Saturday 31 August 2013

Why the Syria vote was lost

I know politicians are supposed to have firm opinions.  No, they are supposed to have convictions.  So are political bloggers, but my convictions about an attack on the Syrian government wavered to and fro pathetically in the days before the vote on Thursday night.

I have to admit it.  I should have surrendered my blogger's licence.

I listened on the radio to as much of the debate as I could, and found myself convinced by Paddy Ashdown's position.  Had anyone elected me to Parliament, I would have followed him into the voting lobbies.

Now that Parliament has rejected military action - for the time being at least - I am back in the waverers' camp.  I see no great humiliation for either Cameron or Clegg, both of whom have acted with dignity and leadership.

My generation has Harold Wilson to thank for not sending us to Vietnam (it is about the only thing we do have to thank him for) and that was hardly a humiliation for him either.  Admittedly, he didn't get defeated in a Commons vote on it.

Almost every commentator has talked about the legacy of the fatal war in Iraq, and certainly the phrase "without doubt" now rings alarm bells because of the misuse of the phrase before.  These days, when a politician needs to say something is "without doubt", it simply emphasises the doubt.

The latest claim, from an Associated Press reporter, that the chemical weapons were supplied  to the rebels by the Saudis and let off by mistake, does indicate a reasonable doubt.

But there is another problem, beyond Iraq, which I think led to the scepticism from all parties about military action.  It is the problem of the nature of modern technological warfare, and our collective denial about collateral damage.

We wage war now from safe bunkers back home, a virtual war which can only be virtually accurate.  We bomb imperiously, aware that innocent people will suffer and die for our just cause - and a million people seem to have died as a result of the Iraq war, in the original attacks and in the chaos that followed.

It is this imperious approach to people - not completely different from the imperious arrogance of the terrorists to innocent lives - that makes us so uncomfortable.  And we are right to feel uncomfortable about it.

Back in the 1960s, there was a famous Punch cartoon showing a police plane flying above New York, dropping bombs on it.  One NYPD officer says to the other: "Don't worry, we're bound to hit someone who is breaking the law".

There is a nervous truth about that these days.

The difference in intention isn't enough.  We try to minimise the loss of life, they try to maximise it, it is true.  But when we are waging war to defend an embattled people, it seems wrong to kill as many of them accidentally as we do.  It seems wrong because it is wrong.

I don't pretend I know the answer, because we can't allow every dictator to murder and gas with impunity.  There will be times that we have to act, using whatever technology is to hand.

But in the end, we had to abolish the death penalty because juries were so reluctant to convict murderers.  In the end, we will have to find a more civilised way to take military action, or democracies may not stomach it.


Richard Thomas said...

There seems a perfectly sensible way forward for the British Government. Presumably money was available for this new bit of vainglorious posturing (as it always is in our system of government) so, since we're not going to spend it finding Assad's arsenal of chemical weapons, then let's spend the lot on humantarian relief for all Syrians

Anonymous said...

I'm concerned that this whole debate has become very consequentialist, and narrowly so: the ascendant argument is that punitive action against the Syrian regieme would have bad consequences. But - as you've written elsewhere, David - an obsession with targets and consequences is often self-defeating, and it can be here, too. If, instead of assessing every decision by the likely consequences, narrowly measured, we were guided by certain principles - such as those in the 1925 anti-chemical weapon treaty - the long-term, wider, strategic consequences would be better.

(From Iain King)

David Boyle said...

Quite right, Iain.