Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 June 2019

Mark my words, history will fall on Trump and Cameron’s side

Sholto Byrnes says that Donald Trump and David Cameron's actions may take the brickbats for now, but posterity will be on their side

The cries of outrage in America have not ceased since Donald Trump’s firing of the FBI director, James Comey. Such has been the dismay over what critics see as the president’s attempt to shut down the inquiry into his team’s links to Russia, that a rather more important fact has been missed. And that is that Mr Trump was entirely right to sack the showboating Mr Comey, and if he erred in any way it was in not dismissing him as soon as he took office.

Should Mr Comey have gone last summer, when he wildly overstepped the bounds of propriety by announcing that Hillary Clinton would not be charged for routing classified emails through a home server, but said she was guilty of extreme carelessness?

A completely inappropriate comment from a civil servant, whose views on the behaviour of presidential candidates should have been known to none, it gave life to a charge that dogged Mrs Clinton throughout the campaign. If not then, he should certainly have been shown the door when he resurrected the inquiry and disgracefully made it public days before an election whose result he almost certainly thereby influenced.

His overdue departure is therefore to be welcomed. But his dismissal appears to have fallen into that category of good outcomes whose virtues are overlooked by those who concentrate on the motivation rather than the act itself – which is to miss the greater point. Mr Trump’s critics – particularly the Democrats – are getting angry because they think he fired Mr Comey for the wrong reasons. They seem to forget they were calling for his head only a few months ago. All should be pleased that a supposedly impartial official who strayed so egregiously into politics has lost his job.

It reminds me of the first Gulf War. Along with the vast majority of The National’s readers, I imagine, I supported the successful operation to restore the sovereignty of a nation state –Kuwait – which had every right not to be invaded and occupied by its neighbour. Yet there were many in the West who, perhaps out of reflexive disdain for American military intervention anywhere, opposed the attempt to uphold the rule of law and the principle that countries should not subjugate others by force any more.

Again and again I heard the line “it’s all about the oil, that’s why America wants to kick Saddam out of Kuwait”. Firstly I would point out that it was not just the US but a wide alliance of countries that supported freeing Kuwait, and was it not possible that at least some were motivated by outrage at Saddam Hussein’s invasion?

But even if one were to be completely cynical about it, and say that America cared naught for the liberty of the Kuwaitis, and only about access to their oil and gas deposits, I would point out that it still led to the right outcome – the liberation of Kuwait.

Yet the left-wing opponents of that war could not get over their revulsion at what they misguidedly saw as an act of self-interested American imperialism. It was a shameful attitude that I suspect few would defend now. They would have to concede that the war yielded the right result, and that that was more important than any reservations they had about US motivations in the long run.

The same applies to the Brexit referendum in the UK. At the end of March, David Cameron was pilloried for saying that he thought holding the vote last year “was the right thing to do”. Mr Cameron only promised the referendum to fend off the challenge from Ukip and satisfy the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, was the response. He thought he could win it for “Remain”; instead he gambled and lost, complain those most bitter about Britain’s forthcoming departure from the EU.

That all may very well be true. Nevertheless, it is also true, as Mr Cameron said, that “this issue had been poisoning British politics for years. The referendum had been promised and not held.”

Whatever one thinks of the result, it was entirely correct that the people of Britain be given a say over membership of the European Union, an organisation which has a huge bearing over their lives, absorbs a substantial chunk of their taxes, and which has morphed into something very different to the Common Market the UK joined in 1973.

Mr Cameron’s motives in calling the vote may have been political and partisan. But it was still the right thing to do, as future historians will surely acknowledge.

And that is the point: for while the haze of indignation currently obscures both the firing of Director Comey and the Brexit referendum, both will be seen as the correct actions in the long run. For how could an FBI director who had interfered in an election stay in office? And how could the British people be denied a democratic vote on the EU?

History is less interested in motivations and more in results. It is possible, after all, that many who fought in Europe’s wars of religion thought they were doing so for noble reasons. It is possible too that some French colonialists really thought they were bringing the benefits of civilisation to the large parts of Africa they conquered.

So their motives may have been good, but the results were still bad – and it is on those that they are judged, as one day will Mr Trump and Mr Cameron. I’d say that in both those instances they may take the brickbats for now, but posterity will be on their side. And that is certainly the greater prize.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia

Updated: May 16, 2017 04:00 AM

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