Understandably reluctant to get entangled in foreign adventures after the war in Iraq, Barack Obama's administration has been so keen to make a break with the past that it has failed over Syria to recognise that inaction often has deadlier consequences than action.
Understandably reluctant to get entangled in foreign adventures after the war in Iraq, Barack Obama’s administration has been so keen to make a break with the past that it has failed over Syria to recognise that inaction often has deadlier consequences than action.
As Terry Glavin has pointed out, the Iraq Body Count project put the 2003-2005 death toll at 67,365 civilians. Two years into the Syrian civil war and the death toll according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is roughly 94,000, and possibly as high as 120,000.
It’s not a competition, obviously, but any serious anti-war person always needs to consider whether or not the alternative to military intervention could be worse – and in the case of Syria, as with Bosnia and Rwanda before it, that’s looking increasingly to be the case.
One hurdle politicians face is that intervention in Syria remains decidedly unpopular – both in the US and in Britain. Just 15 per cent of Americans support military action in Syria and in Britain just 24 per cent support sending even defensive equipment to the rebels.
Whether slavishly following public opinion, rather than leading it, makes one a better democrat, however, is a matter of conjecture.
There appears at present to be three prevailing moods on the left – all more or less leaning towards keeping out of the conflict. What’s striking, however, is just how conservative these arguments tend to be.
Here are the three most common.
We should stay out of the Middle East
The first takes the view that we really have no right interfering in the affairs of other nations. On the surface this appears quite admirable, even progressive. There were numerous instances during the Cold War of the US intervening in a country under the guise of anti-Communism because a nation was “a threat to US interests” – a sweeping term that could (and was) used to justify all kinds of demagoguery.
The problem with this stance is that it requires, whether one admits it or not, acquiescence in murder. If you wouldn’t walk by calmly if you saw a person being beaten to a pulp on a British street, nor should you turn away when people are being mowed into trenches by machine guns. The fact that the victims are foreigners should not come into it if you are an internationalist.
It’s always important to remember that doing nothing also carries its own burden of responsibility.
We should spend the money at home/We can’t afford it
This is probably the most common of the three. On the left ‘war’ is considered universally bad, even though it is often the only surefire way of overthrowing tyranny. It follows then that any money spent on war might be better spent at home on social security or perks for pensioners.
The conservative version of this argument in its crudest form is that we should look after ‘our own’ before aiding ‘foreigners’. This is why people like US senator Rand Paul are strongly opposed to involvement on foreign conflicts.
These people will readily admit that they simply don’t care much for foreigners, and as a consequence don’t want to lift a finger to help them. The left version tends to emphasise where the money might not be spent if it goes abroad, but it seems unlikely that the motivation is all that different.
What comes after Bashar al Assad could be worse
This is by far the strongest argument of the three as there is a very real danger that Jihadi groups could seize at least a portion of state power should Syrian rebels overthrow the government of Bashar al Assad.
The strangest thing about this argument, however, is that many of those on the left espousing it appeared relatively relaxed about the threat from Al Qaeda prior to the conflict in Syria. Remember what American leftist Michael Moore said of jihadists like Al Qaeda? “There is no threat. there is no threat, there is no threat”.
Now that an anti-American dictator is besieged by rebellion apparently there is.
However well grounded these newly-found concerns might be, this is a distinctly conservative argument, and could be used to justify the status quo against any revolution.
This argument embodies conservative real politik par excellence but with a left-wing twist. This is why, in the mid-1990s, Conservative foreign secretary Douglas Hurd refused to lift an arms embargo which was having the unintended consequence of aiding Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian forces as they massacred Bosnian Muslims – on the basis that it would create a “level killing field”. And it’s why today left-wingers like Owen Jones can write sarcastically that: “…if there’s one thing Syria’s increasingly brutal civil war needs, it’s a shedload more guns and weapons”.
In other words, another level killing field.
Update: Another common anti-interventionist postulation is that one shouldn’t support military action if one isn’t prepared to be the first go over the top oneself. The problem with this is that it is a bit like saying that one can’t support police action against, say, armed gangs without joining the police oneself. I do believe, therefore, that it isn’t a credible argument, although I am happy to be proven wrong.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.