It is hard to express my feelings about the gulf that has emerged between my views on the terrible, catastrophic situation in the Middle East and most of ‘leftish’ opinion1.
I feel further adrift from my domestic friends than I ever have. Adrift, not just due the divide between what many of my sympathetic elected representatives, newspapers, journalists and erstwhile political allies seem to believe and what I instinctively grasp for2, but adrift in my own ignorance and ineffectiveness.
After all, I sit in sunny London, with opinions that cost me nothing, but could cost others much.
Yet it feels cautious silence is also a way of hiding, because that silence is exploited by the confidently certain. Yes, I am an armchair general, but so is an MP, so is an editor, so is a fashionable columnist who argues for the opposite view to mine3. If Russell Brand dares to share his opinion, perhaps I should too4.
So if what follows offends, or is stupid, or over-generalises, I apologise. I recognise these flaws, have half-choked on them myself, but feel the need to try -somehow- to splutter my ignorance into the world nonetheless.
Today, Stop the War have organised a great demonstration calling for an end to the attack on Gaza.
This is not merely a call for peace; for the end of bloodshed. It cannot be. After all, the cautious truce agreed last week ended not with an attack on Gaza, but an attack on Israel.
Instead, the demonstration is something more than just a call to an end to violence. It is a call for a particular solution.
Fair enough. The roots of this conflict are difficult, and complex, the flaws on all sides apparent. Yet the stated aims of the demonstration would not produce the desired peace.
If Hamas remains committed to the destruction of the entire Israeli state, then to propose an unconditional end to restrictions on Gaza, when Hamas rule Gaza and use imported concrete to build tunnels to attack Israel, imported metal to build rockets to bomb Israel, and at the same time demand a boycott of Israel; then you effectively demand, not unconditional peace, but a tilt in the battle to Hamas. To Hamas, note, not to the Palestinian Legislature, or Fatah, or the people of Gaza, all of whom want an immediate ceasefire, then talks and negotiations and a permanent peace with Israel, but to Hamas, who want no such thing.
Still, I sympathise with those marching, because I think most marchers are not making a cold calculus of the interests of factions, but instead expressing human sympathy for the victims of violence.
It is the tragedy of Gaza that demands sympathy, and rightly so. It is the dying children of Gaza, the insanity of war that brings people out on the streets in their thousands. If you were at that demonstration, and if that was your aim, I salute and admire you motivation. It is why I donated to the Disaster Emergency Committee appeal today. (For Gaza, and to their three year old appeal for Syria)
Those deaths ask us: Have Israeli forces committed crimes? No supporter of the British Government and troops during the Troubles can deny it is extremely likely, even certain. Any Crime should outrage us, and we should demand they be investigated and punished, but they do not require assent to a proposed solution that is no peaceful solution at all.
So, today’s marchers, I too want peace and justice.
But I cannot march with you.
Yes, I think the solution the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, and George Galloway, and Stop the War offer for the Middle East is misguided and wrong.
But it goes further than that.
I can’t march with you because I don’t really understand what it means to march for this single peace in the Middle East, when the whole Middle East is engulfed in war. I don’t understand how the principles inter-relate, how the causes link.
For the broader left, too, I don’t really understand how we can, over the last year, oppose military action in Syria, support military action in Iraq, and propose a kind of half-neutrality in Gaza. What is this approach, what is its purpose or aim or strategic justification5?
I understand the motive. I think it’s decent and kind, and well-intentioned of our leaders. I support the motive. It’s just I don’t think it will work, I don’t think it makes sense, and I don’t think it will end well.
Almost a year ago, the same people marching today to demand a halt to Israeli attacks on Gazan civilians marched to halt an attack on Assad’s regime in Syria after it committed one of the worst atrocities imaginable against Syrian civilians.
Almost all the left ended up agreeing with that stance. Almost by accident. We argued for caution. We got inaction. We congratulated ourselves for ‘preventing a rush to war’.
We had done no such thing. The Syrian war already existed. We simply chose to do almost nothing about it.
Certainly the action proposed last year – limited airstrikes against a regime that had committed chemical weapons attacks- was limited and insufficient to conclude the wider conflict, but we opposed it anyway. So the Syrian regime made a concession on using chemical weapons, switching to barrel bombs and chlorine gas instead, safely certain no consequences would follow.
Those barrel bombs, those chlorine gas attacks, those regime atrocities all came after we ‘stopped the rush to war’.
That war has raged further and faster and wider and wilder, and now many of the same voices that opposed intervention in Syria because the situation was too complex, we had no clear national interest at stake, and action risked making things worse, while there was no clear exit strategy, stand ready to intervene in the consequential conflict in Iraq, a conflict that has mutated and become more malevolent, but is surely no less complex, no less incendiary and offers the west no clearer an exit strategy6.
A year later, military action has become humanitarian. We have to act to prevent atrocity.
Forgive me for wondering, but what have we been standing aside from in Syria, these past three years, but a humanitarian crisis, full of preventable atrocities?
We had alternatives.
We could have done more, militarily to support the civil, more or less secular opposition when they rebelled against Assad. Such action would have had consequences. It would have cheered Hamas, perhaps, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Not that I think demonstrating that the west can defend muslims from murderous regimes should be abandoned for such a small reason. Might even have helped, in some way.
Perhaps our actions would have been presented as imperialist. More seriously, we might have dropped a bomb on a civilian facility and killed innocents. After all, Amnesty international, no less, accused NATO of War Crimes for our attack on a Serbian TV station.
Alternatively, we could, like Russia7 have cynically argued that Assad is a monster, but he is a known monster. Let him slaughter the rebels, as we allowed Saddam to slaughter, and at least Syria will be a peaceful graveyard. That too, would have been a decision. This too would have had consequences. Terrible ones.
Instead, we did effectively nothing. We did nothing for understandable reasons. We had become leary of consequence of our choices in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Somalia and Sudan.
But it turns out that our avoidance of consequence also has consequences. Money flowed to the most extreme, sometimes from our supposed allies. Iran and Hizbollah operated in Syria, even though the west did not. Consciously or not, Assad helped create an enemy that would bring him allies and secure his foreign supporters. That extremist Sunni enemy grew rich and ambitious on an illicit oil trade, perhaps selling energy to the very Syrian regime it intends to destroy. Our policy of inaction had consequences. Genocidal ones. The Islamic State we will attack today grew strong in the brutal chaos of a Syria we were indifferent to.
For me, the same applies in Libya: Here, we acted to prevent an atrocity, then effectively walked away, fearing the consequences of sustained presence. As we looked away, things fell apart to the extent the Libyan government is now pleading for for greater western commitment, and getting little. Maybe we’ll end up supporting another strongman, who will murderously solve the problems for us while enriching his cronies, whether directly or through Egypt’s own de facto dictator.
Perhaps then we should have made the decision we made a decade ago, when Libya renounced terrorism – that though Gaddafi was a monster, he was at least agreeing only to be a monster to his own people, and might even stop being that one day? I think not, because standing aside from his 2011 military campaign would have been inhumane. If we hadn’t acted, there would have been a disaster too. Just a different, and probably worse, disaster.
Instead, we intervened, patted ourselves on the back, then stood aside. Is that better or worse than a sustained intervention?
I haven’t even begun to mention the destruction in Congo, which we seem to have just decided was too difficult to worry about.
The truth is I don’t understand what it is to be a progressive in foreign policy these days. I know the mood is against liberal intervention, but I don’t know what it has been replaced with.
I do know what we would like.
We would like the Israelis and Hamas to stop fighting and find a mutually acceptable peace. We would like Assad to reach a diplomatic solution with the Syrian National Congress. We would like the Libyan government to act against Islamists. We would like Egypt to be less intolerant and brutal. We would like Iran to stop supporting Assad, and backing Maliki, and supplying Hamas. We would like Russia to not invade Eastern Ukraine. We would like a broad alliance against the Islamic State. We would like various Arab ruling families to stop funding extremism abroad and repressing human rights at home.
That is a noble and great agenda to advance, but without ever being prepared to accept responsibility for achieving it, or accepting the consequences of acting and falling short, it is also meaningless. A pose, not a policy.
These aims are wonderful aims, but in a multi-polar world, achieving them will be extremely difficult. The consequences of almost all choices will be dangerous and fraught.
Is being a progressive in foreign policy merely to will peace and loathe destruction, but to shrink from any proposed action for achieving this, fearing it will breach peace and promote destruction?
If all we offer is a series of wishes, but no guarantees, no consequences, no commitment for the long-term, then our aims are destined to fail, and we will find ourselves in a world far worse than one we acted in, however imperfectly.
Without the willingness to risk our own standing, or to follow-up on our declared principles, we look ridiculous.
Better to not advance high principles of morality, than to advance them then by constant inaction mock them.
Often not to act will be the right decision, horrifying though this can be. At the extreme, there is no question that military escalation in North Korea would be a terrible mistake, even if that means condemning millions to a terrifying half-existence.
In every case I have mentioned, there is a strong, sensible, rational case for western inaction, as well as a case for action.
Yet I don’t understand on what basis we are making this calculus today. What weight of regrets do we pile up, assess and say, “sorry, we cannot”.
For the Stop the War leadership, the argument is simple. Whatever the west does is wrong. If it sends ground troops, it is imperialist. If it uses sanctions and no-fly zones, it is cruel. If it does nothing, it is complicit.
For the traditional right, perhaps it is equally simple. Whatever affects our national interest dictates our actions. If Syrians want to slaughter each other, that’s their affair. If Israel and Gaza attack each other, we side with our ally. If Russia attacks Ukraine, we ask how much the City would suffer.
For those of us who do not oppose an expanded global liberal democracy on principle, nor are indifferent to the impact of the rejection of liberal principles by the brutal or the theocratic, there should be an alternative.
One that says that where we can act to support our principles, we should, and that while we should be cautious of over-confidence and sharply aware of our own conceit, the burden of inaction should weigh just as heavy in our accounting as the burden of action.
If Liberal Intervention overreached, we should say so, and why, and on what basis we will intervene more modestly and humbly.
Yet instead there seems a mere absence. Just marches for peace, when there is already a war. Demands for peace that are not really demands for peace, but posture or platitude. An instinctive opposition to military action, when that may be the only thing that prevents far worse.
It is easy here, in safe, warm London, to say such things and not live with the consequences of saying it. I accept that. The charge is admitted.
But it is just as easy to march against a choice, or to issue a press release against a policy, and not live with the consequences of that marching, or that refusal.
- Yes, ‘leftish opinion’ is a terrible generalisation. I suppose I mean the ‘liberal consensus’, the broad estuary of opinion and instinct that takes in the leadership of the Labour party, a large chunk of columnists, broadcasters and journalists, the political leadership of the Trade Union movement, and a whole army of others. Like any estuary, its course and content is ever-changing, its tide low or high, but feel part of it, and you know you are part of something great and supportive and meaningful, while strand yourself on a bank or get caught in some creek or eddy, and you become very aware of your separation, of being -apart-. I sometimes wonder whether the anger of so many progressive recidivists springs from their sudden sharp isolation from this great, mutually supportive, uplifting, immersive, instinctive flow. To be cut off is a strange and terrible thing, especially when you see who is still carried along in the stream – a bigot, say, or a fraud, or a patsy [↩]
- Nor is this some internal party point scoring, or a coded critique of the current leadership. A small example: The other day I got into a slight spat with a former Labour cabinet minister who was saying that the only reason he could think of for David Cameron’s policy on Gaza was that Donor influence had been bought to bear on the PM. Challenged on this by me, he argued that other than donor influence, he could conceive of no plausible reason Cameron would not simply echo Obama. Two things troubled me about this. First, that the idea that shadowy, presumably Jewish, donors could buy a British Prime Minister was seen as a perfectly acceptable charge to make against both parties, but also that it was impossible to believe that Cameron simply thought criticising Israel equally to criticising Hamas was a mistake was not even a plausible possibility. No, it had to be the ‘Donors’. This former minister is, and remains a proud Blairite [↩]
- And if anyone wants me in Kurdistan, well, they only have to ask. I’ve been asking to go for years [↩]
- To put it another way, I don’t hold that my view should have much weight, but it should still be expressed, and tested, and rebuffed [↩]
- For the record, my position on outside intervention in Gaza is that I would welcome an outside military presence in Gaza, subject to three conditions. First, the Gazan authorities should desire it, so it is not an ‘occupation’. Second, the role would be both to prevent external military incursions and to prevent attacks being launched on Israel and Egypt from Gaza. Third, to prevent the military presence being sucked into a guerilla war, the same body would have to have control over trade routes into Gaza, at least until there is no prospect of same being used to turn the UN forces themselves into human shields or targets. However, I doubt there would be much enthusiasm for this without a wider peace established first. Without such, an outside force would rapidly become an occupier, at least to someone [↩]
- I want to be fair here, because there is an argument I respect that tells me I’m wrong. If the action we proposed was inadequate to preventing the Assad regime attacking civilians, would such attacks have been a mere waste. They might have been, but I think they would have forced greater caution. However, I agree both that this is uncertain and that a wider political solution was needed. I just think we would have been more likely to get one if we had acted more firmly and earlier against Assad. However, the action proposed was so limited and late, perhaps it may indeed have done very little good [↩]
- or an eighties Rumsfeld [↩]