My Lords, after hubris comes nemesis. Let us not dwell on the nemesis—the humiliation visited on America and her allies—but identify the hubris that led to it. It was right and inevitable that America, following the twin towers atrocity visited on that great country, should take punitive action against the perpetrators. That meant demanding that the state that had harboured al-Qaeda hand over its leaders, eradicate its bases and expel its supporters. Failing which, the US was perfectly entitled to enforce its demands from the air or with boots on the ground. But, as the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, said, that being done, it should have left. The hubris was to imagine that the US or NATO had the power or the right to transform the character and culture of a distant nation—something neither the British Empire at its zenith nor the Soviet Union with all its ruthlessness could achieve.
What is the moral of this tale? It is that morality depends on recognising reality. We have no obligation to attempt what we do not have the power to achieve. As Enoch Powell once put it, in the form of an equation, power equals force divided by distance multiplied by will. What we have the power to enforce in our own neighbourhood we may not have the power to attain where we cannot deploy force, or where any forces are tenuated by lengthy supply lines. Where we can exert force, we will have the will to exercise it effectively only if it is clearly in the interests—moral as well as material—of our own nation, as otherwise it will not be sustainable.
The hubristic belief that we can exercise military power we do not possess is matched by and often rooted in an illusion that we have a moral authority and moral obligations on a global scale. There is not a problem in the farthest corner of the globe that we do not demand Ministers take responsibility for; there is not an issue, from global warming to migration, biodiversity and global poverty, on which we do not imagine that the rest of the world is hanging on our actions to follow our example. How strange that, despite the loss of empire, liberal imperialism has flourished and grown—not least in this House and on the Opposition Benches.
I do not advocate that we retreat within our own carapace in these islands, and still less that we abandon genuine moral responsibilities, but we must recognise that our obligations extend no further than our power to fulfil them. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not because we vainly imagine we are leading the world.