Raqqa, Syria. The Left must not ignore the complexities behind conflicts.

Dave Lister on simplistic internationalism

‘Would we talk about “handwringing” about the Holocaust or the Atlantic Slave Trade? Clearly not, so how can it be justifiable to use it in relation to the murder of half a million Syrians by the Assad regime and their Russian allies? Clearly less people have died in Syria than in the aforementioned examples, but massively more than in, for example, the bombing of Gaza, against which the Stop the War campaign rightfully marched in protest. More also than in the Saudi bombing of Yemen, which Mike Phipps, again, rightfully castigates.’

This was the opening to my (unpublished) response to Phipps’s review of an Open Labour pamphlet on foreign policy. I acknowledged Phipps often makes useful points in his articles and that he had in fact made some in this one, but I added that there were also some highly questionable points in it, use of the term ‘handwringing’ being one.

I also referred to what I considered to be some fallacies in Mike Phipps’s points about previous interventions. His account is much too simplistic. The intervention in Iraq was always unjustifiable; although if Saddam had remained in power there would also have been bad consequences, but probably not on the scale that occurred. However, the intervention in Libya is not so easy to dismiss – as Phipps does, citing Labour’s 2019 manifesto which, he says, “explains how military intervention, for example in Libya, worsened security across Africa, accelerating the refugee crisis”. My alternative view on Libya is that whichever decision had been made would have been equally dreadful. Not to intervene would have left the Libyan people at the mercy of the Gaddafi regime and there would have been a bloodbath, whilst the intervention has left the country in a mess with civil war and extreme instability. Similarly, if Labour MPs under Miliband had voted for intervention in Syria, and it had happened, there would in all probability have been very bad consequences. However, not intervening has led to mass murder on an unacceptable scale.

I have written before about the failure of the Left in general to campaign against the mass murder in Syria. There does seem to be a view in sections of the Left that military interventions in other countries are always wrong. However, if this is so, should we not condemn George Orwell and, for that matter, the International Brigades, for intervening militarily in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s to fight fascism?

In more recent times, as many readers will remember, the Armed Forces Council inflicted a reign of terror in Sierra Leone in the 1990s. Thousands of civilians were killed and large numbers of amputations were conducted. Tony Blair’s Labour government sent a British force to bolster a UN operation that was on the point of losing control of Freetown to the various militias that controlled most of the country and had taken hundreds of peacekeepers hostage. There was no discernible strategic or commercial interest for Britain in this action and it was surely a (perhaps rare) case of Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy being carried out in practice.

Arguably, UN-led military intervention in Bosnia, again in the 1990s, could have saved huge numbers of Muslim lives. In Srebrenica for example, 8,000 Muslims were murdered by Serb units under the command of Ratko Mladic and huge numbers of women and girls were raped. Readers may remember that Ken Livingstone called for troops to go in: “as many as it takes and for as long as it takes”.

In 1998, Yugoslav/Serbian forces attacked the Muslim population of Kosovo and initiated a programme of ethnic cleansing. Lessons had been learnt and NATO launched air strikes against Serbian military targets in March 1999. By June NATO and Yugoslavia had signed a peace treaty, resulting in the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces and the return of nearly one million ethnic Albanians and a further 500,000 people who had been expelled from Kosovo.

My conclusions are that, firstly, we on the Left should not only react when the US or Britain or Israel murder defenceless civilians. True internationalism is principled and must extend to all peoples, not a selected few.

Secondly, every foreign intervention must be considered on its merits. In some cases, e.g. Iraq, they should be opposed with all guns blazing, metaphorically speaking. Where they have prevented massive bloodshed and had an apparently successful outcome they should surely be supported. There are also going to be cases, such as Libya, where the issues are far from clear-cut. Above all, we need to accept that the world is a complex place and all scenarios deserve a thoughtful and compassionate response, not a narrow sectarian outburst.

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