28 Jul 2013

Foreign Policy: Is There Ever a Good Option?

Read the full article here.

Iraq. Afghanistan. Somalia. Mali. Libya. None of these countries conjure up exactly rosy pictures. What they all have in common is that they are all countries that have been subject to foreign intervention in the twenty-first century. Personal loss and international outrage often follow these attempts to oust one form or another of ‘terrorism’. What seems clear, in the world’s reluctance to make any useful move to combat the Syrian crisis, is that these examples are now making us sit back and watch the bloody massacre in Syria.

 The shocking legacies of recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan haunt the West. Quite rightly, too, if we consider for a moment the estimated 100,000 civilian lives taken in Iraq alone. Every day, it seems, there is another ten, twenty, thirty people dead in an Iraq car bomb - so many, in fact, that our media hardly sees it newsworthy any more. Then there’s the general damage to the country’s society, infrastructure... Need I go on? War is a pretty bad thing, turns out.

But what if there is no other option? What if things are that bad that we feel morally obliged to help out our fellow human beings? What if you were in Syria, spending each day living in fear of the Syrian army storming your village and - if you actually escape with your life - destroying the very fabric of it?

Well, we now have a wall against which Obama, Cameron, Hollande, Merkel and many other world leaders constantly seem to be smashing their heads against. It is a wall built of uncertainty and fear, fear of Blair & Iraq II. No world leader wants their political legacy marred by the blood of thousands. It is, in one way, a great check against a potential cock-up of a military intervention. In another, it is incredibly inconvenient when a seemingly quick ‘magic bullet’ opportunity presents itself. Libya turned out okay-ish, right?

So Obama and co. have a quagmire of ‘what if’s to consider. If we intervene, who do we support? How do we support them? If we arm them, how do we ensure that these arms don’t turn round to bite us later (good job, Carter and Reagan)? If this group wins their fight, are they actually any more acceptable to us? Will this actually change anything? All in all: is it worth the risk.

In a media-driven world, policies - especially those related to foreign affairs - have little time to mature before they are declared failures. No leader wants to become the next Bush- or Blair-figure. And so, the status quo continues. Meanwhile, more die and flee their homes every day.

Now, I’m not saying intervene. I merely offer another voice to the choir of no answers. To intervene would mean severe loss of life, disastrous destruction and at the end of it (which may be six months; it may be ten years), Syria may be no better off than it was under Assad.

Maybe modest assistance is, then, the key. The trouble any opposition has in these situations is the fact that they are often outnumbered and out-gunned - and, unfortunately, there’s often no Hollywood ending if they’re not helped. Provide defence and certain weapons to some rebel groups, avoiding huge levels of involvement but ensuring the fight isn't between pistols and nerve gas.

Unfortunately, I’m still unconvinced. Somehow, providing weapons and then sitting back to watch seems irresponsible. It also sounds like putting a bandage over a broken leg. Still, it may be the only option, with many austerity-stricken Western countries unable or unwilling to commit to major military options.

There’s no magic bullet. Whatever we do in future international issues, it’ll probably be the wrong choice. Intervene, as many demand, and we may well be in stuck in another quagmire of political, military and individual insecurity. Leave it well enough alone, and we risk sitting back and letting a severe humanitarian disaster develop to catastrophic proportions. The phrase ‘it’s not our problem’ is simply petty and wrong when hundreds, or thousands, of lives hang in the balance. Modest aid is the middle ground, and is the favoured compromise for many of the crises involved in the Arab Spring. As with all compromises, however, this leaves nobody completely happy. Sometimes more, or less, is required.

Maybe one day military intervention will reveal itself to be the only honourable, right thing to do. We need to be prepared for this, and be willing to commit ourselves to the level of time and expense that it took to rebuild post-war Germany and Japan. Until then, every option isn’t exactly great - we just have to do the best we can with a terrible situation.

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