Dilemmas of a Liberal Non-Interventionist

by George_East on August 12, 2014

images-3Of all of us here at Allthatsleft I am probably the one who is most instinctively against western interventionism. So far as I can see it more likely than not ends in disaster even where the motives are good. And we need to be frank that the motives rarely are good or even disinterested. Indeed they are often actively malign.

Sometimes the failure of intervention is as a result of long suppressed historical genies being let out of bottles, such as the conflicts between Sunni and Shia in Iraq that have led to ISIS and the current horror show in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. Sometimes the failure is caused through poor post-intervention planning such as in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. Sometimes it is because the motives for intervention and actions post-intervention are or at least appear so self-interested that it is all but impossible to carry the support of the local population, even if they are in some way being ‘liberated’, again Iraq in particular stands out for this. Finally, any intervention is bound to involve serious death and destruction, particularly if it is carried out with an (understandable) desire to minimise casualties of those intervening, something which has been seen in Afghanistan and (yet again) Iraq.

I didn’t support Afghanistan (though I could understand how it happened) and I seriously could not see myself ever supporting an intervention by the west after the predictable clusterfuck that was the invasion of Iraq by the US and the UK in 2003: based as it was on false premises, sold to the public and media audiences as if it was another PR product, causing mass loss of life among ordinary Iraqis, instituting a torture and terror regime involving the wholesale abandonment of the rule of law, and having no clue as to what the removal of Saddam Hussein would unleash in terms of domestic politics.

I was against the Libya intervention (though it was supported by others writing on this blog), a position that I felt was vindicated by the descent into civil war in that country since and the rise of Islamic extremism. Similarly I was delighted that Ed Miliband’s decision not to support the government’s motion on Syria helped to prevent an ill thought through somethingmustbedonery.

The heady days of the early Blair years in which intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone (both of which I did support) gave credence to the idea of an actively interventionist foreign policy, seem like ancient history.

Yet now I find myself increasingly but very warily on the side of those calling for a more active intervention by the west in the dreadful events in northern Iraq. The Islamic State that has been created there is a truly terrifying genocidal entity bent on wiping out all those who do not share its crazed medieval creed. This is an entity that is beheading and crucifying those who do not convert.

In such circumstances the correct thing is I think to intervene, even if it means boots on the ground – just as it would have been in Rwanda in 1995. The international community (and in all reality that means a US led international community) cannot stand aside and let 40,000 people trapped on a mountain die from starvation and thirst. It is far from clear that merely sending arms to the Kurds is going to be sufficient to reverse ISIS’s gains. This could be a Srebrenica on a far greater scale, if the west stands by and lets it happen.

Yet there appears (a few missile strikes and food parcels notwithstanding) a virtual paralysis in the corridors of power in the major western states. Why is this? Because of the very fact of the failures of western intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq – there is an understandable fear that the public won’t wear it and that any intervention will lead to an endless commitment.  Even if non-intervention means genocide.

That is the ultimate irony of Tony Blair’s foreign policy – that it made liberal interventionism all but impossible. Never has the US and the west seemed so powerless.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

alx w August 13, 2014 at 7:36 am

In this case I am in agreement and think there is a precedent with the previous ‘safe haven’ in the same area after the gulf war prompted by Iraq’s insane invasion of Kuwait. However we need to go in with our eyes closed and recognise that a unified Iraqi state is now probably becoming untenable. A Kurdish state is looking like a very likely outcome. That will not be something Turkey or Iran will be too keen on tho!


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