January 10, 2020

David Miliband

Former British Foreign Secretary and Labour politician David Miliband addresses the escalating conflict between the U.S. and Iran. Miliband, now head of the International Rescue Committee, says chaos in the Middle East could impact his work on the global refugee crisis. Miliband discusses U.K. and U.S. politics ahead of the 2020 election, warning that the “hard left doesn’t provide the answer.

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He fled British politics and a family intrigue for a new mission, this week on ‘Firing Line.’

I came into politics to make a difference, and now I’m leaving British politics to make a difference.

As a protégé to Tony Blair, David Miliband was Foreign Secretary and a favorite to lead the Labour Party in Britain.

The Miliband brothers are said to be neck and neck.

David, I love you so much, and I have such extraordinary respect for the campaign that you ran.

In David Miliband’s second act, he attends to the global refugee crisis as head of the International Rescue Committee, based in New York.

This is not just a crisis, it’s a test.
It’s a test of our humanity.

His focus — 70 million displaced people worldwide.
He also keeps an eye on the politics of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.
What does David Miliband say now?

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David Miliband, welcome to ‘Firing Line.’

Thank you, Margaret.
Good to be with you.

You are the president and the CEO of the International Rescue Committee, a global relief organization that was founded by Albert Einstein in 1930.

Hard to do better than that, can you?

No, I don’t think so.
You are also the former Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom and a member — former member — of the Labour Party in Parliament.
I first must ask you about developments in the news this week.
President Trump ordered the killing of Iran Quds Force Major General Soleimani last week.
Here’s what President Trump had to say about it.

Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.
But we caught him in the act and terminated him.

In your opinion, was President Trump correct to do this?

Well, obviously, we haven’t seen the evidence that President Trump referred to, in terms of the imminent attack on U.S. forces or on U.S. assets.
I think the big question is obviously what the consequences of this are.
And I can only speak to you from the perspective of a humanitarian organization.
I can tell you, we are preparing, across the Middle East, for more chaos, more conflict, more civilian casualties and also the now not very remote prospect of Western countries being driven out of the Middle East.
That’s obviously been the strategic goal of Iran for a long time, and that’s been brought closer by the votes in the Iraqi Parliament and by the rising tension about American presence in Iraq.

Is it, you think, more likely that the West leaves the Middle East or leaves Iraq in this case, or is it possible, to play devil’s advocate, that the assassination of Quds Force commander Soleimani changes the seriousness with which Iran takes the United States and make it more likely that Iran returns to the negotiating table?

Well, I can tell you from my own time in government that Iran, who the U.K.
had full diplomatic relations with in the time, unlike the U.S., they take to the United States very seriously, and they take the history of the U.S.-Iran relationship very seriously.
They take the power of the United States, the military power but also the broader —
I don’t think they were expecting their major general from the Quds Force to be assassinated in the Iraqi airport.

That’s a good point.
But that doesn’t mean that Iran doesn’t take America serious.
And I think that the sense of Iranian humiliation could obviously lead them to miscalculate.
That would have very grave consequences.
Those of us who were involved in the early days in trying to establish a nuclear agreement with Iran obviously fear that there is a return to a pathway to a nuclear weapon, that the terrible choice that all of us feared — either Iran gets the bomb or Iran gets bombed — that that choice, we don’t want to get back on that path again, and that’s a fear of anyone who studies the Middle East at the moment.

The United States, at this point in history, has decided not to pursue a strategy of engagement with Iran.
Is that a mistake, in your view?

I think that it’s imperative to engage Iran.
Iran is this country of 80 million people.
It’s a historic civilization, but it also has an enormous range of interests across the region that have been, in a way, helped by some aspects of Western policy, policy mistakes, over the last 20 years.
I think that engagement — political engagement — is the only way forward, ultimately, because Iran’s always going to be part of the Middle East.
It’s not going to be removed from the Middle East.
And so recognizing that reality and then finding a way to have a balance of power seems, to me, to be the only way in which to achieve some kind of stability.

The British newspaper recently reported that, in 2007, when you were Foreign Secretary during the Iraq War, that you blocked an operation to kill Major General Soleimani.

This was a very odd story, which had no provenance at all.
I would remember that.
It would’ve been a pretty big incident.
I’ve checked with some of my senior colleagues.
They have no memory of it.
So, your tweet was that…
So I checked with our — with senior people who were involved with me.

And no one remembers that?

We would remember it if it happened.

Had you been presented with a plot, such as has been reported, would you have been against it?

We don’t assassinate senior state figures from other countries.
That’s a British approach to these things.
He’d taken on a political role.
And, obviously, the great fear today is of steady escalation with ultimately the nuclear question back on the table.
Remember, the decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement, was in large part premised on the argument that, in 15 years’ time, Iran may return to producing a bomb.
Where we are now is that the Iranians are taking steps to produce a bomb today, and that’s obviously very worrying.

This brings me to the instability in the region and your work at the International Rescue Committee.
So I’d like to take a step back and have you reflect on your personal history.
I’m gonna show you a photograph, and I’d like you to tell me about it.

Well, there are two men in the photo.
One on the right looks a bit like me, and that’s my dad, and the one on the left who looks a bit less like me is my grandfather.
That’s a picture taken in 1940.
They were refugees from Belgium in London.
They escaped when the Nazis invaded Belgium.

And here’s another photograph.
How about this one?

Yeah, that’s my mother, also arriving as a refugee in the U.K. in 1946.
She was a 12-year-old girl at the time, arriving from Poland.

How has being the child of refugees shaped your approach to the refugee crisis you now manage?

My generation is, if you like, a transitional generation, in the sense that we remember people who survived the Holocaust, who survived the Second World War, but we live beyond them.
We outlive them.
And so it’s incumbent on us to tell their story.
And telling their story takes a number of forms.
One of them is that, the people who are fleeing from conflict and violence around the world today — about 70 million people, 30 million refugees, 40 million internally displaced — they live in different parts of the world.
They’re maybe not from Europe — they’re from the Middle East, they’re across parts of Africa — but their stories are strikingly similar.
They’re about fear, they’re about loss, they’re about mistrust, they’re about hatred, and they’re about the consequences for innocent people, including children.
Half of the world’s refugees are children.
So there is a connection between my parents’ story and what they went through and today — the story of today’s refugees, even though the circumstances, in many ways, are very different.

How do you define a refugee?

A refugee is someone for whom it’s not safe to go home or stay at home.
And the reasons it might not be safe is that there’s a war going on, someone’s trying to persecute you, or someone’s trying to beat you up and…
So it doesn’t include economic insecurity.

I chose my words carefully.
It’s not someone who would prefer not to go home.
It’s someone for whom it’s not to go home.
And there are, more or less, 30 million people in that category around the world.
And refugees are found, in the main, not in countries like the U.S., where I’m based, or the U.K., where I’m from.
Most refugees are in poor or low- or middle-income countries like Jordan or Lebanon, like Ethiopia or Uganda or Bangladesh.
It’s the poorer parts of the world that bear the greatest, if you like, burden or responsibility for hosting refugees, and it’s a double burden, if you like, because they’ve got needs of their own populations, and then they have populations arriving from next door.

So, just this week the IRC has released its 2020 watch list.
Here you can see the top 20 countries — Yemen, Syria, Nigeria, Venezuela, Democratic Republic of Congo are the top five on the list.
And what’s striking to me is how little this list changes from year to year.
These are crises that last for many, many years at a time.
You often have children who are born into refugee camps who don’t know their home country.

That’s a very good point.

Why is it that the need is so protracted and sustaining?

I think there are two reasons that are really important.
The first is that we’ve got a genuine crisis of diplomacy.
The tools of diplomacy that are developed for relations between states which are suffering just aren’t adequate to wars within states.
All of those conflicts that you’ve shown on the map are so-called civil wars — they’re wars within states.
The second thing that I think is very important is, we’re living in a world where power has been fragmented right around the world.
And if you look at the U.N. Security Council today, it’s not just split, it’s deadlocked.
And that’s how I think you end up with these long-lasting conflicts that recur beyond generations.

You’ve said we’re living in an age of impunity, where bad actors are free to cause great suffering.
What do you mean by that?

I mean that you can, if you’re a conflict player today, commit war crimes and get away with it.
You can bomb coaches of schoolchildren and get away with it.
You can besiege a city and get away with it.
And the terrible thing about this age of impunity is that, once it starts, it’s very hard to reverse.

So, then, how do you make the case, as the leader of the IRC, especially against this rising tide of economic nationalism — some people call it populism — that there’s not just a moral obligation of wealthy countries to aid suffering people but is there an economic case, as well?

Yes. And I make the case with head as well as heart.
It’s easy to say, ‘Here are people in need.
we’ve got to help them.’
That’s the moral case, especially when they’re innocent.

So what’s the —
But the case for the head is to say that, in an interdependent world, in a connected world, problems that start in the Middle East don’t end in the Middle East.
Problems that start in Central America don’t end in Central America.
The problems from the Middle East come to Europe.
The problems from Central America come to the U.S.
southern border.
And if you neglect humanitarian crisis, then the product, as sure as night follows day, is political instability.
And political instability does not remain within the countries within which it starts.

So, you have run the International Rescue Committee now under two presidents, President Obama and President Trump.
And in the past, the United States has been a leader in refugee resettlement.
But our refugee resettlement program today have shrunk significantly.
This year, it has been capped at 18,000.
What is the impact of the United States taking in fewer refugees?

Well, ‘shrunk’ is a very nice word to use.
It makes it sound like a sort of natural phenomenon.
They’ve been shrunk.
The refugee resettlement program that averaged 90,000 refugees a year over the last —
My initial note said ‘decimated,’ if it makes you feel better.
[ Both laugh ]
So it’s been quite an active decision by the Trump administration to reduce from 90,000 to the 18,000 figure you mention, the number of refugees allowed in.
Now, the consequence of that is very clear — a large number of people who are the most vulnerable people who are eligible for refugee resettlement are still stuck in limbo outside the country.
But secondly, other countries who followed America’s lead in raising their refugee resettlement numbers have followed America’s lead in reducing the refugee resettlement numbers.
But here’s a final thing that I think is really interesting.
President Trump didn’t just reduce to 18,000, the number of refugees allowed into America.
He said he wants to give every state the right to say, no, they didn’t want to have any refugees come.
What’s happened, so far, 41 out of 50 states have replied the president.
41 states have said, ‘No, we want to carry on taking refugees.’
And I think that says something important about America.

So I think what you’re observing is that, potentially, the leaders of the states of the United States actually don’t represent the politics of the President.

Well, even if they’re in his party, which is interesting.

So what you’re saying is, President Trump isn’t representing the United States.

Look, I’m not an American citizen or an American voter, so I’m not gonna make a political comment.
What I’m gonna say is very striking is that the bipartisan commitment to refugee resettlement — Remember, President Reagan admitted more refugees than any other president.
And so that bipartisan commitment seems to still have a beating heart in states around the country.

So are you optimistic?
I mean, you sound uplifted by this.
And what I was initially gonna ask you — ’cause I’m quite surprised by this, too, is — have you observed the politics of immigration and refugees in this country, and having observed the rhetoric shift between one president and the other, how you understand that as — I mean, you’ve been in the United States now for seven years.
How do you understand the politics of refugees?

Well, I think the first is that, as you indicated, the policies of refugees has got mixed up with the politics of immigration.
And they’re related, but they’re different, because refugees are fleeing for their lives.
Immigrants are seeking to move for a better life.

But they’ve both been vilified by the President.

They’ve both been vilified, and they’ve got mixed up together to the benefit of neither.

The politics of immigration and refugees is not untethered to the rise in nationalism, the rise in global populism.
Which brings me to Brexit.
The United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the European Union at the end of this month, thanks to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s very large victory at the polls last month.
You recently wrote in ‘I am convinced that Brexit is the biggest foreign policy disaster since appeasement in the 1930s.’
That’s a very strong statement.

Yeah, and Brexit is the sundering, the breaking of 45 years of membership of the European Union and 55 years of attempts to get into the European Union.
But my argument — my side of the argument lost.
And Boris Johnson’s got his majority.
We are going to Brexit.
We don’t yet know what Brexit will mean, and one of the arguments that we’ve made is that, far from getting Brexit ‘done’ on January the 31st, all we’ll have done is we’ll have checked out of the E.U.
hotel, but we don’t know what hotel we’ve checked into.
And that’s the big question that makes people like me say, ‘Look, we’re gonna be dealing with the consequences of Brexit, the consequences of checking out of the E.U. hotel, for many years to come, because the trade negotiations, the security arrangements, the education and research commitments that we made to each other, all that’s gonna be negotiated over the rest of this decade.

And do you lack confidence in the United Kingdom’s ability to negotiate new trade deals and new arrangements?

We haven’t needed to negotiate a trade deal for 40 years.
People don’t understand this.
Britain hasn’t had a trade negotiator for 40 years because the European Union has been the trade negotiator for all the 28 members of the European Union.

But do you lack confidence in the United Kingdom’s ability to do it?

Of course not.
But if you look at the competence — not the confidence, the competence — with which successive British governments over the last three years have tried to negotiate with Europe, you’d say ‘Could they have made a bigger hash of it?’
No, they couldn’t.
So, anyone who tells you that they’re convinced it’s gonna be a breeze really doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
So then explain to us why your former constituents in South Shields, Northeast England, voted for 65% for Brexit.

I think they wanted to give the political system a big kick, and they felt that the economics had turned against what in America would be called a Rust Belt constituency, what I call a fantastic place to live and work.
But that’s, I think, the essence of the story — it was a chance to kick the system.

We referenced last month your party, the Labour Party, suffered a pretty spectacular defeat at the polls, thanks to the far-left candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, who is the Labour Party leader.
There’s a belief on the left in British and American politics that the most progressive policies are the ones that can win broadly, and it’s a debate actually that has been happening on the left for some time, including on this program in 1980, when William F. Buckley Jr.
hosted Tony Benn, a key Labour Party leader who made that case to William F. Buckley Jr.
Let’s take a look.

In fact, something has happened with the Labour Party.
In 1951, it had over a million dues-paying members.
estimates it has 284,000 today.
So there is some, presumably, populist sense of dissatisfaction with it.

And I think there is a sense of disappointment among a lot of Labour people that we say one thing in opposition and do something else in government.
And the real reason, or one of the major reasons, why we’re going for party reform now is to try and restore credibility and integrity to British politics.
Because the Labour Party is a socialist party.
It always has been.
People actually vote Labour in the expectation that there will be a change in the structure of power in society.
And I’m afraid they’d be disappointed because, over the last 20 years, Labour Party leadership has been, really, a revisionist leadership.
It’s tried to bury its — its commitment to socialism, and I think that’s a factor, myself, in the decline in our support.

Does the defeat of Corbyn disprove Benn’s argument?

Yes. I mean, there’s a very clear lesson here, because, essentially, Jeremy Corbyn took the Tony Benn political approach and gave it a road test.
And what it turns out is that, if you have incredible policies, a mistrusted leader, a team that doesn’t seem to have the ability to deliver, you’re gonna get what we would call stuffed.
You’re going to lose badly.
And Labour suffered a historic defeat.
So I think there are some big lessons here.
We’re living in a time of enormous economic inequality that undoubtedly drives people to want to have big solutions.
But if the big solutions aren’t credible, people will run away from them.
And that’s essentially what happened in the U.K.

Yeah. Corbyn has been called the British Bernie Sanders.

Yeah, I mean, I don’t know how much of that is because they’re both politicians who are in their 70s and have a left-of-center opinion.
I think that the Corbyn model is a very stark warning, which is that the more radical change you want to promote, the more credible you have to be in your ability to deliver on it.
And British voters simply concluded that the more promises Jeremy Corbyn made, the fewer of them would be delivered and the fewer of them they supported.

So how much of a cautionary tale is Corbyn’s loss to American Democrats as they look to nominating a candidate for 2020?

I think it’s a very clear example here that if a political party loses contact with the electorate, it will lose.
And one can overdo the trans-Atlantic parallels.
Just because we both speak English doesn’t mean that we’re the same country.
But I think there is a very clear lesson at a time when Social Democratic parties, center-left parties around the world, are struggling with attacks from populist, attacks from the center-right, attacks from the hard left.
The hard left doesn’t provide the answer.

You say the hard left doesn’t provide the answer, but Bernie Sanders here, in the last quarter of fundraising in the presidential campaign, raised 10 million more dollars than his next closest competitor.
He raised $34.5 million.
So there is energy on the progressive left in this country.

And I don’t want you — never want to deny that, and I’m not gonna insert myself into the American political debate.
But what I can report is that an incredible program produces an appalling result, and that’s what happened in the U.K., and democracies need strong oppositions as well as strong governments, and that’s what the U.K.
is lacking at the moment.

You actually called the showdown between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party an ‘unpopularity contest.’
And one of the other elements that we haven’t discussed that emerged in the campaign was a failure of Jeremy Corbyn to persuasively address allegations of anti-Semitism that have riled the Labour Party.
And you wrote, ‘The failure to acknowledge, never mind address, anti-Semitism is a moral scar.’
Why has anti-Semitism emerged and so tethered itself within the Labour Party?

Well, I think that it has been allowed to tether itself.
It’s been allowed to grow on social media, where anonymity provides a defense against accountability.
And it’s been allowed to grow because it hasn’t been smashed, really.
And the lesson of history is very clear.
Any form of racism, if you don’t tackle it, it grows, and it’s spurred on.
And I think that’s the challenge that any Labour leader is going to have to take on.
We know that it’s a scourge, and it needs to be dealt with.

If you were a Labour leader, how would you have dealt with it?

Well, you you must have, first of all, the appropriate disciplinary procedures.
Secondly, you have to have a zero-tolerance policy.
Thirdly, you’ve got to recognize that, in the anti-Semitic tropes, there is a worldview as well as a particular view, and the worldview is about globalists, it’s about a series of tropes about who’s ‘running the world.’
And it’s a dangerous worldview because it’s misguided and wrong, and you have to take on the ideology as well as the practicality.

Is it an ideology or a conspiracy theory?

Well, it’s a conspiracy theory is a better way of putting it.

Yeah. Is it your view that Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic?

I don’t think that that’s where I want to take the argument.
What he’s allowed to happen is, two words that I never believed I would see in the same paragraph, never mind headline, ‘Labour,’ my party, and ‘anti-Semitism.’
I never believed I’d see them in the same paragraph or headline.
He’s allowed that to happen.
And that’s on his watch, and it’s his responsibility.

I appreciate that you don’t want to take the argument there, but I just have to ask you the question again.
I mean, by not taking on that responsibility, is that anti-Semitic?

Well, he’s allowed anti-Semitism to grow, and it almost doesn’t matter what the motivation was, what the defense is.
The product is pernicious, and that’s what needs to be taken on.

Why do you suppose he did?

I think that he didn’t want to attack people who he perceived to be on his side in the sectarian warfare within the Labour Party.
I think that he also was unclear in his own mind about the difference between criticizing the government of Israel at different points in history for its policies and veering into anti-Semitism.

At one point, you had hoped to be the next Labour Party leader, and many viewers here in the United States don’t necessarily know about the drama that unfolded between you and your brother when he challenged you and then ultimately narrowly defeated you to be the leader of the party in 2010.
Reflecting back to that time —
They don’t need to know that.

They don’t need to know it, but they do know now.
So what have you learned from that loss?

The biggest thing I’ve learned is a simple one — don’t live in the past.
You hold your head up, you take your values, you take the hit, and then you try and put your values and experience to work.

Well, the Labour Party is looking for a new leader.
And conducted an online poll last month about the elections in which you came in second out of 19 people who could inspire a Labour comeback.

I think that must have been done very much only amongst my friends.

Even ahead of Tony Blair.

[ Laughing ] Well, the election for Labour leader’s for existing M.P.s, so the electorate’s gonna be saved that choice.

But you have just written an op-ed about the future of Labour.
And looking ahead four, five, six years, would you rule it out?

I never rule anything out.
I believe the International Rescue Committee has been a remarkable experience for me.
I feel truly privileged to be leading 13,000 employees, 15,000 volunteers around the world.
We’re an $800 million organization.
We’re really addressing a big issue.
I never want it to seem like I’ve got anything other than full focus on that responsibility.
Equally, obviously, I’m not gonna do this forever, and so I don’t know what I’m gonna do next.
And some people might say, ‘Oh, you should never say you don’t know,’ but actually, it’s the truth, and it’s better to tell the truth than not.
And so why should I rule anything out?
I mean, I don’t know what I’m gonna do next, so let’s see.

David Miliband, with that, thank you very much for coming to ‘Firing Line.’

Thank you.

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