Saturday, 14 April 2018

The Syria Air Strikes: why I am queasy

I'm queasy about last night's air strikes against Syria conducted by the USA, France and the UK. The more I think about it, and the more I read today's media comment, the more unsure I become about the legality and the moral rightness, let alone the wisdom, of this hastily conceived act.

Let's start with what it was for. "Mission accomplished!" tweeted President Trump this morning. But what exactly was the mission, and how can he be so sure that it's been accomplished? Everyone agrees that chemical warfare is horrendous and that no effort should be spared to eliminate chemical weapons. It seems beyond doubt that Syrian forces have used them against their own citizens more than once. The chorus of condemnation is unanimous, rightly.

But how have the air strikes dealt with this fact on the ground? If it can be evidenced that they have eliminated all possibility that Syria can go on manufacturing chemical weapons, I suppose that would amount to "mission accomplished" - in a sense. But previous strikes against Syria made similar claims that events subsequently proved wrong. And last night's raids can't rule out the possibility that Syria could obtain chemical weapons from elsewhere - North Korea, for example. So what difference have the air strikes actually made? Were they meant as a punishment? A warning? I wish I knew.

One thing is clear. The risks that were incurred last night were truly in the red zone, and it is too soon to say whether they have been mitigated. The possibility that raids on Syria could result in "collateral damage", that is, the death and injury of human beings, was high and we don't yet know for certain that this has been avoided. Had any of those people been Russians, then retaliation was almost certain. From there, events would escalate in a matter of days, even hours. A proxy war between major powers being waged in Syria could easily morph into a serious regional conflict. This is how world wars begin. We have to ask what kind of risk calculus informed last night's strikes.

In the light of all this, it is all the more puzzling that the Prime Minister did not bring her decision to collaborate in the air-strikes to Parliament. No doubt the memory of her predecessor's failure to secure parliamentary support for a similar action weighed heavily on her mind. Yet in her position, I would sleep more easily in my bed if I had gone to the place where I know my evidence would be carefully sifted and my argument rigorously tested. I would thereby both acknowledge the sovereignty of Parliament (always a good thing to do), and also gain reassurance (if the vote went my way) by having secured its ownership of what could easily turn out to be a life-or-death decision. Parliament reconvenes on Monday. It would not have been asking too much to delay action by a mere 48 hours.

No-one disputes that it is the responsibility of the executive to take decisions in emergencies. But I doubt whether this was one of them. (I'm not saying that what has happened in Syria is not truly dreadful. But sadly, a few days are not likely to make much difference in these intractable circumstances.)  Moreover, I think (but legal experts will need to clarify this) that the Royal Prerogative empowering the Prime Minister to act in an emergency is restricted to matters of the utmost gravity that pose a direct security threat to the United Kingdom. I doubt that this can be conceived that way. And when the executive appears to act prematurely when it would have been possible to take a longer, more considered view, I begin to worry that the powers that safeguard our democratic processes have been subverted. Because of this, I can't readily endorse last night's strikes against Syria as being "in my name". I'd be happy to be persuaded, but I am not persuaded yet.

There's another thing that concerns me, and that is the rhetoric that's being used about chemical weapons. I said at the outset that we all agree that chemical warfare is horrendous. But if we have learned anything from Syria in recent years, it is that the regime's deployment of conventional weapons against its own people is not less horrendous. The cruel and cynical way in which so many thousands of innocent people have been relentlessly killed and maimed in Syria through conventional attacks is one of the ugliest horror stories of our times.

To protest righteously against chemical weapons without also recognising the attrition caused by conventional weapons is morally dubious. It has the effect of normalising conventional warfare as somehow acceptable, or at least, less unacceptable, than chemical warfare. And when we consider that the UK is willingly exporting huge numbers of conventional weapons capable of causing immense injury and loss of life, we have to ask whether our own moral purity as a nation is beyond reproach. By the standards of nineteenth century weaponry, the hideously destructive armaments of our own day - land mines, fuel bombs and barrel bombs for example - are anything but conventional.

And even if we regard conventional weapons as a necessary evil, our own standpoint as a nation taking action against the use of chemical weapons is still morally questionable in the light of our own possession of nuclear arms with the implied threat of their actual use. As a nuclear power, the UK holds weapons that are no less questionable according to traditional moral values than the chemical and biological weapons we rightly condemn. I'm saying that the way we critique the weaponry of other nations needs to stand up to examination in the light of our own. As it is, I doubt whether our conscience as a nation can be entirely clear.

I am keenly aware of Edmund Burke's great dictum that evil happens when good men stand by and do nothing. I am not a pacifist and believe that nations are right to intervene strategically if there is a good prospect of a better outcome than there would have been if they had held back. I am old fashioned enough to believe that the concept of a just war still has validity. But the tragedy of Syria since the war erupted is precisely the consequence of western nations having done little or nothing to make a difference that would last. So it will not do for the USA, France and Britain to indulge in an episodic fit of moral outrage and decide in haste to take precipitate action that risks making the situation many times worse.

The UN Secretary General says chillingly that the cold war is back with a vengeance. I fear he is right. If so, the last thing that is needed is precipitate, reckless grandstanding with missiles. Instead, we need to take pause and consider the consequences of what we do. This, among other things, is what a proper parliamentary process would have provided. To see the end from the beginning is a central aspect not only of Realpolitik but of human wisdom. If ever our leaders needed that gift, it is now.