War, what is it good for? A thought or two on Syria
August 31, 2013 6 Comments
If asked to name Harold Wilson greatest achievement as Prime Minister one could easily plump for his keeping the UK out of the Vietnam War. Hindsight having 20/20 vision, this was a war definitely to be avoided. Looked at at the time it was a tough call.
I have been forced to speculate on what would justify war. Despite my wishes otherwise, we do not inhabit a perfect world and so conflict is an unpleasant inevitability. (This does not stop me from doing my bit to change this, and surely reducing the amount of deadly weapons we produce would help.)
I think there are three things that would justify war:
Self defence. Whilst turning the other cheek is an admirable trait, and works in some circumstances, at state level one is obliged to defend ones citizens.
Treaty obligations. The most glaring example would be Poland, 1939. There cannot be many who believed that the struggle to stop Hitler was wrong. If we make promises we must keep them.
International agreement. A United Nations resolution provides legality, and should mean that armed intervention is not for selfish purposes. This is not to say that the UN backing action always makes taking that action easier, but it does mean that one is taking action that the rest of the world endorses (albeit the deep flaws that pervade the UN Security Council).
It gets trickier after that. Should a country go to war purely for reasons of self-interest? This was almost the norm in times gone by, and one could make an argument that governments should do the best by its people. However, what suits one country does not always suit another, and it is not difficult to envisage escalation if this criterion was used. What about the defence of overseas territories? This is a far from black and white issue; defending the Falklands can be easily described as preventing fascist land-grabbing when viewed from London, but from Buenos Aires it is a matter of liberating Los Malvinas.
Regime change? I can think of quite a number that I would like changed, including some that are nominally democracies, but this opens a can of worms. Whilst I do believe that an open and free democracy is the best form of government, and that all leaders should be accountable, I am definitely unsure that this can be imposed.
Is it right to intervene (a rather surgical term for going to war) for humanitarian reasons? Whilst one cannot ignore genocide and civil right abuses, there are few countries that have an entirely blameless history. A regime that gasses its own citizenry is obviously vile, but state-sponsored murder is how many would describe capital punishment, and what is Guantanamo Bay if not an abuse of human rights? I am an Americanophile in many ways, but it really should put its own house in order.
I am in no doubt that Bashar al-Assad is a murderous tyrant. I suspect that his regime is guilty of using chemical weapons, and that he is capable of sacrificing thousands to hold onto power. His human rights record is deplorable, and Syria would be better off without him. But attacking his regime with a view to removing him from power does not guarantee that his replacement would be any better (and there are a number of contenders who could easily prove worse). No-one wants to sit idly by whilst mass-murder is being carried out, yet it is still unclear as to who really is to blame. Besides, North Korea starves it own peoples – the deaths it causes are slower and not in the media glare, and therefore easily ignored. What we really are asking is whether, once again, we adopt the role of the policemen of the world. I am less than comfortable with this, and pleased that Parliament is pausing for breath. To act in haste would be the grossest folly, to act without international agreement would be egregious grandstanding. We could be stepping into quicksand here, and whilst the short-term goal of stopping barbarity may be achieved, long-term it is far from clear where this will take us.