The price of inaction

In July, when asked how he would deal with Syria’s civil war if he becomes prime minister, Ed Miliband echoed his first speech as Labour leader and responded: ‘One of the ways the party has changed since I became leader is that war is now always a last resort.’

The notion that war might not previously have been a ‘last resort’ may surprise many of the Labour members of parliament who voted for the Iraq war in 2003. However, Miliband’s remarks underline the aversion to liberal interventionism that has become a hallmark of Labour’s foreign policy.

The reasons for this shift are understandable. When their deployment comes to an end later this year, British forces will have been involved in combat operations in Afghanistan for over 13 years. For eight of those years, they were also serving in Iraq. In British lives alone, the toll has been a heavy one. As the former foreign secretary, David Miliband, suggested recently, the Iraq war has engendered a deep suspicion of intervention.

That suspicion now crosses the political divide. Last month saw the anniversary of the parliamentary vote which scuppered David Cameron’s plans for air strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in response to a chemical weapons attack in which over 1,500 people were killed. But while Labour led the charge against a ‘rush to war’ in Syria, it was a rebellion by 39 coalition MPs which sealed Cameron’s defeat.

But to characterise the Syria vote – as Ken Livingstone did – as a ‘defeat for war’ underlines the problem with this new political consensus. In August 2013, the death toll in Syria stood at 100,000 people. A year later, media reports suggest it may be close to 190,000. While lower than its peak in mid-2013, the number of Syrians fleeing their country continues to rise. And the Syrian government continues to rain barrel bombs indiscriminately upon populated areas. If, indeed, Labour halted the ‘rush to war’ last summer, this will have been largely lost on the people of Syria.

As James Bloodworth argued in the March edition of Progress, what we are witnessing is the ‘Ukipification’ of Britain’s foreign policy – the belief that, as a nation, we have too many problems of our own and that what occurs beyond our borders is none of our business anyway.

The paucity of thinking behind this view is apparent in recent events in Iraq. The medievalist Isis warriors who have swept out of Syria into Iraq, threatening genocide against the Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac Christian and Yazidi peoples of Iraq and menacing our allies in Kurdistan are our creation: the direct consequence of the west’s failure to support and arm the moderate Syrian opposition.

The opponents of the Iraq war regularly warned of the ‘blowback’ from that conflict, linking it to radicalisation and terrorism at home. But inaction in Syria could have consequences at home, too. As the former cabinet minister, Hazel Blears, warned in July, the remorseless rise in the death toll in Syria created an environment in which ‘you can understand the motivation for young people to want to go out and do something about it’. The brutal murder of the journalist James Foley, possibly by a Briton, and the vile social media images posted by British fighters in Iraq and Syria underline the threat these home-grown Jihadists, battle-hardened and radicalised, will pose on their return to Britain.

The left, moreover, has always claimed to believe that foreign policy should be about more than narrow national self-interest. Nobody can be in any doubt about the character of Isis: the hostility to modernity and democracy; the vicious antisemitism; the expansionist tendency; the enthusiasm with which it exterminates minorities and any who refuse to accept its totalitarian ideology; and the nihilist brutality and cult-like worship of death. We recognise these traits because they are also the characteristics of fascism. For the left, therefore, the eradication of Isis should be seen as nothing less than another front in the fight against fascism. Moreover, the left’s place is surely to ally with moderate Muslims, who believe that piety and progress can co-exist, and with secularists against the extremists who wish to snuff out such beliefs.

At home and abroad, the government’s response to Isis has been confused. It has gutted the ‘Prevent’ strategy, designed to divert young Muslim men away from radicalism, and – driven by the Liberal Democrats – weakened Britain’s anti-terrorist laws by scrapping control orders. It was slow to react to last month’s events in Iraq: offering limited humanitarian aid and trailing both America and other European nations in its willingness to offer arms to the Kurds and undertake military action. Perhaps most worryingly, it has failed to lead a national conversation about the nature of the threat and why Britain must respond to it.

Labour’s approach, too, has been unsteady. The role of an opposition is not simply to provide oversight of the government, but also to present itself as a government-in-waiting with answers to the challenges it may well be facing in less than a year. By appearing to stand on the sidelines, the party has, on this issue, failed that test.

It has time to redress this failure. Labour’s unwillingness to accept that military action against Isis in Iraq – and, indeed, Syria – is both necessary and right has echoes of the party’s past. In the 1930s, its initial response to the rise of fascism was similarly uncertain. It supported non-intervention in the Spanish civil war until it was too late, and voted against rearmament until 1938.

The wars of the last decade show that intervention comes with a heavy price tag. But from the Spanish civil war in the 1930s to Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s and Syria today we have also learned that inaction is hardly without cost.

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Photo: Gary Kent

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