Saturday, 11 February 2012

Let's Have a Pragmatic Foreign Policy on Syria

Rupert’s Read, apparently, is the 3rd best Councillor blog in the country, so Dr Rupert Read is clearly not a nincompoop, but today’s post on Syria shows that even professors talk rubbish from time to time.

His blog, to be fair, was primarily a criticism of a ‘Stop the War!’ demonstration outside the American embassy, trying to stop the US intervening in Syria. ‘Shame on them,’ says Dr Read, ‘Shame on them for in practice opposing the Libyan and Syrian revolutions, and offering succour to dictators … Syria is an authentic revolution being snuffed by active evil from the 'government' there. All human people will feel and attempt to practice solidarity with the Syrian Opposition.’

Decent-minded stuff. Unfortunately his short comment illustrates just exactly everything that is wrong with many ‘liberal’ (small ‘l’) attitudes to war today.

Why Dr Read is Wrong
Before I start, may I stress that I am not a ‘Trot’ from the Socialist Workers’ Party. Neither am I uncaring about the situation in Syria – I have my twitter feed set to receive tweets from the Middle East and, as Dr Read says, one would have to be inhuman not to be heartbroken with what is happening there.

But the question is not: ‘Is the situation in Syria terrible?’ nor even: ‘Is intervention desirable?’
The question is: ‘Should we intervene?’
And at the moment, you would have to be some kind of extremist to say ‘Yes’.

For a start, why are we intervening? ‘Easy, you idiot’, you say – ‘those poor people are being slaughtered by their own government! We need to intervene on humanitarian grounds.’
But even the most idealistic interventionist cannot surely regard this as a sufficient cause for intervention. There are governments being inhuman to their citizens all over the world – not least China in Tibet. So let’s declare war on China, perhaps? Or what about #Bahrain, where the tweets are almost as heartbreaking, night after night after night? Or what about those countries where the regime neglects (rather than oppresses) its subjects … I’ll tell you what, let’s simply resurrect the British Empire as a benevolent world despot, and impose our benign democratic capitalism on them all?
Even it were militarily possible for a economically-weak country which no longer ‘rules the waves’, it would be morally repugnant … and if it is wrong in the macro, why is it necessarily right in this specific instance?

Not Unilaterally
The problem, surely, is not intervention, but unilateral intervention. In a situation where the United Nations had collectively decided that Syria was an abomination and that we needed regime-change, perhaps contributing to that universally-endorsed, well-intentioned intervention would be justified. Or if even the Arab League decided that it wanted to put its own house in order, perhaps we might justifiably offer support. But who gave us the right to decide that China and Russia are talking out of their backsides so we’ll plough on anyway and interfere in affairs half-a-world away to bring about some new situation which we hope will be ethically more acceptable to us, and politically-beneficial to our interests?
Because don’t think I haven’t noticed the difference between the way we have reacted to Gadaffi and Assad, and the way we are turning a blind eye to Bahrain.

Ironically, the urgent need to save lives is not uppermost in Dr Read’s mind. ‘There is’, he says, ‘no short- or medium-term prospect for military intervention and (strange though it sounds to say it) less extreme urgency...’. Dr Read is NOT charging to the rescue of the women and children being shelled in Homs.
Rather, he says, ‘we should try all we can … to give solidarity to the Syrian people who have risen up with unbelievable bravery against their oppressive 'leaders'. So what he is advocating is not humanitarian intervention but regime change.

Not, mind you, like in Iraq – which he tells us was ‘pure aggression and neo-colonialism’. No – Dr Read wants GOOD regime change – ‘against their oppressive “leaders”.’
And one is left wondering when these people will ever learn.

The Problems with Intervention
Without going on more than is necessary, do I REALLY have to list the problems that follow upon intervention?
Hatred: have people not noticed that, after we have finally disentangled ourselves from these escapades, we leave an entire country seething with hostility and loathing towards us? We do not make ‘friendly’ states, we create hotbeds of extremism.
Things do not turn out as we thought: Iraq, actually, for the moment, did not turn out quite so badly, for all everybody dismisses this as the ‘illegal’ war. But in Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, can anybody say that things have turned out well for the West? Or what about Somalia – a crystal-clear demonstration of what happens when one nation intervenes unilaterally in the affairs of another?
Death: of thousands of our finest and bravest young men.
Failure: I am sure that I am not incorrect in thinking that by far the vast majority of British people are yearning to get out of Afghanistan, and that many of us expect the Taliban to be back in power within months (as they were after the Russians pulled out in 1989).
Cost: at a time when, apparently, we cannot afford to take care of our own disabled people, we seem to have unlimited funds for bombing and sabre-rattling.
Economy: it has not slipped my notice than countries like China, Germany, Brazil etc. – whose economies are booming – are doing so on the back of long periods of peace. Neither am I unmindful of the power of the military-industrial lobby over Western governments, and their realisation that budgets are being cut.

The Need for Intervention
I am not a pacifist. I am not even anti-interventionist.
We were right to take back the Falklands, and need to be ready to do so again should Argentina try to deprive the Falklanders of their right of self-determination.
Ridiculously, I do not agree with Dr Read that Iraq was ‘pure aggression and neo-colonialism’. Given that our Prime Minister was faced with a situation where – to the best of our admittedly hopeless information – Iraq may or may not have had nuclear weapons, I am glad that he chose to invade even if he didn't find any WMDs; on the grounds that the alternative (that we didn’t invade and Iraq got a nuclear weapon) is too horrific to contemplate.

I realise that this compromises me over Iran. But we simply cannot continue swaggering round the world, intervening every time there is a situation which strikes us as a bad show.
I would be horrified if our foreign policy ceased to be ethical, but we need to temper it with pragmatism.

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