Thursday, August 29, 2013
Syrian Intervention: Nick, Please Make the Hard Choice to Be Practical
The argument over Syria is depressing. After decades of an appalling regime and months of appalling civil war, poison gas has pushed many people simply to say – enough. And, morally, they’re right. Who can’t understand the urge to say, these are terrible things, and they must be fought? But real life doesn’t let us be the Sheriff, all guns blazing. The last decade above all has taught us about playing at cowboy ‘peacemaking’. So much as I empathise with Nick Clegg, it’s time to tell him to be a grown-up.
Syria up-ends all the usual certainties of UK politics. Nick Clegg talks about hard choices trumping idealism, and being practical, and concentrating on what can be done, not what we want to do in an ideal world… Not today. Today Nick says, this is what I believe in, it’s simply right, never mind the cost or the consequences, we can work those out later. And it’s the Liberal Democrats who are having to lecture their Leader, slow down, think about it, we don’t have unlimited money, we need to get people to agree, we’re living in the real world and you can’t just commit to everything you want out of idealism.
Political leaders make all the decisions, and their parties grumble and follow… Not today. To the credit of British democracy, all three leaders have blatantly had kicks in the nadgers from their much less gung-ho MPs. Ed Miliband’s constant u-turns after agreeing military action with the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are only the most obvious signs – and the press treating this as ‘Miliband changing his mind, and again’ only the most obvious sign that the media simply do not understand that parties are not always monolithic and that leaders are sometimes told where to go by their troops.
It’s a harsh lesson to learn, though the use of chemical weapons is a terrible crime, and weakens us all, and we want to do something about it… Sometimes even the most powerful of us can’t get everything they want.
First and Second Principles
First principle: yes. It was wrong. It was horrible. It was in defiance of international law.
Second principle: so call in the international police.
And that’s where it all falls apart.
There were brief times when the UK, or the US, or even NATO, had both the military and moral authority to do pretty much what they liked. In the ’90s, intervening to save lives in Kosovo, it looked like the world would agree to such action, even if the Security Council didn’t. It wasn’t quite legal, but by what looked like wide consent it was the right thing.
It takes naivety past the point of stupidity not to realise that the world has changed, and that the US and the UK changed it for the worse.
We need a system of international law and enforcement to do what Liberals have always done – stand up to bullies. But none of us have any idea how to get there, and our leaders closing their eyes and wishing because they understandably can’t bear that they have so much power but so much impotence at the same time will not make it real.
We need to face up to the unpalatable fact that, after George Bush and the Labour Party’s invasion of Iraq, the US and the UK cannot be the international police. In principle, you can’t uphold international law by breaking it. In practice, too much of the world would see us yet again not as neutral law-enforcers but only the bigger bullies.
Deputy Prime Minister, I know you, and I know you’re sincere, and I know you feel that something must be done. Be mature enough to realise that sometimes you can’t do something, and that trying might make things far worse.
The Practical Problems
Nick Clegg has written “Five reasons why this is not Iraq”. They’re well-considered reasons. They come from the head and the heart. They’re mostly right. But they’re largely irrelevant. No, it’s not Iraq, but it’s absurdly delusional to ignore the fact that everyone on Earth will see it through that prism. Yes, the Coalition is getting a lot right that Labour’s warmongering lie factory got wrong: waiting for weapons inspectors; letting Parliament decide; publishing the legal advice; committing to something far short of an invasion. Before Iraq, that might have been enough. Today, it simply isn’t.
The practical problem of who you’re taking action on behalf of looks like the most insurmountable one. I’ve written before that international law is the gravest of the three big issues on which Liberals lack an instinctive compass – because it’s impossible for all those concerned to give informed consent. I’ve written before that without that, who appoints you a policeman? Who holds you accountable? If you’re wrong, what defence are you left with other than ‘might is right’? And the fact is that the limited framework of international law we have is ‘enforceable’ by a far more limited and flawed body of international decision-making in which many countries with interests against the letter of international law must give their consent, and in which Russia and China in particular can stop any idealist interventionism from having the fig-leaf of legality. There is no ‘citizen’s arrest’ in international law. There is law – or there isn’t. Breaking the law ‘to do good’, again, means no-one will trust you to keep it, or trust your motives. You might or might not be able to improve things in Syria: the likelihood is that no-one will agree on the balance afterwards. The certainty is that international law will be broken, that making it a reality will be put back, and that countries and people who already distrust the US and the UK for the previous governments’ disgusting actions will be further poisoned against us and say whatever government’s in power, they’re all the same.
The practical problem of what happens next is one you clearly haven’t thought out. Say that you manage a precise, proportionate missile attack – whatever that means. Say that somehow the Syrian regime neglects to smear all the world’s TV screens with images of bloody horror that you perpetrated, as any side now can in any war. Say that things have gone ‘according to plan’. But say that Assad doesn’t back down. Does he ever? So what would you do? More missiles? More planes? Tanks? Troops? Or would you back down, and lose face, and do even more damage to the international prohibition of chemical weapons than that which you fear now – with every future perpetrator knowing that you will go only so far, then crumble? You couldn’t answer that question in your Radio 4 interview this morning. If this isn’t going to be another Iraq, we have to ask, too… What next?
The practical problem of the “war crime” is that today we must demand proof. It would be unforgivably irresponsible not to. Even those of us against the Iraq War ‘knew’ about their weapons of mass destruction, because for Labour to sell us monstrous lies on that scale seemed inconceivable. Now we know that they spun and lied their way to war on sexed-up nothing, we can’t take the word of any government and we can’t just take our instincts as proof. It looks very like there was a gas attack: but the weapons inspectors need to investigate. It seems very like it was Assad’s regime: but evidence has to prove it. We need compelling evidence not just of what but of who. We all know of cases where the police said ‘We know he did it, so let’s just get him’. And we’re not even the police. For too many, we’re seen as the gangsters. The consequences of getting this wrong are incalculably higher than just any old-fashioned copper fit-up scandal.
The practical problem for the Liberal Democrats, at last coming to selfish party interests, is that we just can’t afford yet more ‘betrayal’. It isn’t only pacifists who are weary of war. The UK has been fighting for more than ten years – apparently for nothing. The vast majority have just had enough. And for the Lib Dems, it’s worse. One of the few bits of moral high ground we still have that lets our supporters sleep at night (and still vote for us) is that unlike the Labour Party, at least we didn’t invade another country and soak ourselves in blood in defiance of international law. No, this isn’t Iraq, but just as you’re going on your feelings, a hell of a lot of other people are going on theirs that it feels the same. Not least when bloodsoaked liars Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell are already cheerleaders for their next Iraq.
Look at the opinion polls if you don’t trust my instinctive analysis. This is an adventure on which the political leaders and the voters are absolutely split apart, and no more so than Lib Dem voters: the widest gulf between any party leader’s position and that of his voters is for you. Listen to your voters. Listen to your party. If you can’t even get their consent, how much harder will it be to persuade all the countries that are not already minded to trust you? If there’s any issue likely to make both your supporters and your members vote with their feet and leave you with no power at all, or even rise up and break the Coalition, this is the one.
Nick, I know you long to do something, but this is real life and you are not Batman. It’s a hard choice for you, but the most practical thing you can do is – say no.
For further reading, choose by the hundred, but I particularly recommend Caron Lindsay’s round-up “Syria: what do Liberal Democrats want?”, Mark Pack’s “Syria – I know what’s wrong; working out what’s right is rather harder” and Millennium Dome, Elephant’s “Syrians versus Badgers”, in which he hopes that one day, “people will stop thinking that the solution to a problem is to throw ordinance at it”.