I’d be the first one to admit that our recent military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan probably weren’t a great idea to begin with.
I’d be the first one to admit that our recent military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan probably weren’t a great idea to begin with. Chances are that if a head of state is declared by large segments of the public post-conflict as a war criminal, then things didn’t go all to plan. Just to confirm – I’m not calling Blair a war criminal, but a lot of friends and colleagues happily refer to him in this way… and worse.
Errors of the past?
The embarrassing nature of England and the west’s recent military activity is that we intervened where we shouldn’t have, intervened in the wrong fashion and we didn’t intervene when circumstances dictated we should have. Looking at the roster, we fought two seemingly endless and avoidable wars in the harsh deserts of lands we should never have been in in the first place, yet we failed to concisely act against hideous atrocities when we had the chance.
Personally, I blame the failure of past interventions on the lack of idealism and genuine humanitarian concern behind the actions. The reasons behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were so convolutedly explained and justified by our shambolic leaders that realistically it’s no surprise that they were massive cock-ups.
If we could look back on Afghanistan and see positive results: a democratic, progressive state in which moderate Islam prevailed and civilian casualties were unheard of (as it stands the Taliban is now poised to take power once again), then perhaps things would be different.
However, failures in the Middle East have given birth to a particularly sticky kind of cultural relativism which entails that it’s not any nation’s place to say what a different nation should or shouldn’t do – and that if we don’t like what they’re doing, economic sanctions will suffice.
War: ‘A last resort’
You would think we would have learned the hard way that this relativism doesn’t work. Slobodan Milosevic signed treaty after treaty with the UN, hoarding sanctions with a smile on his face all the while his troops and allies in the Republica Srpska marched through the gates of Srebrenica’s refugee camps and wiped out thousands of unarmed Muslim men and boys.
War is always hideous and should be a last resort, but it seems to me that in the face of unimaginable horror and genocide, sometimes force is necessary. The killers who ravaged the former Yugoslavia didn’t care about economic sanctions – indeed, a large segment of Bosnian Serb paramilitaries were well-known organized crime family members pre-war.
As Michael Walzer puts in his essay ‘Arguing for humanitarian intervention,’ we cannot blindly resort to force without careful and absolute deliberation. Indeed, the most powerful social mechanisms for social change always come from within a nation.
As of late, military intervention has been the west’s default reaction to international turbulence. This is strange, because a stronger interventionist foreign policy could actually have been useful when the people of Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and Rwanda were needlessly suffering.
Have recent interventions been justified?
The collective power for social change and the removal of those tyrannical regimes was simply impossible, because before those citizens even knew what was going on they were being systematically murdered. Unfortunately, those states were past the point by which social uprising could have had any effect.
The reasons for recent interventions have been shady and esoteric, and I would not be surprised if governmental motivation was as sinister as many guessed it was concerning the Middle East. I would be disappointed but not at all shocked if oil was the cause of it all. Actually, it’s bloody obvious that oil was most of if not all the motivation needed.
This has sad repercussions. Arguably, the west now looks like a collective of greedy and dishonest superpowers who wasted their efforts in unwinnable wars whilst NATO and UN forces stood by with guns in their hands as the Hutus massacred the Tutsis and the Serbs slaughtered Muslim after Muslim – guns in hands, yet unable to prevent the worst mass killings since the Second World War.
A two-fold situation
However, the worst thing we can do now as a progressive and intellectual society is to write out intervention altogether. Rather than stand humiliated by our failures, they can be learned from. Our governments must at all costs stop and think before a future intervention—if the evidence is unclear or the situation not resolvable through other means then we absolutely must allow foreign nations to change from within: any country should be owed that respect, regardless.
However, when the victims of unharnessed evil and violence cry out for help, that cry must be answered. It’s not the job of any country to police the world – the idea is disgusting. But, in certain circumstances, it is completely the job of those in the circumstances to do so to protect those who are weak, marginalized and tortured by their governments.
The testimony of countless war reporters during the wars in the former Yugoslavia is chilling: Anthony Loyd, now correspondent at the Times tells of countless times members of decimated and violated Bosnian communities would ask ‘when the help was coming.’
For five years, the blood of innocents filled the streets of Sarajevo and indeed the whole of Yugoslavia, until NATO unleashed controlled and minimal strikes on Serbian forces that ended a horrific war – a war that should have never happened in 20th century Europe in the first place. When the Rwandan genocide happened, the UN promptly fucked off and left the Tutsis to their murderous oppressors. Economic sanctions didn’t work then, and no amount of foreign aid stopped the killings.
Ultimately, to dismiss the possibility of any future intervention and isolate Britain as a failed international agent – likely considering our atrocious track record – is to sit back and allow abhorrent things to happen in the future. I’m not saying that we should send in the troops at the smallest violation of human rights—it is a nation and its people’s job to police itself, and it is definitely not the duty of the west to impose its culture beyond its borders.
However, when certain regimes pass the point of no return, it’s absurd to sit back and submit to passivity. It’s all well and good to view intervention in black and white when you go home to a glass of red, a warm bath and you sit in your comfy living room and listen to bloody Mumford and Sons thinking about how terrible the government is.
For victims of the atrocities and genocide committed by rogue tyrants, there’s no political agenda or analysis necessary – its life or death. The last twenty years of interventions have been full of miscalculations and humiliating mistakes—our governments must make sure never to take part in another blunder like Iraq or Afghanistan.
However, whilst we learn the dangers of unnecessary action from those occasions, the necessity of intervention when it’s actually needed must too be learned. A repeat of Bosnia or Rwanda may seem impossible and unlikely now, but if the hounds of genocide and ethnic cleansing are released again the perpetrators should know they would be fought.
Have your say on intervention in the comments section below.
Image: Rajan Manickavasagam / Flickr