History teaches us that there are no absolutes, only human, fallible judgements, when it comes to dealing with tyrants and terrorists argues Brian Wilson
When in doubt, reach for a good Gaelic proverb. An duine tha cinnteach gur e tha ceart, ‘s ann aig a lugha a tha fios – The man who is certain he is right is the one who knows least.
There are no certainties in the debate over extending air strikes into Syria – moral, political or military. That is the essential starting point and anyone who enters the fray looking for facts – or bogus opinion polls – on which to base conclusions deserves to be discounted.
Curiously enough, the voters of Oldham West seem to agree. Insofar as they were interested in Syria at all, were they voting in support of Corbyn’s oppositionism? Were they inspired by Hilary Benn’s oratory? Or were they prepared to endorse confusion, because they are confused themselves?
Most likely the last-mentioned, I think. In its own muddled way, the Labour Party has spoken for the country by being hopelessly, but honestly, divided. It is not a platform on which a general election will ever be won, but for the time being, it has at least the merit of accurately reflecting the genuine dilemma.
If I had still been there, I would have voted in favour of extending air strikes into Syria. I cannot see the rationale in recognising a border between states that the people we are trying to confront do not themselves recognise. The logic of turning back at the Syrian border is to withdraw from operations over Iraq, which was not the proposition in hand.
Those who disagree then say that air strikes alone are not an answer, but this is setting up a straw man in order to knock it down. Nobody claims that air strikes alone are an answer. But I cannot find grounds to conclude that knocking out strategic targets which provide Isis with succour and funding is not a contribution to overall objectives, regardless of which side of the border they lie on.
My other reason for believing that the vote went the right way is that it was what the French socialist government asked us to do. There are times for standing in solidarity with our friends and neighbours. This is one of them. The attacks on Paris crystalised the scale of threat which our societies face and hardened the resolve to address it, in the words of the UN resolution, “by all possible means”.
Having set out my stall, I immediately concede that I might be wrong. Politicians, however elevated, have no superior gene which makes their judgments infallible. For them, as anyone else, conclusions should be arrived at through debate rather than dogma, weighing the risks of doing something against the risks of doing nothing. For both, most certainly, exist in this case. The moral argument against bombing – any bombing – is that, inevitably, bombs kill innocent people. But then so do Isis kill innocent people – aboard planes, at rock concerts, on the streets of cities, poor and rich. The dilemma, as old as the armourer’s trade, is whether prevention of the latter can be justified by appliance of the former. Anyone who claims certainty on that one really is in different territory.
A lot is said about what created Isis or what attacking them might lead to, by encouraging recruits into their ranks. Like all “what if” hypotheses, these are interesting but inconclusive speculations. It is now fashionable to assume that the world would be a better, safer place if Saddam Hussein had been left to pursue his murderous tyranny in Iraq but even that is unprovable as well as being based on the dubious moral imperative of leaving evil alone.
My own pet theory is that one of the biggest geopolitical mistakes in my lifetime was western over-reaction to reluctant Soviet intervention in the broken state of Afghanistan. It was seen through a Cold War prism and became the classic bad advertisement for a doctrine of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. That conflict bequeathed us the mujihadeen, armed to the teeth with American money, and Osama Bin Laden.
The “what ifs” which flow from that episode, all the way down to the present day, are incalculable. But “what ifs” do not protect us from current reality. Neither does retrospective wisdom. In circumstances as complex and irrational as the religious wars which dominated 17th century Europe, the most viable approach is to deal with each threat as it arises while trying not to create new ones. That too is a matter of judgment rather than absolute rights or wrongs.
I suppose one possible conclusion to be drawn from recent years is that all tyrants should be left alone as long as they are threatening nobody outside their own borders. It is not a particularly uplifting doctrine but, if applied in Iraq, Syria and Libya, it might have saved us all a lot of trouble, even if it threw its domestic victims to the wolves. Enthusiasm for “Arab Springs” should have faced a reality check.
But who is then to say that placing our faith in a “hands off tyrants” strategy would have protected us for long either? Eventually, lids tend to be blown and then events are outside the control of any external force. The case for “liberal interventionism” is unlikely to be resurrected any time soon but neither is there inherent virtue, or safety, in illiberal non-interventionism. There are no absolutes. Only human, fallible judgements.
Finally, a word of gratitude to Hilary Benn for the service he has done to Labour history and reputation. The critical truth which he identified is that one of the British democratic left’s proudest records has been in identifying aggressive fascism for what it is and accepting the need to confront it. It was true in Spain, then against the Nazis and even in 1982, it was Michael Foot – who remembered these lessons – who stiffened Thatcher’s backbone against Galtieri.
As for those crass clowns who have sought to belittle Benn by speculating on whether his father would be “burlin” – a faux-Scotticism if ever I heard one – they should perhaps study the Benn family history which is one of courteous disagreement and mutual respect.
Maybe they could learn something, but probably not.