Many many years ago, I saw the comedian Mark Steel live. It was one of my first stand up gigs, and I absolutely loved it. Not simply because it was a fine performance from a wonderful act, but because as a then leftist sixth former who had more inkling than politics, Steel spoke about things that mattered to me. I recall one particular part of the set where Steel talked about liberal intervention – that is, the tendency of western countries to get involved in conflicts in other parts of the world. Steel predicted – correctly – that the invasion of Iraq would come back to haunt the west, and imagined western leaders as schoolboys at an old-fashioned grammar school, being lambasted by a teacher for failing to remember “what happens when the Americans get involved in foreign wars? They fuck it up and make it a lot worse.”
I consider myself anti-intervention. I’m not alone in this, and this stance is not just one you find on the left. Plenty of people disagree with the idea of sending troops to the middle east, or bombing Syria, and a common objection is that “it’s not our problem.” I tend to view it as more a case that it’s not about ownership of the problem, it’s more than our involvement tends to exacerbate the problem, but what I am getting at here is that many people do oppose intervention, for good reasons.
But what I want to try to say today is that I can understand the feelings of those who don’t.
Perhaps in saying that, I won’t make myself popular. But I’m not interesting in being popular. I’m interested in being honest.
Cast your minds back to 2011, specifically the events in Libya. As the Arab Spring had kicked off across the Middle East and North Africa, Libyans had taken to the streets themselves, and had been meant by brutal repression by the Gadaffi regime. Speaking to other leftists at the time was a terse matter, because I was disappointed to see that many people who I respected were throwing down their weight behind the regime, accusing the Libyan protesters of being backed by Western Imperialism. One particularly bad meme did the rounds of Facebook, urging comrades to “defend Libya’s lion!” which, apart from being a crap political statement, made me imagine that in another Universe, the Wizard of Oz would have been a very different film, and that it would have been decidedly odd if Gadaffi had been murdered by an American dentist on holiday. For the record an equally baffling attitude is being taken by some to events in Venezuela, where protests against a deeply corrupt regime are being treated as the actions of foreign sleeper agents (I say this a moderate admirer of Chavez). I recall, at this time, horrific footage from Libya was appearing on YouTube and Twitter: it in, clearly unarmed protesters were having anti-aircraft guns turned on them in the streets by government forces. Watching this with horror, I found part of me screaming “Bomb the Bastard! Blow Gadaffi to hell! Those people need our help!” and then finding myself wrestling with my own, anti-intervention feelings.
There is a sense in which there is a responsibility to act when evil acts are being wrought on innocent people, out of a basic human decency if nothing else, and this is something I can relate to. How many historical examples exist of some massacre or crime against humanity, which went ahead because “the rest of the world stood by.”? In theory, the UN peacekeepers should be the international force that steps in when countries inflict violence on their own people. But of course, one only needs to do a bit of research to see that in many cases, the UN Peacekeepers are as about as monstrous as the monsters they came to fight. Take for example, Liberia – a country that you’ve probably never thought about, and probably couldn’t place on a map. The UN maintains a presence in the country after the disastrous events of two civil wars; mass murder, rape, and cannibalism was documented, and the brutal regime of Charles Taylor was responsible for untold deaths. Liberia today is a mess, a country with staggering murder statistics, sexual violence, corruption, and a lack of basic sanitation in many of its cities. The UN maintains a presence there, but its peacekeepers have been implicated in their own series of atrocities, including sexual abuse, often of children. In any case, the UN is unable to be the non-partisan force for intervention, and thus, I can see why people might turn to the governments of the UK and USA to take military action.
Of course, the reality is that intervention seems to always happen on the basis of flawed intel. The famous 45 minutes claim about Iraq was false; how many people really believed that there were 70,000 friendly militants in Syria, wanting patiently for the UK to unleash bombs on Daesh?
Whenever we act, we do it badly, but when we don’t act, people die. And, to be fair, when we act, people die. What can be done? My conclusion may seem nihilistic, but I ultimately do not know. Too often we tend to demonise the people who oppose us politically – many times, this is justified, but at other times, it serves no purpose. I can hold firm to my belief that the Conservative Party is an ideologically extremist organisation, without believing every Tory I meet is a moral cul-de-sac; I can vote to remain in the EU next month without believing that everyone who votes to leave is a swivel eyed loon who hates everyone who happens to be a bit browner than them. I will still stand by an anti-interventionist political stance, and will applaud those who do so with me, but there is a part of me which, when faced with someone who would see boots on the ground that says “I understand you.”