Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Syria vote: the wrong way to decide foreign policy...

The vote in Parliament on intervention in Syria was pretty much a how to in how not to make massive decisions on matters of foreign policy. For a start, the whole discussion was characterised by the kind of school boy jeering which is standard practice in the House of Commons, but I would have liked to think our elected representatives would rise above when discussing the potential of sending our army into a country in the midst of civil war. Apparently not. Syrian children are being massacred, but this is not, it seems, a matter serious enough to forgo an opportunity for some laddish taunting of those on the opposite bench.

Both the government and the opposition put forward motions, Labour’s slightly more cautious and restrained (and, in my opinion, better for it) but broadly both motions were rather similar; both saying military intervention was an option, but neither calling for it immediately or without further evidence.

This begs the question of why Cameron decided to call the vote at all. With UN inspectors currently gathering greater evidence, and the wider response from the international community not yet clear having a vote on “whether we might do something at some point maybe depending on what happens” seems at best pointless and at worst damaging; and the result was closer to the latter.

Both the government and the opposition put forward motions which left the option of military intervention on the table, and the result seems to be that military intervention is no longer on the table.

Parliamentary democracy at its finest? More of a muddle, with many MPs being interviewed afterwards citing Cameron’s motion being hasty and reckless as their reason for voting against, rather than total opposition to intervention (you’d imagine, since both the motions put forward left it as an option, neither side was really against it, right?). Cameron’s motion was concerning, most clearly for its short termism. If we go in to Syria, we are not leaving for a very long time and if we were to intervene we’d need to accept this and have a long term strategy; that would be truly learning the lessons of Iraq.

But if the reason Labour voted against the government’s motion was not that they opposed intervention entirely but that they disagreed with the motion itself, why have Cameron and Miliband decided that, no matter what happens, no matter what happens on the ground in Syria, no matter what the international community does, the UK will not be taking part in intervention?

I’m not saying I definitely think we should intervene in Syria; I’m actually really sceptical of the idea. Although my instincts are fundamentally internationalist and interventionist, the situation in Syria makes it next to impossible to know what a successful intervention would actually entail – with no clear “good guys” on either side of the conflict for us to work alongside – and intervention might well do more harm than good. As hard as it might be to accept, at least right now, they’re might not be much we can do, humanitarian support and aid aside.

What I don’t understand is what is to be gained from completely rejecting any possibility of intervention no matter what happens or what is discovered about the situation, based on a vote which arguably shouldn’t have happened at all, where party politics was more relevant than it should be on issues of this magnitude and complexity, where all sides went in wanting the opposite of what happened and where many  MPs reasons for voting the way they did were not that they completely rejected intervention.

People are being massacred in Syria and though we should be cautious and measured in our response, we should not be taking options off the table and we should not be limiting the ways in which we can, potentially, help. The vote on Thursday night was about as far from the right way to take a decision, to take any decision, on this situation, as we could have gotten. 

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