The Puzzling Politics of Foreign Policy (non)-Intervention

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August 17, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith


Anyone really know what to do about the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS)? As they continue to advance in all directions, threatening the Kurdish Authority as well as the people of Baghdad and killing any ‘inferior beings’ in their site we are showing once again the parlous state of Western foreign policy in terms of having any idea how to respond. David Aaronovitch wrote an excellent piece yesterday on how UK politics is now particularly at fault in this, and we need to have a proper think about what we are doing.

The key point raised is this: at the moment we are seeing some terrible things happening in the world and we are deciding not to intervene, whatever the cost, even though we are capable of doing so and able to make a difference. We are saying that it is nothing to do with us or that our intervention will out us in danger, whilst trying not to think about the possibility that non-intervention could put us into greater danger because there are certain groups who, if they aren’t stopped, will simply continue with their aims. Given that the Islamic State’s stated aim is to make the whole world a Caliphate, and for us all to live under their particularly medieval strand of sharia law, some of us might not want their aims to be achieved. Given we also have a load of young British men going out there, being trained in killing, and coming back here, we might want to do SOMETHING.

But foreign policy politics in this country has been changed, perhaps for ever, by what happened last summer, when Ed Miliband led the opposition to intervention in Syria. It was a principled policy, and popular with the public, particularly in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq intervention. But when Barack Obama decided to call off his intervention in response, it became to clear to all who seek to benefit from such things that the cops had left town. Once that is clear, once certain people think that their actions may be consequence free, that is seen as an invitation to do what they want. You only have to remember what happened in 2011 during the riots in London as it became clear for two days that the police were standing back. The trouble now is that it appears to IS that their actions are consequence free, but our stated policy of non intervention is not consequence free for us.

Labour’s response to the actions of IS, by which I mean the beheadings, crucifixions and forced starvations on mountains amongst the actual physical advances over Iraq, Syria and Kurdistan, is summed up by what Douglas Alexander said the other day. I’ll quote Aaronovitch’s reporting of this as it is worth a read:

“Wasn’t it awful about the Yazidis and the Christians and the chopped-off heads? And wasn’t Mr Obama on the money when he said there was a humanitarian catastrophe? So, said Mr Alexander, what we needed to do was to “speak out”. He had already urged people to speak out and now the government “should be doing more to speak out”, and — even more than that — the government should “set out what steps it will now take”.
Such as calling an urgent meeting of the Security Council, such as discussing things with the UN refugee agency and such as urging the UN Human Rights Council “to build a consensus for action on religious freedom at the highest international level”. Oh, and he welcomed and supported “the government’s assurances it is not proposing military intervention in Iraq”, before pointing out that last Sunday was a day of prayer so let’s get to it. Douglas is one of Labour’s brightest, yet I think that is what you call beyond satire.”

The problem for UK politicians is that we are now judging interventions based on whether there is a 100% chance of achieving success. It is simply not true that interventions never work (ask the citizens of Kosovo and Sierra Leone about that) or that interventions always work (see Libya and Iraq). But we also have little idea what actually would have happened had Saddam Hussein, the Taliban and Colonel Gadaffi been allowed to continue as they were either. We also don’t know whether we could have stopped the ethnic cleansings in Bosnia and Rwanda either. But surely if we can make a difference, shouldn’t we?

Instead, we have decided that every intervention should be voted on. When that happens, politicians are thinking about the public, who cannot possibly have all the facts at hand, to tell them what to do, and at the moment that means, and I think it is sensible to blame how we ended up in Iraq for that, with us making it very clear that the Sheriff has left town, possibly for good. I wonder if it wouldn’t be better if it were still clear that the Sheriff was at least in his office, ready to act if there is no other option. Given we have a sovereign country asking us to intervene to help them, and a group that seems unlikely to be beaten by anything other than military force (can you really find a political solution to people so religiously driven?), I’m not convinced there is another option.

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