It’s tough being the world’s superpower. If they intervene militarily in a country like Iraq they are condemned by many for seeking to impose their will on others, and making the position worse. If they try to stay out of a country like Syria – or Iraq the next time around – they are criticised for not intervening, not acting to protect the weak and advance liberal democratic values.
This week the “we should do something ” brigade have been out and about at their shrillest in the UK press. The latest argument as to why the UK as well as the US should now intervene militarily in Iraq is that we “messed it up” by a previous military campaign, and therefore “owe it” to Iraq and the rest of the world to have another go to try and put it right. This surely is the triumph of hope over experience if ever there was.
It is easy for armchair “Generals” and journalist warriors to wish others to do their fighting for them as they contemplate which of the pleasures of the English summer they will enjoy next. Instead they should be asking some tough questions on western strategy at the same time as reporting properly and objectively on the myriad factions, groups, armies and voices fighting over the futures of Syria, Iraq, the Kurd lands, Palestine and Israel.
The first question to ask is why did past western military interventions in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan fail to establish peace loving liberal democracies as hoped and as advertised by the more optimistic? What have we learned from those past interventions? Have we gained a little humility in understanding that successful flourishing democracies usually emerge from within, not from without. They normally take several generations where the majority wishes to learn, teach and improve their democratic impulses.
The second is to ask what can western military force achieve if used? If western force is now to be limited to bombing from planes or drones, who do we want to kill and what installations do we wish to destroy? If the aim is to kill certain groups of people whom we regard as evil, how can we be sure we will kill enough of them to win? What if western death raining down from the skies acts as a recruiting sergeant for more rebel troops and martyrs? How can we be sure we will only kill the evil ones, and not end up killing all too many people who are not the main trouble makers? Can we be sure that if we succeed in killing enough of the evil ones, the rest of the faction riven and split communities can rally round, fill the power vacuum in the areas we are bombing, and create stable government there? Other evil men can take advantage of allied bombing, as well as the forces of good.
What do we wish to destroy? Destroying civilian buildings because they may be occupied by evil forces or used as weapons stores damages the local economy more, creates more displaced people and more resentments, and puts off the day when more people living there can see a better peaceful future with economic progress. The only purely ” good” target is military equipment of the evil ones out in the open and away from civilian populations. All other targets are hedged with hazard and political risks.
The USA this time round says it is bombing to halt the advance of IS forces, on the grounds that they have evil intent towards people of other religions. They do so with the permission of the Iraq government. At the same time the USA recognises that the current Iraq government is not uniting its country. The USA we hear wants political change in Iraq. I wish the US well in trying to halt possible genocide. That is a noble aim, but one which may prove difficult to achieve from the skies above.
For our country, I am glad the UK is committed to giving humanitarian aid on a larger scale. We need to help seek a diplomatic solution. The attempted break up of Syria and Iraq is a violent political process, but it is ultimately a set of political problems. No single group seems to have the military power to win, establish a new civilian government and gain the respect of the diverse peoples of these countries. Too many people living in the region think violence is the answer to their troubles. Organised western violence on any realistic scale is unlikely to be able to impose a settlement of these underlying disputes. Nor will it help convert people from believing in violence to believing in the arts of peace.
The last time some of the armchair Generals urged UK intervention was over Syria. Then they wanted amongst other things to arm the Syrian rebels. Many of the weapons of those rebels we are told have now been captured for use by IS forces. Today we are being asked to arm the Kurds. Do we now support an independent Kurdish state?