30 August 2013

An #ethicalforeignpolicy

This post should be read after the last one on Syria.
The issues are much wider than Syria, but the vote in the House of Commons has focused these issues on one country. What I say here needs to be applied universally and consistently.

There are some simple first steps. As I pointed out on Twitter yesterday, even up until July of this year, the Independent reports that we had current Arms Export licences in place for Syria. Given the intelligence report that there have been up to 14 chemical weapons attack, likely to have been by the Syrian regime on the rebels, why was Britain still doing anything in the Arms business with the regime in that country? So the first step is no Arms exports. I'd argue this is a universal requirement for a civilised society. It is abhorrent that we export weapons around the world and that corporation profit from death. Just think about those last two points. We allow companies, shareholders, pension funds and investments to profit from one human being killing another. Why were we still doing business with the Syrian regime last month? Are British companies still doing business with them?

Secondly, we need a consistent approach to non-democratic regimes. Yes, by all means "bring in from the cold" leaders of countries that are dictatorships moving towards democracy, but those have to be real reforms, with an understanding that the dictator knows they will soon be subject to a democratic test and are likely to be removed from power. However, the disgraceful situation that we have photos of Tony Blair with Assad in Downing Street and John Kerry dining with Assad in Damascus, with both now cheerleading the effort for a military strike, demonstrate that there is no consistent ethical approach to foreign policy.

Thirdly, we continue humanitarian support and we make provision for refugees from the Syrian conflict and other areas around the world, without the xenophobia and hatred that currently dominates the media discourse on anyone arriving in the UK. People have been killed with shells and bullets, but only now do we argue we should intervene.

We know what a foreign policy success and failure look like. Sierra Leone was a success in 2000. Iraq, the closest comparable example to Syria, is by most measures a failure, in terms of death and ongoing instability and terrorist attacks. When you embark on foreign policy through military intervention, initial mission objectives can change, as they did in Sierra Leone and Iraq. If there is a strategy and a capability to make a positive difference, the argument about intervention can proceed. If, as is the case with Syria, there is no one who has a clear idea about what happens after any initial military strike, then we enter very dangerous territory. Syria would likely retaliate against any strike. Israel is the obvious target, or Cyprus, or potentially a future terrorist attack. No consideration seems to have been given to this.

Finally, I reject comparisons with the build up to World War II. There is a civil war going on in Syria. It is complicated, with Al Qaeda against the regime. We are in this situation because we have failed over generations to encourage and safeguard genuine democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. Instead, we in the west have been prepared to destabilise and overthrow regimes that did not suit us. To think we can fix our history of colonialism, imperialism and interference with a military airstrike in a complex situation, is to fail to recognise how we have arrived here.

There are actions we can take. No Arms Export licences and any other sanctions that hit at the heart of the Syrian regime. There was a story yesterday about the son of Assad posting a rant on Facebook - why is Facebook still providing a service to those individuals? What message does that send to the regime? Business as usual, liking funny images... What have we done in relation to Syrian financial assets and those of the individuals within that regime? These might not be the grand gesture of a military strike, but it will still have an impact, particularly if financial assets are seized.

I don't have all the answers. I don't think any of us do. However it is my judgement that supporting a military strike would have been the wrong decision. I respect arguments in favour may be sincerely made, with good intentions but I strongly disagree with them.

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