What about the others?
To those who decry the fact that we ignore crimes against humanity at our peril, talk to me about the gulags in North Korea. Tell me about the machine gunning of a singer in that nasty little country for having sex. Tell me about the starvation of millions of North Koreans and who and what we can bomb to stop that happening. Go on, in the comments below.
Or explain to me our role in dealing with one of the most vicious, evil wars ever, in eastern Congo. If you want atrocities, look no further, from gang rapes of women staked out in forests, to mutilations, to people being forced to have sex with razor blades dug into the ground, or child brothers and sisters forced to have sex with each other. The truly disgusting things which have happened in Congo for years make the murderous Assad look like a beginner, yet where is the clarion call for action? When are we going to bomb the perpetrators there?
Also, what plans do we have for Sri Lanka after their 'government' (a cabal of brothers, in fact) slaughtered thousands of Tamils to create a wasteland they called peace? The answer is that we plan to attend a Commonwealth conference there.
We could also talk about the continued occupation of Tibet by China, couldn't we. Shall we send a couple of Typhoons over there, Dave? Or what about the continued occupation of Palestine - not to mention part of Syria - since 1967 by Israel, with the attendant apartheid and ill-treatment of several generations of Palestinians forced to live in refugee camps. Let's have a Parliamentary vote on action there.
It's all too easy to call for 'action' and to decry others for their lack of resolve, but where to first? The world is a nasty place and we must do everything we can to reduce suffering but the key phrase is 'everything we can'.
So let's discuss Syria, North Korea, Congo, Tibet and Israel, shall we, if only to watch Ed Miliband squirm his way out of that.
Plan, plan, plan - or why two pages of opinion is no basis for war
In 1941, Churchill established a committee to discuss how to run Germany after war was won. This was prescient in the extreme as, at the time, Britain was losing the war. After 8th May 1945, Germany was restored, rebuilt and, in the following decades, became one of the most successful democratic countries in the world, thanks in no small part to the long view of a British Prime Minister who knew what to do on 9th May 1945. Contrast that with the fiasco of post-invasion Iraq and the pygmy policies of Blair and Bush.
In 1944, the Allies invaded France to push Germany back and eventually defeat the Nazis. The invasion took place on 6th June and was an astonishing success, the greatest seaborne invasion in history. However, it didn't start at midnight plus one on the 6th June; it started years before with planning, raids, intelligence gathering and devastating bombing raids on Nazi targets to weaken the defenders. The Germans were overrun with overwhelming force and even then they defended their ground fiercely, putting the invasion in doubt until the end of the first day.
These examples demonstrate the need for cold, hard calculation and careful planning before lobbing a couple of bombs into another country or sending some Typhoons.
What, where, when, why, how?
Those who want to take action need to address a series of questions, which is what Churchill would have done and why his genius persists:
- What are the aims of a Western intervention. Exactly, not roughly. Clear, precise goals with timescales and anticipated outcomes.
- What is the exit strategy for any and all plans to get involved in this nasty civil war?
- What - precisely - would we do in Syria? What would we attack, how and where would we draw the boundaries and how could we avoid civilian casualties if we bombed their capital city, Damascus, one of the oldest cities in the world?
- Assuming we would bomb chemical weapons stores, how would we guarantee that the attacks would not spread out the chemical agents, instead of destroying them?
- What would happen after any intervention? This is the key question. How would we respond to Syrian retaliation, for example on the British base in Cyprus or in France or Britain?
- How would we deal with the likely intervention of Iran into the Syrian civil war in support if its ally? Should we bomb Tehran?
- How do we deal with Hezbollah, a terrorist organisation from Lebanon which is supporting the government in Syria? How do we avoid drawing the brittle state of Lebanon (part of Syria until the French split it off after 1918) into a wider conflict as a result of Hezbollah's involvement?
- What happens when nuclear-armed Israel seeks to capitalise on the widening conflict to attack targets in Syria - as it has already done several times in the past few years - or Iran?
- A limited attack on Syria will not remove Assad. His almost certain survival in the face of 'Western aggression' would likely strengthen him. How would this serve the Western intention to 'teach him a lesson'?
- All wars end when the two sides talk to each other. Why is lobbing bombs indiscriminately into a country better than trying to get to that inevitable final stage now?
Feet of clay
To my great disappointment, as I have been waiting to hear his normally wise words, Paddy Ashdown has expressed dismay that Britain will be 'standing alone' after this vote and that our relationship with the US has been weakened. It pains me to say this about the man who saved the LDs but this is utter nonsense.
Firstly, Britain is not the Americans' key ally, we are their key supporter. They don't rely on us, as we do on them. We have been firm allies of theirs for decades and that remains. Come the next crisis, Britain will stand with America. Nothing fundamental has changed, except perhaps the ignition of the tiny spark of a notion in Washington that we might like to have a different view occasionally. That's a good thing among allies.
Secondly, we are firm friends and being a friend does not mean rushing into trouble when the other one whistles. It means supporting that friend, either actively or critically. A good friend is the one who has the courage to stand up to another and asks if what they are doing is right. The fact that members of the US Congress are calling for a debate suggests that the British Parliament got it spot on.
Thirdly, Paddy said that President Assad would be cheered by the outcome. Since when did the British Parliament have to answer to blood-soaked dictators? Parliament did its job yesterday for the UK and discussed an issue of major importance to us, not the killer in Damascus. It took a decision based on the evidence provided, which was simply insufficient to justify military adventures. The message is not to Assad but to the Syrian people: democracy works and it keeps leaders in check. Remove the murdering dictator who has his foot on the neck of your great country and you can have a taste of freedom, debate and challenge to those in power. It won't be easy, it will be horrible but the thousands of British people who struggled for democracy in this country have left us with a legacy which yesterday shone like a beacon across the world.
How about a little growing up?
Putting aside all the political blather, the cold hard truth is that neither the British nor the American people want to get involved in the quagmire of Syria. It's a dirty, nasty war and people are being treated shockingly by both the gangster regime and by rebel groups but we can't stop it, whatever the armchair Generals would like to think. Now would be a great time to initiate a ceasfire, start talks and stop the slaughter. This will happen in the end and the greatest legacy of one of Parliament's greatest days would be if those talks could be brought forward by several years, instead of being put back by unnecessary international meddling in a problem which is infinitely more complex than the 'gunboat' brigade would have us think.
At the end of yesterday, democracy won (note: conscious football analogy). What a stunning victory and what an inspiration to those still fighting for their freedom across the world against murderous dictators like Assad.