Migrant boat
A fishing boat containing 177 refugees from the war in Syria approaches an Italian coastguard vessel, October 2013

This article is a preview from the Summer 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

For all the sound and fury of the recent general election campaign, one area of relative consensus was that of foreign and military policy, which barely figured in the weeks of debate leading up to polling day. Even the Conservatives’ attempt to use the renewal of Trident to attack Ed Miliband served merely to underscore the fact that both parties were committed to the maintenance of this post-imperial status symbol. In one under-reported speech to the foreign policy think-tank Chatham House, Miliband attacked his opponents from the right, pledging to defend Britain’s position as the nation with the world’s fifth largest military expenditure against the danger of Tory spending cuts. The question of whether Britain should continue to “project power” overseas was never up for debate between the parties.

Nor, indeed, were the concrete ways in which that power was being projected, even as the election campaign was underway. The RAF’s role in the ongoing US-led intervention against ISIS in Iraq continued to enjoy bipartisan support, even as it became apparent that the coalition’s de facto aerial support for Shia militias on the ground was exacerbating the sectarian dynamics that had led to the rise of ISIS to begin with. Labour never attempted to challenge the government’s provision of logistical and technical support to the Saudi Arabian air force as it waged a disastrous war in Yemen, using fighter-bombers supplied and maintained by the UK. Britain’s role in the Middle East was not about to be disturbed by the political process.

This bipartisan stance will have predictable consequences in the years ahead. Given the current state of the region, the UK will not want for opportunities to deploy its expensive hardware in a growing number of warzones. Since the Arab uprisings began just over four years ago, Britain has inserted itself into conflicts in Libya and Iraq, and came close to involvement in the Syrian civil war in August 2013. The Arab world is currently in the throes of a seminal convulsion, as waves of discontent – sometimes popular and democratic, sometimes horrifically violent – crash against an array of decrepit and degenerating monarchies, dictatorships and police states. State collapse, violent repression and massive forced displacement of civilian populations are increasingly the bitter result. The recent mass drownings of refugees in the Mediterranean, which caused public outrage across Europe, but little political action, are one result of this. The Arab autocracies, many of them allied to the UK, show no intention either of fixing economic systems incapable of providing decent, secure jobs to desperate, alienated youth or of dismantling systems of torture and repression that often originate in the era of direct colonial rule. This reckoning has been a long time coming and may take years or even decades to resolve itself. Barring a major change in our nation’s foreign policy, the question of British military action in the resulting conflicts will arise again and again.

When that question does arise, the competing answers from politicians, columnists and activists will reappear in what has by now become a reasonably familiar pattern. Advocates of “humanitarian” intervention will argue that Britain has a moral responsibility to act when civilian life is in danger, while opponents will point a warning finger to the aftermath of Britain’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and, more recently, Libya. Advocates will say that, yes, mistakes have been made in the past, but this does not justify turning away from our gravest international obligations. Opponents will stress the dangers of making the given situation worse. Advocates will respond by pointing out that inaction, as well as action, has consequences.

And so on and so forth. We know the lines, and, without going out on a limb, can normally anticipate which dramatis personae will recite them. The most enthusiastic advocates tend to be liberals, in the philosophical sense, clustered around the right wing of the Labour party, and the leadership of the Conservative party. Many sceptics also hail from the liberal camp: centre-left social democrats and “one nation” conservatives who are willing to be persuaded on the merits of the case, but who prefer to take a slightly more cautious approach overall. Stronger opposition comes from an area further to the left, these days too varied to be described as Marxist, which now includes anarchists, some Greens, and others (like the present writer) who have not chosen a particular label, but who take a dim view of the behaviour of Western states and corporations, and of the structures of the capitalist system as a whole. Unlike the liberals, who dominate British politics, this is a group with only a small presence in Westminster and on Fleet Street, but one that is still able to make its voice heard, just about, when the war drums start to beat.

Putting aside the liberal sceptics (whose disagreement with the interventionists is arguably more pragmatic than principled), it is the clash between the intervention-enthusiasts and the anti-interventionist left that is the most vigorous and interesting. Beneath the surface disagreements, these debates often expose deeper differences that remain largely unexplored. Pro- and anti-interventionist arguments imply competing assumptions about the nature of the British state, which will perform the intervention – but these positions are rarely stated explicitly. Clarifying these differences will not settle the arguments, but it may at least explain why the two sides appear so often to be talking past each other.

According to the liberal view, the defining characteristics of states like Britain are their democratically accountable governments, open societies and market economies. These attributes reflect an enlightened set of principles embodied, for the most part, by the state itself, with any occasional failures to adhere to them occurring due to policy error or human fallibility. The state is committed to the security and prosperity of the nation; goals that are pursued in accordance with the aforementioned values (claimed specifically as “British” or “Western”). There is an increasing sense that when conflicts break out abroad, they may not only affect our legitimate interests, but also offend those values, not least the right to life. Britain may not intervene in all situations of humanitarian concern, but there is a capability and a will to intervene where it can usefully make a difference. Therefore, when such situations arise, the liberal is moved to ask, “What should we do?”, and is dissatisfied if not disgusted with any response that apparently amounts to “Nothing”.

Left anti-interventionists usually see the British state very differently. Here, capitalism and the associated hierarchies of class provide the context in which the nature and role of government are best understood. Under capitalism, in this view, the state manages the economic system in the interests of the dominant classes and seeks to enhance its own power at home and abroad. On the domestic front, austerity, for example, is not an attempt to get the public finances in order but to make the public bear the costs of the financial crisis, and to roll back the gains of the postwar welfare settlement in the process.

In foreign policy, left anti-interventionists see far more continuity from the imperial era to the present day than liberals are prepared to acknowledge. Indeed, the impulses and priorities operative in the days of the British Empire are regarded as being more or less still in effect, although Whitehall has had to adapt to a sharply reduced role internationally. The liberal discourse of the political classes serves as a self-justifying narrative, allowing politicians and commentators to perceive virtue in the system, just as Christianity did for their Victorian predecessors.

So the left anti-interventionist is likely to see the liberal’s question – “What should we do?” – as naive at best, and at worst a bad joke. First of all, who is this “we”? The interests and priorities of the state are emphatically not those of the average person. One might as well call upon the mafia to deal with a crime wave as call upon London and Washington to attend to a humanitarian emergency. Those episodes and policies that liberals prefer not to discuss – the torture at Abu Ghraib prison, the destruction of the Iraqi city of Fallujah by US forces in 2004, the support for brutally anti-democratic regimes like Saudi Arabia – are seen on the left not as aberrations or necessary evils but as entirely characteristic of modern Western imperialism. The disgust felt by liberals at the apparent suggestion that nothing should be done about humanitarian crises by British and American armed forces is mirrored by the bafflement felt by their counterparts on the left at the notion that humanitarian tasks can be entrusted to actors who, when not outright indifferent to human life and welfare, treat these as second-order concerns.

In short, the key difference between the two sides is that liberals regard Western state power as fundamentally benign and in pursuit of decent goals, while the anti-imperialist left emphatically does not. So where liberals attribute any “failures” in past interventions to correctable policy mistakes, left anti-interventionists see these disasters as a predictable consequence of violent aggression or opportunism. Where liberals identify chances to do good, left anti-interventionists fear the risk of dangerous actors making bad situations worse. Play these differences out in the moral heat generated by an escalating war or an impending atrocity, and mutual incomprehension, and denunciation, is the usual result.

Of course, whichever account of the true nature of the intervening state is correct, it cannot tell the whole story, or provide the whole answer by itself, in a specific situation. The issue is a crucial one, but no more than part of a wider, complex picture that needs to be surveyed in its totality when we get down to debating, in concrete terms, what the state should or should not do. The problem is that those debating are far better informed about their own state than about the places where the proposed intervention will take place – be it Libya, Syria, Iraq or some other country. So the particular circumstances at hand will be lightly passed over, with assumptions about the state, and interpretations of past experiences elsewhere, forming most of the grounds for the new arguments. Clearly, this will not do.

Take Libya, an intervention that elicited opposition from the left, albeit not nearly with the same strength as in the case of the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan a decade earlier. The chaotic state of the country today makes it impossible for liberals to claim the war as a success. But would Libya have been a better a place if intervention hadn’t happened? This is a hard one to argue conclusively. If we accept the anti-interventionist view that Gaddafi’s former Western allies (which includes Britain) got involved in the effort to unseat him in order to ensure a positive outcome to the war for themselves, rather than out of any sense of “responsibility to protect” human life, we must also acknowledge the likelihood that, if Benghazi had been taken by regime forces in those crucial early days, the reprisals would have been very ugly indeed, and the consequences for the country uglier still. Would Gaddafi taking Benghazi have been worse for Libya than NATO preventing that outcome? The current situation does not necessarily give a clear answer. Much of the chaos today is rooted in the difficulties inherent in the attempted transition from Gaddafi’s demented, absolutist regime to a democratic one with popular legitimacy, and in the need to create a functioning civil society almost from scratch. Understanding the nature of the intervening party only goes some way towards accounting for the results of intervention or non-intervention, in the Libyan case.

In Syria, on the other hand, the mounting horrors and ever-escalating death toll are pointed to by some liberal interventionists as the costs of Western inaction, as though noble intent and force of arms could resolve a multi-sided and multi-layered civil war by themselves. For the sake of argument, let us assume that British and American airstrikes could have toppled the Assad regime if they had chosen to. Which forces were then both willing to and capable of taking over the country, promoting national reconciliation and governing in the interests of all sections of Syrian society? What would have been the fate, or the response, of those Alawis, Christians, Druze, wealthier urban Sunnis and others who had either sided with the regime or sat on the fence in the belief that a continuation of Assad’s grim rule would be less painful than its replacement by the extremist forces growing in the ranks of the rebellion? On what basis can it be assumed that a direct Western attack on Assad would have achieved anything other than the rearrangement of belligerent forces in a continuing and mutating conflict? One searches in vain for evidence that liberal interventionists have given serious thought to these questions.

The left has not covered itself in glory on Syria either. Some recognised from the start that authentic revolutionary, non-jihadi forces needed to be able to defend themselves against the regime’s aggression – not least since the eclipse of the revolutionaries and the devastation of the country would lead to the rise of the jihadis, as has now happened. Others, however, have come close to portraying anti-Assad forces as more or less exclusively jihadists sponsored by the Gulf states. Yet the 2011 uprising in Syria was one manifestation of the wider dynamics of the “Arab Spring”; the root of the conflict was Assad’s choice to respond to peaceful protests with murderous violence (and Russia and Iran’s decision to support him in doing so).

Most on the left, understandably, have struggled to reach a firm position on a complex and horrifying situation. But the failure, most notably, of the leadership of Britain’s Stop the War coalition to express a sensible view has contributed to a weak and fragmented response overall. There is an important principle on the anti-interventionist left which holds that we should focus our analysis and political action on the crimes of our own states, since that is where we are best placed to make a difference. But examining the failings of our own states should not be done to the exclusion of all else. It is this kind of confusion that leads to positions like that taken by the Stop the War leadership, which has given the impression that the West is entirely, rather than partially, to blame for the situations in Syria and Ukraine. The script from the Bush-Blair era cannot simply be repeated ad infinitum, regardless of the circumstances.

Two principles emerge that must be borne in mind on future occasions when the question of Western military action arises. The first regards the need to consider the nature of the actor being called upon to intervene. Are we taking its nature, motivations and priorities for granted? Or have we consciously interrogated them, and used that analysis to inform our view of whether or not our governments can play a productive role? The second regards the need to consider carefully the situation on the ground. While we cannot become instant experts on unfamiliar countries, we can take seriously the responsibility to understand the precise circumstances in which Western states propose to intervene, and to think through the consequences in their full complexity. In the years and probably decades of turmoil that lie ahead, the outcome of public debates on these questions in the West will have real consequences for the people involved. We owe it to them to conduct those discussions with due care and serious thought.