Amidst hyperbolic, and it has to be said unsubstantiated, claims that the Syrian army is massacring civilians in Aleppo, the British House of Commons held a debate today to discuss taking action to protect the city’s inhabitants. MPs discussed ideas such as creating a ‘humanitarian corridor’ into rebel held areas, ignoring the rather obvious fact that these areas hardly exist anymore. The debate had a distinct air of unreality about it.
Unfortunately, reality doesn’t seem to feature much in Britons’ understanding of international affairs and their country’s role in them. After 20 years of failed military interventions in the Middle East and Central Asia, almost nobody in the upper echelons of British society seems to be willing to question the fundamental principles of the UK’s foreign policy. Perhaps the only prominent figure who does so is the Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn, and the general consensus is that this eminent good sense marks him out as an extremist lunatic. The problem, you see, is not that Britain’s military interventions have been wrong per se, but rather that they haven’t been pursued aggressively enough. The world doesn’t need less Anglo-American aggression; it needs more!
At least that’s what former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said in today’s debate. According to Osborne, the destruction/liberation (depending on your point of view) of Aleppo was a direct result of the British parliament’s prior refusal to bomb Syria. Osborne said:
We lack the political will as a West to intervene. … I have some hope out of this terrible tragedy in Syria, which is we are beginning to learn the price of not intervening.
We did not intervene in Syria: tens of thousands of people have been killed as a result, millions of refugees have been sent from their homes across the world; we have allowed a terrorist state to emerge in the form of Isis, which we are now trying to defeat; key allies like Lebanon and Jordan are destabilised; the refugee crisis has transformed the politics of Europe, allowed fascism to rise in eastern Europe, created extremist parties in western Europe; and Russia, for the first time since Henry Kissinger kicked them out of the Middle East in the 1970s, is back as the decisive player in that region.
That is the price of not intervening. … let’s be clear now that if you don’t shape the world, you will be shaped by it.
If by ‘we’, Osborne means only the United Kingdom, he is thoroughly deluded about the UK’s capacity to control international events. If by ‘we’, he means ‘the West’, then he’s just talking out of his hat. The ‘West’, in the form of the United States, has intervened in Syria from the start of the civil war there, providing arms, money, and training to rebel forces. In any event, Britain has not stayed out of the war, as reports suggest that British special forces have been operating in Syria. Britain’s Foreign Office has also been helping the Syrian rebels in their propaganda efforts.
Osborne’s claim that ISIS was a product of Western failure to intervene in Syria is also bizarre. ISIS is a product in large part of the chaos created in Iraq by the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 and of the subsequent failed counterinsurgency campaign. The British Army spent several years fighting to gain control of Basra province. Its efforts achieved absolutely nothing. Similarly, the British Army’s campaign in Helmand province in Afghanistan was a dismal failure, and several former British officers (most notably Frank Ledwidge) have credibly demonstrated that the British Army actually helped to destabilize Helmand rather than the opposite.
What good precisely did British intervention do in these cases? How did it help bring law, order, and good government to Iraq and Afghanistan? And how did it help bring any of those benefits in other cases such as Libya?
The recent dismal record of the British military is not an aberration. In fact, the overall historical record of British military involvement in other countries’ affairs is decidedly poor. In a study published in International Studies Quarterly, Jeffrey Pickering and Mark Peceny concluded that of the all the cases studied,
Not a single target of hostile British military intervention liberalized or became a democracy. Hostile British intervention consequently drops out of [our model] because it predicts failure perfectly. Furthermore, hostile British intervention has a negative and significant impact on political liberalization.
Other states have been a bit more successful, but not a lot. As Stephen Walt points out:
Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War generally led to “significant declines in democracy.” Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines forty-two “foreign imposed regime changes” since 1920 and finds that when interventions “damage state infrastructural power” they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war.
What then explains the continuing belief in the value of bombing, invading, and occupying foreign countries? I find I cannot easily explain it, except perhaps in terms of post-imperial delusions of grandeur combined with an arrogance brought about by the West’s victory in the Cold War and by the West’s belief in the universal supremacy of its own supposed value system. The combination of untrammelled military supremacy and a total belief in their own moral superiority has created an incentive to act which some find too tempting to resist, despite the fact that acting has been shown to fail again and again.
I registered as a British overseas voter in order to vote in the Brexit referendum. That means I will get a vote in the next general election (in East Hull). For the first time in my life, I will vote Labour – not because of the mass of Labour MPs, most of whom remain committed interventionists, but because in Corbyn they have a leader who actually realizes how counterproductive British policy has been. I disagree with just about everything else Corbyn stands for, but at least he’s right on this. It makes me understand why Americans voted Trump.