Three left wing arguments against intervention in Syria, and why they are wrong

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.

21 Responses to “Three left wing arguments against intervention in Syria, and why they are wrong”

  1. 3arn0wl

    Your most compelling line is that we can’t stand idly by… A line I’ve written before now. But this is not a poor kid getting beaten up in the street. It’s not even the Hutus and Tutsies. The problem with Syria is the complexity of factions and interests.

    ‘Both’ sides, it would seem, have committed war crimes, so there’s scant integrity to ally with. So we support the underdog over the elected government? Tool them up to make the fight more even? Prolonging it and causing even more dispossession, injury and death?

    We put a huge peacekeeping force in, to stand in between the factions? What then? Hope they’re suddenly going to get on with one another again?

    ‘We’ have made huge mistakes in the region before (probably causing much of the instability across the whole of the Middle East and North Africa). Maybe there will be a whole-scale realignment of the region along religious lines. Maybe the West can’t and shouldn’t try to control or contain it. Maybe they do have the right to self-determination.

  2. Ex-Left Foot Forward reader

    The reason why the alternative to Assad is bad is nothing to do with the threat of Al-Qaeda to the west. It is to do with the threat of radical Islamic groups to the multitude of different religious / ethnic minorities that exist in Syria; Christians, Jews, Druze, Kurds, and smaller Islamic sects. Your lack of contextual knowledge is shocking to say the least.

  3. Philip

    Another day, another LFF post arguing for intervention in Syria. Fine. The regular, repetitive immolation of straw men is to be expected from the blogosphere. And LFF clearly has a party line on this issue. However, it is rather frustrating when the arguments are so shallow and insubstantial. I think there are legitimate arguments for intervention but I’m not convinced. If anything this kind of post pushes me towards the anti-intervention line simply because the pro-intervention critiques of it are so weak.

    I’m not a pacifist. I think that sometimes military violence is a necessary evil. But it’s always an evil. The only relevant question is whether military intervention is, in this case, the lesser of two evils. This is not a question that is being explored by reminding us about how horrific the situation is. Yes, it’s awful. But what could we do about it? What would help? What would the consequences be?

    Every military action has negative consequences – death, destruction, seeding hatred, reinforcing the military-industrial complex, bolstering jingoism and xenophobia. Sometimes – and only sometimes – military actions can have positive consequences in terms of saving lives, overturning repressive regimes and so on.

    All military actions, of whatever sort, have negative consequences; only occasionally do they have positive ones too. The fact that the civil war in Syria is horrifically bloody is not a sufficient argument for intervention there.

    The existence of such horror does mean that we should urgently investigate what can be done, sure. But whether or not there’s anything we can do to make the situation better in the short, medium and long term is another question. Is there? *Make that argument please*! Don’t just endlessly tell us how terrible it is – we know! Don’t just endlessly backbite leftist critics (I know this is most leftists’ favourite pasttime but please) – this misses the point.

    Those who are fundamentally against any kind of military action in any circumstances are wrong. But so are those who think that you can just throw guns, soldiers or no-fly-zones at a problem and make it go away. Often these things just make matters worse.

    It’s up to those who think the pros outweight the cons to convince the rest of us, not the other way around.

    “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.” — You do realise that this isn’t actually a counterargument, don’t you?

  4. RHF

    Excellent take on this. Although personally I find their excuses flimsy; left-leaning politicians claim the above rhetoric to appease an increasingly xenophobic / isolationist / Christian-focused **and unaware** constituency. Official rhetoric merely is a more eloquent restatement of popular ideologies mired, in part, in American ignorance of international affairs. Sadly, many Americans cannot identify Syria on the globe; much less be able to discuss its current affairs or understand why intervention could be necessary. There is an ever-widening chasm between Americans aware of and debating Syrian policy and those who truly have no knowledge. Outside of major media markets, the sad truth is that the majority of Americans are not even exposed to international news – either on local television programming or in printed medium. This is not meant to denigrate these Americans – be they left- or right- leaning. It simply is the sad state of American public education and investment in journalism today. Without basic understanding of the Syrian situation, nuanced policy and intervention positions make no sense. Furthermore, politicians have no reason to lead by example when it costs them reelection. With something as serious as another military intervention, it is not difficult to see why many hide behind straw arguments.

    It could be easy for those who have never seen a mass grave to render death tolls in the abstract and not confront the stark, sad reality. Outside of September 11, 2001 and December 7, 1941, Americans have not experienced acts of warfare. It is a foreign concept.

  5. Sam C

    I wouldn’t advance any of these arguments. I would suggest that flooding a war zone with more weapons is extremely unlikely to have any kind of beneficial effect.

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