National interest, not morality, should be test for starting a war
On September 17th 1796, George Washington set out in his farewell address the principles that should guide American foreign policy. The state should, he said, "avoid permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations and passionate attachment for others." In short, in matters of foreign policy, there were no friends of America, only the pursuit of American interests. Morality as such, and therefore the punishment of the unrighteous, did not come into it. Yes, morality and the interests of America might coincide from time to time, but that coincidence did not dictate policy.
As MPs gather today at Westminster to consider some form of military intervention in Syria, they would do well to remember that. But will they? for the momentum of events suggests otherwise. President Barack Obama himself has said that the use of chemical weapons would be "a red line," but meaning what, exactly? Why commit yourself in advance to a course of action as yet undefined?
After failing to close down Guantanamo Bay within 12 months as promised, one might have hoped that Obama would have learnt the error of his ways. After all, when first running for the presidency in 2007, Obama declared that he didn't "talk about my opposition to the war to say 'I told you so'… I talk about it because I truly believe that the judgment … that each of us showed on the most important foreign policy decision of our lives is the best indicator you have of how each of us will make those decisions going forward."
Intervention in Syria is suggested for one reason only; to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons, albeit that neither the British nor the American government have produced evidence, other than mere assertion, that it was Assad, and not one of the opposing factions, that used it.
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But even if it is established that Assad was to blame, why is it that 355 deaths by gassing is so uniquely reprehensible that it justifies a military strike in circumstances where the consequences are so wholly unpredictable? If the deaths had been twice, or three, or 20 times that number, but they had been shot, rather than gassed, what then? Why is the means of death rather than the deaths themselves to be the determining factor in calibrating the response?
The west did not intervene when in 1982, Assad's father, President Hafez al-Assad, killed at least 40,000 in the Hama Massacre, an event described by Robin Wright in Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, "as the single deadliest acts by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East" and when Saddam Hussein killed vastly more people in the al-Anfal Campaign and in the Halabja poison gas attack, there was no move then to intervene. Indeed, how could there have been?
If it is the responsibility of America, and therefore of Britain as America's closest ally, to intervene every time some leader somewhere oppresses their people, where will it end? By that logic, we should have invaded China after Tiananmen Square. Merely to assert inflicting "punishment" as a foreign policy aim in itself exposes the fallacy of the argument, yet that reasoning, prinked out in the garments of specious rhetoric, will be much in evidence in the House of Commons today.
We must hope that with people still dying daily in Iraq because of the moral adventurism of Messrs Bush and Blair that our politicians will draw the inevitable conclusions, but the omens so far are hardly promising.
Both Britain and Syria need what Syria so recently had, namely a state which while not democratic in the western sense at least ensured that both men and women, Christian and Muslim, could conduct their lives peaceably. Had the UK made it clear when the Arab Spring gave some of the nastiest advocates of militant Islam the opportunity to destabilise a state with which, until then, we had enjoyed cordial relations, that their grievances with the Syrian state were a matter to be resolved in Syria, there might never have been a civil war. Instead, by recognising the National Coalition for Syria as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, the West has left Assad with no alternative but to fight to the bitter end.
In 1982, we intervened militarily in the Falklands because we were both responsible for the Falklands and because we could reasonably anticipate the consequences of our actions. Any intervention by the West in Syria lacks both those conditions. As we placate one branch of Islam we render ourselves liable to the pitiless hatred of others. "Only the dead have seen the end of war," said the American philosopher George Santayana. Those numbers may be about to increase and they will not be confined to Syria.