John McTernan: Why we shouldn’t intervene in Syria

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Picture: Getty
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Picture: Getty
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International military action against Syria can only serve to make the situation there much worse and further destabilise the Middle East, writes John McTernan

I am a hawk. I supported the Iraq War. Indeed, I still do. I worked in Baghdad, drafting the manifesto for prime minister Ayad Allawi. It is the only prime minister’s office where I have been bombarded. By mortars. “Don’t worry,” my bodyguard said, “these guys are useless … the IRA would have flattened the place first off.”

I’ve worked with MPs, ministers and parties in Kurdistan. I’ve visited Halabja, where Saddam gassed the Kurds, and talked to survivors about the horror of that mass murder. Yet, I cannot bring myself to support military intervention in Syria. I’ve been puzzling over this in recent weeks.

Am I simply being contrarian? Driven to oppose simply by an instinct to be thrawn? I don’t think so. My objection at one level is stylistic. I utterly object to the mawkish sentimentality and self-righteous morality of the arguments.

At times, I am reminded of that awful spoken section in the Brinsley Schwarz song (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?, which goes “we must have peace … if just for the children.” I know, I know – of course it is understandable. But it is not a minor point. As 
AN Whitehead wrote: “Style is the ultimate morality of the mind.” I do not think we should be bloodless; we do need to be engaged – and that does involve emotions and passions – but big decisions should be made in a relatively detached and nuanced way.

Absolutism – in support of, or in opposition to, armed intervention – is wrong. One of the sharpest critiques of Tony Blair’s support for the Iraq War was that in domestic policy he was a pragmatist – “what matters is what works” – but in foreign affairs he was an ideologue. That has been a stone in my shoe ever since a colleague in No10 Downing Street, where I have also worked, made that point to me.

We cannot afford to lose idealism in foreign policy. The tragic reality is that there is an immorality to realpolitik when taken to its full extent – the total pragmatism that says we don’t need to judge the rights or wrongs of what goes on in someone else’s country, unless it matters strategically to us. That led to the great betrayals of Rwanda and Yugoslavia: genocide and ethnic cleansing ignored by the great powers.

But we cannot ignore pragmatism either. As Helena Kennedy once said at a meeting I was at in Edinburgh: “Imagine if politicians adhered to the Hippocratic oath; first, do no harm.” That has grumbled away in my mind ever since. It is one of the most important tests for any political intervention. Not will it work, but can you be sure it won’t stuff up, that you won’t make things worse?

This, for me is the central question about Syria. And not a single commentator – from neophyte to neo-con to Middle East expert – has set out a way that we can intervene and not make it worse. There are loads of articles which dribble to an inconclusion – detailing the crimes, but with no proposition.

And there are those that advocate action – but so imprecise that in the end they merely echo King Lear: “I will have such revenges on you both/That all the world shall/I will do such thing/What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be/The terrors of the earth.”

There is dearth of pieces that have a plan of any sort. The fundamental point is: what can we do that stops short of regime change? Because regime change, properly gamed through, threatens to rip a hole in the heart of the region. If president Bashar al-Assad falls, why would the Syrian Kurds not want to leave? And, if they left, what does that mean for Iraqi Kurds? And for Turkish Kurds? And for Iranian Kurds? I believe in self-determination for the Kurds, but I do not want to see a century of conflict – which is what the British absolutists seem to want.

The Middle East is a game of chess. Throw up the board and try to play draughts and what will you get? Call of Duty, that’s what. And not in a good way.

So, if we don’t go there – and we should not – what is the military action we are being asked to back? I have no idea. There are a lot of rutting stags roaming around saying “someone’s going to get their head kicked in tonight”. And impugning your manhood (I use the word advisedly) if you won’t step up to the plate with them. But their exit strategy is evanescent. And their entry strategy? Non-existent.

There is, in fact, no military strategy that disables the use of chemical weapons, does not commit to a long-term intervention and does not create regime change.

That’s my problem. The absolutists have no plan, just a position – one that is contemptuous of all who oppose action. We, apparently, lack their commitment and morality. We are – they imply – willing to see children gassed, which we are not. Our truth – the truth – that you should know the way out before you go in, is, it seems, insufficiently unequivocal.

Yet, my doubts are – in truth – Britain’s doubts. The public opposes military intervention in Syria and is pleased that the House of Commons has channelled its view. This is the real problem against which the pro-war fraction rages. The public does not get it; they are wrong; they are misinformed. Or all of the above.

Not true, the voters are right. As they say in retail, rule No1 is that the customer is always right. Rule No2 is that if the customer is wrong, please refer to rule No1. Britain won’t get fooled again. Since Iraq, the public does not trust “intell”, and it won’t buy an idea just because its leaders tell them to.

That’s actually maturity. And it’s a reality everyone in politics has to deal with. In the end, that is why I am against Syrian intervention.

When you have an educated, informed public – and we do have – and you can’t convince it of a case, and the coalition government simply cannot, then you have to go with the people, otherwise, you are not a democrat. Now, I’m a judgmental elitist in many areas – particularly high art – but I am not when it comes to politics. If you can’t convince the people, then either agree with them or find another job.

The disconcerting thing about foreign affairs is that the unflashy road may actually be the successful one. Diplomacy grinds slow, and the United Nations grinds even slower. But the process looks to be working. Russia has come up with a solution: the material that could be made into chemical weapons should be put under international supervision. This is a very similar process to the nuclear disarmament protocols: put technology beyond use and have a verification process. This proposal has been accepted by the Syrian government.

Maybe it is a little bit grubby – but politics inevitably is. Maybe it is not heroic – but then life isn’t a John Wayne Western. Maybe it strengthens Russia – but the world hasn’t irrevocably shifted to the developed West. History didn’t stop in 1989.

In the end, I go back to Stephen Dedalus. In Ulysses, he says: “I fear those big words which make us so unhappy.” I sometimes think about other people’s views that I wish that I believed as much in anything as some people believe in everything. In the end, I don’t. Call me a contrarian, a sceptic, an equivocator, whatever. I’m just glad that we look to be able to avoid a quagmire in Syria.

• John McTernan is a former communications director to former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, was political secretary to prime minister Tony Blair and worked for the then Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi