Why shouldn’t we intervene?

Intervention is as ancient and well-established an instrument of foreign policy as diplomatic pressure, negotiations, and war. From the time of the ancient Greeks to the here and now, some states have found it advantageous to intervene in the affairs of other states against the latters’ will. Other states, in view of their interests, have opposed such interventions and have intervened on behalf of theirs.

But should we, in the modern set of systems that we have today, continue to intervene in the affairs of other states – other sovereign nations? Would we allow it if someone intervened in our own country? Well, I rather hope that would depend on why we were planning to do it. If it was for oil, for example, then I would argue vociferously against it. But if we were going in to topple a violent, cruel dictator, then that’s a different story. What if both of those arguments were jointly true? They probably were in the case of Iraq, and that’s a case in point I’ll be coming back to later.

We do indeed have a duty to intervene, when a country has flagrantly violated international law. No country has the right to intervene with foreign affairs for no reason at all, but when there is a compelling reason, we should intervene. We should not let – we cannot let – anyone violate international law, much more allow other countries harm our own citizens. Obligated to protect the law and the people, we can justify foreign intervention and can expect support from its allies on the same basis.

There is, of course, an opposing view, that we should fix our own problems first. We have, it is pointed out, a variety of issues of our own (such as the widening wealth gap between rich and poor). Involvement in other countries often seems to cause further prolonged instability in the region, arms the rebels and terrorists, makes us look like war-loving bullies, and shows our disregard for the ability of independent nations to solve their own problems.

Those are very valid points, and I won’t pretend they’re not worthy of attention. But causing instability in other regions is often as a result of not having a fully-thought-out plan of support and development for the country in question, in the same way that involvement should be able liberating people from tyranny rather than arming rebels and terrorists. We should be reframing the question; how do we remove tyrants and war criminals from power, and how do we help the country then move towards a free, democratic nation? That’s what we should be asking ourselves.

When it comes to isolationism, the UK is unlikely to retreat completely from the international scene, despite the negative experiences of Afghanistan. For one thing, Britain has a long and entrenched history of shaping global events, and students of British history will know that foreign policy is often cyclical. There were numerous times during the twentieth century when the UK sought heavy involvement in the affairs of the Middle East and Asia, only to retreat when it failed to export political and economic stability. The twenty-first century will be no exception to this pattern. In this age of globalisation, isolationism is also an unrealistic option. Most of all, the strategic lesson to be learnt has been one of limitations. Early but limited involvement will inevitably be the order of the day for future foreign interventions. The UK will seek to engage with foreign institutions from an early stage in order to prevent more entrenched problems in the future – helping, for example, to train native troops and strengthen organisations of justice and human rights in troubled countries.

There will also likely be a greater focus on containment – preventing the over-spill of problems into neighbouring regions. And if the UK is pulled into military engagement in other countries, it will look much different to Afghanistan. It will involve more special forces, fewer boots on the ground and greater use of technology – particularly drones.

A recent example of hoped-for intervention was in Syria, where a civil war has been raging since 2011. Rebel groups are fighting against a dictatorship led by President Bashar Al-Assad. Islamic State (ISIS) has taken over large areas in the country and declared it a caliphate; a state ruled by Islamic Sharia law.

To date more than 200,000 people have been killed as a result of the conflict. Both the rebels and the government have been accused of war crimes. Western countries also believe the Syrian government is responsible for attacks using chemical weapons. Can we not say that intervening to stop the barbarity is something we can do to be helpful to our fellow human beings?

In 2013, the UK government voted “no” to taking military action against the Syrian government. Despite this UK pilots took part in US military raids in Syria. The Foreign Office says “the UK itself is not conducting air strikes in Syria”. Instead, we had an embed programme where UK personnel, “effectively operating as foreign troops”, carry out missions for other countries.

Alexandra Buskie (Peace and Security Programmes Officer at the United Nations Association) thinks that in the event of military action, who we side with would depend on what the end goal was. She asks “are we “destroying ISIS” or protecting civilians? Protecting civilians from who? Are we OK fighting with [President] Assad, even though he has been barrel bombing his population?”

President Assad’s dictatorship is linked to reports of human rights abuses; the many rebel groups have links with Islamist groups like Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

According to the European Commission the crisis in Syria “triggered the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II”. Around 12 million people are estimated to have been displaced by the hostilities. Nearly four million of those have left Syria altogether. A lot of these migrants are risking their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean to get to safety. It’s hard to get away from immigration in UK news and politics, but isn’t it interesting to explore the migration story from the alternate perspective?

As a developed country with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, the UK has a responsibility to step in to protect the millions of civilians who are at risk.

The 2005 United Nations World Summit declared that the UK and 193 other UN member states have a “Responsibility to Protect” (AKA “R2P”). This means facing up to countries that are no longer holding themselves accountable for the welfare of their people. R2P means that:

  1. “The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;
  3. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.”

The R2P declaration is a viable argument that could be used to support a military intervention into Syria. But according to Alexandra Buskie “we need to be clear on our aim – is it to protect civilians on the ground, or is it to force one side’s hand into a political compromise or defeat?”

As we’ve left Assad to do his own thing for years do we really have a leg to stand on if we suddenly want to intervene? The Middle East is a fragile place right now; military action could also lead to violence in other countries. Conflict in Syria “will explode beyond its borders” says Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general. Intervening on either side could spark wars in countries like Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Most people are agreed that ISIS should go, but does this mean the UK should intervene in Syria? Where do we stand on President Assad’s regime? Are airstrikes the best way to combat Islamic State?

Fundamentally, people are dying in Syria – it’s a plague on both sides of the war, and on ours as well. Should we really not intervene because we’re worried what might happen in other countries? Isn’t that an indictment of what’s happening in those countries rather than in ours? Are we really shying away from helping people who are being slaughtered because we’re worried about what other people might do? I’m sorry, but I find that abominable.

When I mentioned that to someone recently, they said they considered my view a “liberal fantasy” – that in an ideal world, of course we would help them, but it’s not an ideal world; in fact, it’s darker and far more complex than we can appreciate. Well, yes, I can respect that, but when did “liberal fantasy” become a dirty word? When did it become frowned on to say, “I acknowledge the world is far more interconnected and complicated than it probably ever has been, but these people need – and deserve – our help.” Wouldn’t we want help if we were caught in the middle of a savage civil war? I would.

There’s a distressing tendency on the part of those who support the intervention in Iraq to rest their case largely on under-reported good news. Now, it is certainly true that there is much to celebrate in the new Iraq. The restoration of the ecology of the southern marshes, the freedom to follow the majority Shiite religion, the explosion of new print and electronic media, the emancipation of the schools and universities, and the consolidation of Kurdish autonomy; these are all things we should be celebrating. But those who want to take credit for them must also axiomatically accept the blame for the failure to anticipate huge problems in the provision of power, water, and security.

More to the point, one has to be prepared to support a campaign – or a cause – that is going badly. Those who murder the officials of the United Nations and the Red Cross, set fire to oil pipelines and blow up water mains, and shoot down respected clerics outside places of worship, are indeed making our point for us. There is no justifiable way that a country as populous and important as Iraq can be left at the mercy of such people. And – here is the crux of my argument – there never was.

Prudence, counselled by President Bush Senior, was all very well as far as it went. But it did leave Saddam Hussein in power, and it did involve the United States in watching from the sidelines as Iraqis were massacred for rebelling on its side and in its name. It left the Baathist regime free to continue work on weapons of mass destruction, which we know for certain it was doing on a grand scale until at the very least 1995. And it left Saddam free to continue to threaten his neighbors and to give support and encouragement to jihad forces around the world. It also left Saddam Hussein free to try and assassinate former President Bush on his postwar visit to Kuwait – an act of such transparent lunacy that it far transcends any sneers about George W. wanting to avenge his daddy. (It also demonstrates, by the way, Saddam Hussein’s urgent personal need for a revenge for 1991 – a consideration that deserves more attention than it has received.)

This already lousy status quo was volatile and unstable. Saddam Hussein’s speeches and policies were becoming ever more demented and extreme, and ever more Islamist in tone. The flag of Iraq was amended to include a verse from the Quran, and gigantic mosques began to be built in Saddam’s own name. Even if, as seems remotely possible, he was largely bluffing about weapons of mass destruction, this conclusion would destroy the view maintained by many liberals that, for all his crimes, Saddam understood the basic logic of deterrence and self-preservation. Not only was he able to defy the United Nations, but with French and Russian collusion, he was also increasingly able to circumvent sanctions. As he became older and madder, there emerged the real prospect of a succession passing to either Odai or Qusai Hussein, or to both of them. Who could view that prospect with equanimity?

Meanwhile, the no-fly zones managed to protect the Kurds and Shiites from a repeat performance of the mass murders of 1991 and earlier but did not prevent, for example, the planned destruction of the largest wetlands in the Middle East, home to the 5,000-year-old civilization of the Marsh Arabs. The smoke from this drain-and-burn atrocity was visible from the space shuttle. I shall leave open the question of whether “we” had any responsibility to prevent this and other mutilations and tortures of Iraqi society, except to say that the meltdown and trauma of that society, now so visible to all, were always inescapably in our future and would in any case have had consequences beyond themselves for the wider region. The continuation of this regime was indeed an imminent threat, at least in the sense that it was a permanent threat.

The question then, becomes this: Should the date or timing of this unpostponable confrontation have been left to Saddam Hussein to pick? The two chief justifications offered by the Bush administration (which did mention human rights and genocide at its first presentation to the United Nations, an appeal that fell on cold as well as deaf ears) were WMDs and terrorism. Here, it is simply astonishing how many people remain willing to give Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt. The late Dr. David Kelley, whose suicide so embarrassed the Blair government, put it very plainly in an article he wrote just before the war. Seriousness about “inspections” required a regime change in Iraq – no credible inspection could be conducted on any other terms.

Before the war, it was a staple of anti-interventionist argument that Saddam was too well-armed to be attacked, and would unleash weapons of mass destruction in a horrific manner. Any failures of prediction on this point can thus be shared equally, but there is no moral equivalence between them. Thanks to the intervention, Saddam Hussein has been verifiably disarmed, and a full accounting of his concealment and acquisition programs is being conducted. Where is the objection to that? Why so much surliness and resentment?

I am pleased to notice the disappearance of one line of attack – namely that Saddam Hussein was “too secular” to have anything to do with jihad forces. The alliance between his murderous fedayeen and the jihadists is now visible to all. An increasing weight of disclosure shows that the Iraqi Mukhabarat both sought and achieved contact with the Bin Laden forces in the 1990s and subsequently. Again, was one to watch this happening and hope that it remained relatively low-level?

The literal-minded insistence that all government rhetoric be entirely scrupulous strikes me, in view of the above, as weird. It can only come from those who were not willing to form, or to defend, positions of their own: in other words, those for whom Saddam would not have been a problem unless Bush tried to make him into one.

Arguments about democracy and reform cannot be phrased in terms of U.N. resolutions – especially when two of the relevant regime’s clients are among the permanent membership of the Security Council – but there is every reason to believe that the United States has chosen the right side in the region, in principle as well as in practice. To take the salient case of Iran, does anybody believe that the mullahs’ regime would have agreed to searches and inspections, or that Messrs Straw, de Villepin, and Fischer would have been able to seize the initiative on behalf of the European Union, except in the case that a) the main rival of Iran had been itself disarmed and b) a certain pedagogic lesson had been instilled? And that is to leave to one side the coming “people power” revolution in Iran itself, which seems to have been substantially encouraged by the “regime change” policy next door.

We are fighting for very large principles, in other words, and for extremely high stakes. And yes, part of the proof of this is the horror and terror and misery involved. A few years ago, the first elected president of Serbia, Zoran Djindjic, was shot down in the street by the alliance of mafiosi and ethnic fascists who constitute the legacy of Slobodan Milosevic. That gruesome reverse took place years after Milosevic himself had been put under arrest. But do you want to try and imagine what former Yugoslavia would look like now if there had not been an international intervention (postponed and hobbled by the United Nations) to arrest the process of aggression and ethnocide? Bush made the irresponsible decision to let the Balkans bleed, which is why I mistrust the counsel of prudence that I mentioned earlier, and find even more suspect the tendency of people today to take refuge in neutralist and conservative isolationism.

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