So we must have military action in Syria because Assad has allegedly gassed his citizens. Therefore, in accordance with universal humanitarian principles, we need to bomb some airbases. Of course, our universal principles of human rights aren’t in practice all that universal. There are some countries which appear to demand from us an overwhelming moral obligation to intervene. We must intervene in Syria because Assad is a war criminal, responsible for the deaths of thousands of his countrymen. We need to protect the Syrian people from their own government by the timely lobbying of the odd cruise missile or two. Yet curiously we feel no such obligation towards a dozen other benighted third-world nations. The Congolese civil war, which by 2008 had caused the deaths of 5.4 million people, did not trigger a morally ordained military intervention. We have not subsequently felt compelled to intervene in the residual conflicts going on in the eastern part of that country. In the early 1980s, Robert Mugabe’s regime engaged in a brutal ethnic cleansing of the Matabele minority. His deployment of the North Korean-trained fifth brigade against unarmed civilians resulted in the death of around 20,000, while the famines triggered by his expropriation of white farms left millions more facing starvation. The number of deaths caused by Mugabe vastly exceeds the estimated 16,000 deaths during the Bush wars under the much-maligned Ian Smith’s premiership. Yet we never dispatched troops to Harare. The now deposed despot Mugabe will never face trial for his crimes against both the black and the white populations of the former Rhodesia. Nor will the constant cycle of tribal warfare in the highlands of New Guinea (automatic machine guns and grenades replacing clubs and spears) ever elicit the boot print of the British or American soldier or the hum of a Tomahawk. Our greatest deviation in practical terms from human rights rhetoric comes in those countries not to which we have turned a blind eye, but where we have actively facilitated humanitarian crises. The war in Yemen has seen tens of thousands of civilian deaths as a consequence of Saudi Arabia’s blockade, while British manufactured weapons don’t somehow magically avoid Houthi women and children when guided by Saudi pilots. The fifty or so deaths attributed to an Assad regime gas attack seems a small number compared with the millions lost in conflicts in more neglected parts of the world.

But this matters little to neoconservative agitators on both sides of the Atlantic. They argue that there are certain times when we have to fight. But it just so happens that these times always involve countries in the strategic orbit of states such as Russia, and never countries with whom we have close economic ties. There is no moral requirement to act in Syria because the moral principle being invoked — that we must protect civilians from harm — doesn’t apply in most parts of the world. Even putting aside the seeming moral inconsistency of humanitarian interventionism, there are other questions which arise. Why does a chemical weapons attack mandate western intervention when the barrel bombing of cities doesn’t? When Assad levelled rebel-held areas with mortar fire rather than gassing their inhabitants was it particularly less heinous? Why do we do decide now, when the tragedy that is the civil war is finally drawing to an end, that the west must make a military presence felt? If we bomb Syrian bases, putting aside concerns over potential civilian deaths, surely we will be prolonging the conflict by weakening the military strength of what is now clearly the stronger party? The stated aim of humanitarians is the preservation of life, yet this has never been done in the third world by substantial western military intervention. It certainly won’t be accomplished by the cosmetic destruction of a few bases. And it very certainly won’t be accomplished by attempting to engage in liberal social engineering in countries which have no precedence of democratic governance. If we really wanted to save more Syrians we would withdraw all military aid to the rebels and wish a swift victory for Assad. Yet we cringe from such realpolitik as if denying some basic moral principle which must animate our foreign policy. We deride the consequentialism which says that sometimes it is best when murderous but strong dictators hold onto power for the sake of peace. The moral universalism of the liberal which finds practical expression in the airstrike, which nonchalantly dismisses any dead as ‘collateral damage’, is somehow better because it won’t grubby its hands by tolerating, let alone working with a war criminal (oddly the same concerns expressed about Bashar al Assad don’t apply to the Islamist rebels we have happily funded in Syria).

The reality is that at a basic level our foreign policy is directionless. The democracies of the west which lurch from one position to another (first proposing to bomb Assad, then ISIS and other assorted groups, then Assad again, and now Assad again) have no underlying strategic or moral consistency. The people who now so avidly agitate for war have no real long-term plans for Syria. They bully and harangue their opponents as ‘appeasers’ and ‘Russian tools’ yet they urge an intervention which, if initiated, might cause untold suffering and trigger a further exodus of asylum seekers who the beleaguered nations of Europe will inevitably be expected to accommodate. The armchair warriors don’t have a plan for what Syria will look like in five or ten years but they can entreat us to watch the cathartic destruction of several Syrian airbases to somehow show that we really care about the average Syrian. We should stay out of Syria and we should never have got involved in the first place. If the chimeric democratic aspirations of that nation’s liberal middle class had actually been fulfilled in the heydays of the Arab Spring I strongly suspect that today there would be no Christians in Damascus celebrating Easter.[pullquote]

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31 Comments on

  1. Nations would do well to hew to the strict moral code of justice and avoid Machiavellian schemes, as they have freedom to do so. Since they do not have immortal souls, they must be judged in this world. Full measure, sifted, pressed down, and running over. One should not expect it to be pretty. Don’t kid yourself.

    The governments of the west have no right to attack a sovereign state for what it does internally. Their meddling in the ME has been a series of unjust wars which has only aided the enemies of the west. Can anyone demonstrate how the west was under attack by the ME ? Had those regimes remained unmolested, however brutal they were, would the net damage have been more or less than what has actually occurred ?

    • Oil, GP, Oil, and add in the Israel factor.

      Damage? That’s Life on Earth, GP.

      Wherever I’ve been, and I’ve been many places, I see great damage, and, because of lack of human initiative, I see much goodness not created.

      “Life on earth is Hell, you just have to say Yes to it, that’s all”, said someone who has seen and thought about things, in depth and breadth, much more than I have.

  2. A country that is not a great power”, and not wealthy as well, should keep out of other people’s wars. Britain is no longer the world’s policeman – if it ever was. Neither should Britain be supplying instruments of warfare to regimes that are not permanently “on our side”, if any safe friends still exist. There used to be a little saying – “MYOB” = mind your own business; it’s a pity we don’t, or rather it’s a disgrace that we don’t. Our own house needs putting in order, and quick, never mind meddling elsewhere.

    • George D, to me the issue is less one of Britain not being a world power and more the matter of being a member of the Western alliance.

      The same applies to to all mid-sized and smaller nations the comprise the West -and others, eg Japan.

      Lamentable it might be, but we live in a world of competing interests which are shaped by matters of geography and location of required resources.

      Rather than complain to God or the Great Randomness about such matters, we simply must get on and help ourselves.

      There is no Grand Win-Win in situations of intrinsic competition. Interestingly, to me anyway, the ancient wisdom/religious texts, the world over, recognise this point, and urge Kings and Warriors to do the necessary when matters come to a head, and even before.

      • Thanks Harry, but you’ve not demonstrated why Britain should get involved in the wars of other nations, specifically where our own interests are not directly threatened. For all the misery in the middle east, does it really threaten us militarily? But by poking our nose in we are inviting retaliation by other interested parties. It might be a worthwhile consideration not to go to war if you can’t win outright, unless it is a war of defence when you are attacked, whereupon you have to fight to survive. War is about getting killed, and not much else, except misery all round. Wars are Lose-Lose situations, as the 20th Century demonstrated so vividly.

  3. RogerinFlorida, I am unclear as to your “basics” when it comes to the ME, but there’s this:

    The West, and that includes Japan in this case, requires the reliable flow at OK prices of oil form the ME, and will continue to do so for a century and probably two.

    As such, the USA, with support from Europe, the Anglosphere and Japan, and Israel, wil fight on in the ME over that long period to come.

    Oh yes, there will be plenty of mistakes and strange bedfellows along the way, but Oil -along with the Suez Canal- will focus efforts for some centuries to come.

    PS: While the USA might well become self-sufficient in oil, and even be an oil exporter, the USA needs Europe, Japan et al to get ME oil, so as the keep the world turning.

    • Harry; equally the oil producing countries of the ME need to sell that oil, simply because they have bugger all else to offer. What western interference has been about is who is to be the favored supplier and that battle has largely been between sunni SA and shiite Iran. Now Iraq is firmly in the Iranian camp (another great US victory). China is a major consumer of ME oil, perhaps the largest now, you can be sure that they will protect their interests.
      Extrapolating trends out a century or two is a bit reckless, a futurologist of 1900 would have been quite certain that the fate of Londoners and New Yorkers alike was to be buried in horse dung or drowned in spit.
      Regards, rif.

      • Yes, good points, rif.

        Still, I enjoy looking out a century or so…as much fun as whiskey, at times.

        Now, if not decisive in ME terms, let us keep in mind: China and Iran, each in its own ways, have massive internal challenges to contend with.

        Along with its various internal security threats, China has yet to learn how to make its domestic economy work to any adequate degree. And with 90% of its population living at about the level of the lower 90% of Nigerians, a consumer-led economy is a way off yet.

        And the Big Belt thing is in trouble, becaue it has precipitated conflicts among potential winners and losers in the various client States along the Road.

        In Iran, it’s not only the students who are not happy with the mullahs and the Rev Guard. In several provinces, the farmers (!) are expressing disquiet. Not good when your farmers are unhappy, and its hard to import food stuffs.

        All in all, I reckon the USA will prevail, with China, Russia and Iran all out-running their capacities to respond to their inevitable internal challenges, and to manage their clients and enemies.

        And again to emphasize: The USA will make many errors along the way -it’s just it will win the Big Game, despite all.

        And, I’ll just look out 50 years, maybe just 25, and say: Would not surprise me if Japan, with all its limitations, rises up to be an important, powerful force in world affairs.

  4. Russia has clearly won the war against ISIS and its ilk in Syria, it was the only power with the utter ruthlessness required to confront suicidal fanatics. Whoever was responsible for the gas attacks will not succeed in overthrowing Assad. He is now forever in the Russsian empire. For example, the French, Macron, would like to regain influence in their old colony but like a hyena snatching a bit of meat when the lion’s back is turned, he will come away with little. Syria is Putin’s prize and his next step will be to build a second gas pipeline to the Med

    News this morning came of how Putin’s European gas pipeline has been used to intimidate the Baltic states and Poland while offering Merkel’s Germany special discounts.

    • Iran is also a big winner in this. The gas flowing through that pipeline will be from Iranian fields, so Europe will be dependent on Russia and Iran for it’s gas supplies, and you can sure that they will collude closely on pricing and volume. Russia gets a permanent land base in Syria from which they can completely dominate the Eastern Mediterranean, nothing will move in that area without their at least tacit permission and that includes US aircraft carrier battle groups.
      There is now no chance for the Saudi/Qatari gas pipelines, in fact look for an expansion of oil pipelines from Iraq and Iran to Syria, competing with Persian Gulf terminals.
      What a mess! And all because the US has acted as Saudi proxies.
      Look now for action to heat up in Yemen now as Hezbollah and IRGC join the anti-Saudi forces there. Iran is choking SA and it is a wonderful sight.

      • Hello Editor, Hello RogerinFlorida,

        Some info that might be useful to you both:

        In consequence of both new and continuing sanctions against Russian and Iranian business interests, as implemented by the Trump Admin, both the Russian and Iranian currencies are currently in steep fall against those of countries from which Russia and Iran must buy big equipment.

        So, of course Russia and Iran will bleat and “make moves”, but both are on a hiding to nothing.

          • Roger, perhaps a bit -but China cannot subsidize others to unlimted degrees -and they will need to magically upgrade the quality of their manufactured goods.

            Oh I know, China makes excellent trains, planes and satellites, but their know-how for manufacturing excellence seems rather limited, so far.

  5. It would be nice if PM May would prioritize among the humanitarian crises she faces. Never mind Syria there are such crises in Telford, Rotherham, Blackpool, Oxford, Bristol, Newcastle and many others, including the mother of all of them in London, still waiting for an official response.
    What is particularly disgusting is the obsequious response of Europeans, May especially: Apparently British jets are lined up in Akrotiri, ready to bomb Syria. When we all know that May, and Britain, would not dare to fart in Russia’s general direction without being under America’s military skirts. Westminster is nothing but America’s toady, a lackey, a loathsome little spittle licking sidekick.
    It is well to remember also that the war in Syria was brought about by the CIA, operating through it’s front group; The National Endowment for Democracy. These are the people who provide all the revolutionary services from the most mundane; leaflets, boxed lunches, port a potties, payments to rioters, up to and including car bombs, snipers, arms, and political encouragement. We know it cost the US taxpayer at least $5Billion to overthrow the govt. of Ukraine.
    The mess in Syria (and Libya, Iraq, Yemen, etc.) is mostly the result of western meddling, but on whose behalf is this being done?
    Clue: Who has the money? Who has bought politicians in the US and UK? All point to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but all their efforts would be to no avail if our leaders weren’t up for sale in them first place.

  6. It’s a rare war that does not cost a lot of civilian death and assorted awful miseries.
    Remember Normandy: From D-Day until the action passed further east and North, French civilian losses at least equaled those among Allied combat troops.
    The West, and Japan, needs reliable flow of ME oil at OK prices, and it needs to keep Russia and China at bay, while reducing jihadi forces.
    Israel is the most obvious long-term friendly base for Western military might required to enable this Big Show, and so must be maintained.
    I think George Orwell, among others, mentioned that the upkeep of Civilisation is not for the squeamish.

    • it is President Trump who is trying to extricate the US from this mess, that your hero; the magic negro, actually started.

      • What a joke! You mean Obama the Real Estate Jackal and the bank loans to people who could never pay that caused the 2008 crash? You do pick some strange leaders over there. Do you think Trump’s first tranche of White House staff were all communists and our hero discovered this and sacked them one by one? The Lady of the Night was clearly a Moscow agent. The Us army would do well to keep out of the Middle East, the far east as well (Vietnam) but it would be useful in the Congo, where the opposition would be less brave, millions of people would be saved, America would be seen as hero and the pickings, ownership of the worlds biggest open cast mines, diamonds. uranium, copper you name it, very great. If Donald Duck does not hurry the Chinese will be in there, failing that the Russians.

    • Editor Harris describes Trump as a fool, and hopes he will not blunder.
      Trump, while not to the taste of many learned folk, in terms of manners and the grammar and tone of his blurtings, shows signs of Really Wanting To Save Western Civ.
      This is in stark contrast to other US Admins, notably that of Mr Barack Obama.
      My view is that the entire world, including those who would bring down Western Civ (poor souls who have not a clue how good they have it under its auspices), will be very much better off, due to the Trump Presidency.

      I’ve had many opportunities, over these many decades, to observe fools and others who occupy positions of great power and heavy responsibilities.

      And also, I’ve had opportunity to observe high-level scholars, journalists and psychologists who would offer opinions of those in power.
      And Gosh! How few of these latter have any comprehension of the work involved in handing massive conflict and complexity with which the power-folk must engage.

  7. We have seen to our cost that when ‘the West’ intervenes in Muslim countries, the results are disadtrous..

    When asked in an interview whether the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children said to have resulted from sanctions following the Gulf War were worth it, Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s Secretary of State said, it was a hard decision but yes, they were.

    Sometimes a supposed cure is worse than a disease. No wonder the Muslim world hates us. And we dare to assume moral superiority !

    • CB, to me, the state of nature we face in regard ME, Oil, Islam and associated is not tractable with concepts and tools othat reside in the field of “morality”.

      Question is: Who’s going to Win?

      This is a state of Competition, not Co-operation -no Win-Wins are feasibly in natural competitions.

      These matters are well worked over in the fields of Game Theory…and Street Smarts.

  8. I very much agree with this article – though I find the last sentence disconcerting. Does it mean what I think it means?

    • I think that if democracy had been implemented in Syria during the Arab spring its likely that a Sunni fundamentalist government would have taken control, as occurred in other countries such as Egypt once regular elections were introduced. If that had occurred the Christian and Alawi communities would have probably faced at the very least some form of state sanctioned religious persecution, and in the long term expulsion. Assad, while a tyrant, was able to hold an ethnically and religiously fractured state together, and offer some protection to minorities.

    • I agree – I am not sure what it means either. If we had supported Assad from the start- with certain important reservations – Christians, Jews, atheists and Muslims would be free to pursue their beliefs in peace- as before.

  9. Israel doesn’t want the other countries you mention destabilised or destroyed, so the diaspora won’t agitate for action and use their influence in the media to shut down alternative points of view.

  10. Correct. With apologies to Yeats, ‘the worst are full of passionate intensity’ yet again. Take a bow and please leave the stage Trump, May et al.

  11. Absolutely correct. ‘There is something about the Middle East that makes men take leave of their senses.’ – A. J. P. T.
    Remember the US and the ‘moderate opposition’? Isn’t it another example of the ‘third force’ that was such a success in Vietnam?