Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Depression part two

What can you say about Syria? It's a crime scene: a crime of both commission and neglect.

The commission is by the Assad regime and its gruesome allies. The neglect is by those who should have stood against it, but failed.

There are two positions that have informed this neglect. First, there is the persistent argument of anti-war activists from the 19th century onward that non-intervention is essential for peace and that military action can only exacerbate conflict, not resolve it. This presumption is shared on both the right and left. The second is the old 'realist' perspective that what matters is the interests of nation states. Combine the two, by seeing non-intervention as being in the national interest, and the result is paralysis.

And this is what we have at the present. Non-interventionism is resurgent. Alex Salmond gave a horrible, disingenuous speech in its support at the SNP conference. Labour's leadership is now ideologically committed to non-intervention. Appointing Seumas Milne to be director of communications and strategy compounds this with a heavy dose of apologism as a rationale for doing nothing. At the same time, realists are brushing off their 'Assad as a force for stability' routine, insisting that a murderous dictatorship is a regrettable necessity.

Inaction where action is possible leaves a vacuum. The assumption is that what will fill the gap will be relatively benign. This is not necessarily the case. I always felt that the decision not to take action against Assad after his use of sarin gas on civilians was one of the worst foreign policy mistakes so far this century. It signalled that, even in extreme cases of human rights violations, there was little chance of meaningful opposition. It was a green light. In Britain, it was Miliband that led the flight from action. Corbyn's leadership will only harden the position, though dissent is stirring in Labour's ranks.

Perhaps realists should be brushing off their old notions about world order and the balance of power, because serial abstentions from involvement is changing it, as this superb analysis by John Bew from September argues. And who knows where it is leading us. I am not optimistic, and in the meantime the humanitarian catastrophe gets worse.

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