not only on security but justice and even-handedness. It is a strategy that will appeal to the British public, a sizeable majority of whom blame Blair's policies in the Middle East for the escalation of the terror threat.

Blair had presided over a foreign policy which was "neither ethical nor effective," tarnishing Britain's reputation for the spread of liberty, justice and democracy, he told delegates.

In a clear jibe at the misrepresentation of intelligence on Iraqi WMD, he said: "In foreign policy, the prime minister has elevated belief over evidence, conviction over judgment, and instinct over understanding."

He attacked both the U.S./U.K. strategy in Iraq -- now widely regarded in Britain as a spectacular failure -- and the U.S. treatment of terror suspects, pointing to the double standards that are undermining Western efforts in the Middle East.

"In Iraq we are approaching a state of civil war. Hundreds dying every week. Terrorism taking root.

"And all the while, Guantanamo Bay stands as a shameful affront to justice and the rule of law. Secret Prisons, rendition, the suspicion of torture."

The Liberal Democrats would not shrink from their responsibility to challenge the government on the consequences of its decisions, he said.

"Security is not being gained, it is being lost. Terrorism is not being defeated, it is being invigorated. Freedom is not being spread, it is being undermined."

Campbell condemned Blair's stance on the recent Israel-Lebanon conflict and the failure to make progress on the Middle East peace process -- two issues which are a source of profound frustration for many Labor members and supporters. He elucidated a position combining both support for Israel's security aims and condemnation of "disproportionate" tactics in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

"We do not underestimate the difficulties for Israel -- in dealing with (Lebanese) Hezbollah or a government in the Palestinian territories led by Hamas," he said.

"Hamas must recognize the state of Israel. It must renounce violence. And it must accept existing peace accords."

However, he continued: "There will be no peace in the Middle East while the Palestinians are subject to daily humiliation, settlements are expanded on the West Bank and the Palestinian people have no viable homeland they can call their own.

And, while Hezbollah's actions in kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and shelling innocent Israeli civilians had been "an outrage," Israel's "disproportionate response -- the systematic destruction of roads, houses and bridges, the death and uprooting of so many innocent citizens," had simply served to strengthen Hezbollah rather than weaken it, he said.

"We Liberal Democrats led the call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire," he continued. "But the prime minister was silent. Yet again, Blair's Britain was out of step with everyone but the Bush administration."

His offer of a government that works through international institutions and is "unflinching" in its support for the rule of law may prove attractive, particularly in the wake of U.S. President George W. Bush's recent admission that the CIA has been operating secret prisons for terror suspects around the globe.

Recent poll findings reveal Campbell to be largely in tune with British public opinion. A Populus poll published by the Times of London on Sept. 6 found that 73 percent of the public believe the government's foreign policy has substantially increased the risk of terrorist attacks on the country. Sixty-two percent said that in order to reduce the terror threat, Britain should distance itself from U.S. foreign policy, withdraw from Iraq and take a stronger stance against Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories.

Meanwhile Blair's isolation over the Israel-Lebanon conflict was underlined by a YouGov poll for the Telegraph newspaper in August, which found that 63 percent thought the Israeli campaign in Lebanon was disproportionate, 53 percent thought Blair had handled the crisis badly, and, perhaps most crucially, that 64 percent believed he was simply going along with whatever the U.S. administration said. Blair's leadership and the future direction of the party is set to be a key theme as delegates head to the party's annual conference Sunday.

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