The most dominant movement in British foreign policy is not either of the main parties, or any major campaigning group. It is the Stop the World coalition. This is a broad alliance, encompassing Andrew Murray, Lindsey German of the far left to to Matthew Parris and Peter Oborne of the heterodox right and points inbetween.
The stop the world coalition has broad appeal because it proceeds from a number of reasonable positions, a number of truths held to be self-evident.
First, that while tragedy and genocide are awful and regrettable, it is primarily the responsibility of someone else to offer a solution. This might be the actors themselves, other regional powers, the United Nations, or any other group you wish to identify.
It follows we should rely on such partnerships to resolve the crisis with a minimum of activity on our part. It may be that those partners have strategic interests or repressive behaviours that are entirely opposed to our objectives. However, they are better placed to act than we are without them.
From this it is concluded that we should restrict ourselves to pursuing policy aims that are entirely blameless (humanitarian aid, calling for talks, accepting a smattering of refugees and so on).
Finally, if neither international partnerships nor humanitarian support are proving effective in preventing terrible outcomes, we should oppose any military intervention. As Andrew Murray of the Stop the War Coalition put it in the aftermath of the decision not to strike Assad last year “there is hardly a problem in the Middle East (or elsewhere) that Anglo-US military intervention cannot make worse”. (Murray believed, with many others, that a corner was turned in Western policy last year. He was right. We have since seen what lay on the other side.)
This scepticism is a reasonable challenge to any proposed military action, whether against genocide, chemical weapons use, or to protect a civilian population.
No such actions should be taken lightly and you would surely want to explore all alternatives, ensure a broad consensus, and have stable relationships with significant regional players before commiting to any warfare, with all its awful consequences.
You’d also want a high bar challenge for likely ‘success’, well-defined immediate objectives, and a clear understanding of the longer-term consequences of any action, in human lives most importantly, but also of time, money and ongoing commitment1.
The problem comes when this set of reasonable scepticisms becomes rigid opposition to all action. Instead of being an appropriate constraint against over-optimism and self-regard, this position becomes entirely negative, ruling out all options not described above as likely to lead to disaster.
Why is this problematic when the risks of any intervention are entirely real?
Because it envisions a world in which other actors do nothing. To be successful as policy it relies on a situation where the world has stopped, and there are few or no negative consequences for inaction.
This is a crucial point, because you can only accept that ‘our intervention can only make things worse‘ if you do not account for the possible actions of others. The binary choice is not ‘the current situation‘ versus ‘the situation after western action‘ but ‘a range of future situations in which Western military action has been pursued‘ and ‘a future where they have not – and others have responded‘.
In that future we find the choices of others, whether the choice of Assad to use barrel bombs, Iran to supply him or ‘ISIS’ to terrorise Shi’a, Christian and Kurds. Those futures are not all within our control2.
If we look at Syria, there was, and remains, a strong case against Western Military intervention from the beginning of the rebellion. Perhaps the Assad regime would fall without our involvement. Perhaps a diplomatic peace could be reached. Supporting the FSA with airstrikes would have been very unlikely to get UN approval with Russia at the security council. Acting against Assad, especially if half-heartedly, might lengthen the war, giving him recourse to secure arms imports from states that would see his fall as a strategic defeat. Finally, if, as in Libya, we intervened and then left, we might see Syria become a quagmire from which we were absent. So we chose not to act.
However, even though we did not act, and so cannot have caused these possible negative outcomes, things still got very much worse. Those articles and published this time last year saying that the ‘rush to war’ had been halted ring hollow now.
They ring hollow because while we were passive Iran and Russia were willing to support Assad. They ring hollow because international inaction and (in all probability) regime collusion created the conditions in which ultra-extremist groups could prosper. They ring hollow because from Qatar to Iran, allies and opponents behaved in ways we had no control over.
They ring hollow because the world did not stop simply because we wished it to.
As a result even greater instability was created – one driven largely by actions of those – Russia, Iran, Assad, Hizbollah, Islamist extremists- over whom the ‘west’ had no control, and facilitated by the choices of actors (Maliki, Syrian rebels, and so on) whose options were affected by an absence of Western (really American) presence.3
This is why the Stop the World coalition has a problem.
It is not that it is wrong to oppose Western action. The starting tenets – a humility in foreign affairs, an acceptance of the importance of partnership, a preference for peaceful means over military, a recognition of the limits of Western influence are all valuable qualities.
The problem is that it is wrong to assume Western action is the only significant wellspring of negative consequences.
By assuming a world in which the actions of others impact barely at all, they minimise the dangers and risks of inaction. Their policy invites not stillness, but a space into which others can, and will rush, creating further instability.
You end up with a policy agenda that is helpless in the face of profound challenges. All options are bad, and all choices are ruled out, and all you have is a repeated plea for others to behave in a way in which you would like them to behave..
Worse, you end up with a circle in which whatever imperfect choice is made becomes the sole cause of future misery. If it is only ‘our’ actions that appear significant, and things continue to get worse, then any choice made can be blamed for that worsening. The role of others becomes insignificant.
Contain Assad through sanctions and overflight- and be blamed for the death of innocent children and global radicalisation.
Do not constrain Assad – and be blamed for regional instability and collude in likely genocide, leading to global radicalisation.
Take military action to overthrow Assad – and be responsible for all that flows from his fall, including global radicalisation.
Or let Syria turn into a grinder of souls, with all that entails.
We have seen each of those options played out before.
Why does such a position appeal? For some, I suspect it is a consequence of realpolitik – Here we find ‘realists’ who see it being of limited concern to us if a dictator slaughters his people so long as he does not bother us, or who hold that a policy of masterly inactivity will have few negative consequences at home, while the costs abroad are no great concern of ours.
For others, there seems to be a sense in which Liberal Democracy is the source of global injustice, not the best approximation of a remedy. This can either appeal to either left or right, creating a strange admiration for the likes of Putin or Ba’athist regimes from the Galloways and the Obornes, who see them standing up against very different oppressions, no matter who they themselves oppress.
However, this seems to me to be a minority. Most of those who are doubtful are doubtful for good reasons. The objections raised above to western actions are reasonable, coherent ones. Unfortunately, though, the world is not going to stop. Others are going to act whether we wish them too or not.
To go from the grand to the risible, it seems likely that at least some British Jihadi’s were influenced by Anjem Choudary. Anjem Choudary and his tiny band of extremists hated Britain and the west before Iraq, before Afghanistan, before September 11.
They would have hated us whatever we said, did or failed to do. They would have sought outrage after outrage. If we had not invaded Iraq, perhaps even now, some radicalised young Jihadi from Welling would be fighting outside Baghdad because the West had betrayed Islam by colluding in Saddam’s brutal post 9/11 oppression of Islamism.
Intervention is not always right. But because others will still intervene whatever the UK and the US does, dogmatic non-intervention contains its own contradiction. The Stop the World coalition is doomed to fail.
- I suspect a significant proportion of readers will be asking how this relates to Israel. Fair question. From my perspective, the prospect of outside intervention fails on a number of points. First, I doubt Hamas would welcome a ‘peacekeeping force’ that limited their ability to fire rockets at Israel. Without that commitment any such presence would become an unwelcome occupation force very rapidly. Second, there is a pretty clear diplomatic solution available right now, which both parties are engaged in. So in that case, the prospect of intervention falls on precisely the sorts of grounds outlined. As for issues like arms sales, blockades and so on, this relates directly to the main thrust of the article – it is reasonable to be concerned by arms export licenses, but a bit odd to be concerned about them while being indifferent to Hamas’s importing rockets and tunnel building materials from Iran [↩]
- To draw an extreme analogy: The US withdraws our military presence from South Korea and North Korea launches an assault on Seoul. To judge the humanitarian consequences of any US response without considering what a North Korean takeover of the peninsula would mean is plainly ludicrous. However, if you accept ‘our intervention only makes things worse’ as a governing principle that would have to be your conclusion. The question that is sidestepped is ‘Worse than what, exactly?’ [↩]
- ISIS apparently took Taqba military base from the Syrian Army last night, securing MANPADS and Missiles and even a fighter jet. These were all Russian imports intended to bolster Assad. Intervention happened without us [↩]