Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
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There are always good arguments against war. They never go away entirely, they are only ever overridden by stronger ones in favour of its necessity. When the government plans to send men and women in uniform to kill and die, it’s right to ask serious questions. Do we have a just cause? Is our action legitimate? Is it likely to achieve our aim? Have we planned it properly? Will it spin out of control? Can we reduce the chances of killing innocent people enough to justify our action? A Leader of the Opposition sceptical of a government’s plans for military intervention can be expected to ask all those questions. Instead we got this.
His first sentence ends with a grievous error. Syrian civilans, Ed Miliband tells us, are suffering a “humanitarian catastrophe,” as though they were victims of a flood, famine or a particularly violent volcanic eruption.
It’s no such thing.
They are deliberately being murdered by a dictator desperately afraid of what his people would do to him if they got a chance to exact justice. To stop this slaughter, he appeals, a soaked and freezing Norse shepherd praying to Valhalla for sunshine, to a meeting of the G20 “to force the warring parties into a solution.” What, precisely, this group, charged with economic co-operation, is supposed to do to force Assad, let alone the Jabhat al-Nusra, Aztec-like in their treatment of captives, to the negotiating table, he doesn’t say.
The G20’s Russian hosts would doubtless admire the rewriting of history to which he then stoops. Britain’s failure to join the intervention does not, he insist mean that it has succumbed to a mean spirited isolation, using as evidence his family’s flight from the Nazis in 1940. But Nazi rule wasn’t brought to an end by welcoming those refugees who, unlike the inhabitants of Ghouta, were lucky enough to escape. Hitler’s Germany was defeated in a war that Britain sought to avoid throughout the 1930s; a Britain in which anti-Semitism was socially acceptable, that made it difficult for Jews to flee persecution and where the biens pensants considered Churchill a warmongering lunatic.
His treatment of more recent history is scarcely better. He claims first, that there was a “rush to war” over Iraq. This was about as far from the truth as it is possible to get. There was in fact a concerted effort, evident from late 2001 and lasting until the Spring of 2003, to construct a case for deposing Saddam Hussein. Nor, at the time, was there much dispute over whether the Iraqi dictator possessed weapons of mass destruction. Countries opposed to the the war argued that his possession of them did not constitute the kind of threat to his neighbours that could not be dealt with by the no-fly-zones and sanctions that were already in place.
The Iraq weapons inspectors were supposed to find evidence of WMD. The ones sent to Syria are only there to determine whether a chemical attack has occurred. It is overwhelmingly clear that chemical weapons were used. It is also overwhelmingly clear that the regime, in this case, used them. It would require an extraordinary conspiracy for the rebels to have fired some chemical shells of their own into the exact spot that Assad’s forces had just bombarded at precisely the right time. Nevertheless, the Government’s motion promised to wait for their report. By orchestrating the opposition, Ed Miliband denied Parliament the opportunity to vote after that report had been issued. He didn’t abide by the UN process. He short-circuited it.
It’s possible to concede that in 2003 “international institutions were bypassed” by the then leaders of the Labour Party. The Iraq War wasn’t authorised by the Security Council. But neither was the NATO operation in Kosovo, India’s intervention to protect newly independent Bangladesh from war crimes committed by Pakistan, or Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia to depose the Khmer Rouge. Ed Miliband needed to explain why the proposed intervention in Syria is more like Iraq and less like Kosovo. As in Kosovo, the mission is intended to protect civilians, not depose a dictator. As in Kosovo, it would be an aerial campaign, not a ground invasion. Unlike in Kosovo, Syria is in the Middle East.
Now this left Ed Miliband an opening. He could have argued that Kosovo was in Europe, and therefore within Britain’s sphere of interest, but that Syria is far away. That while we knew rather too much about Milosevic’s methods, by comparison, we know nothing about Syria’s civil war. This Bavarian opening proved to consistent for him. Britain, proclaimed the headline, “can still make a difference in Syria.”
She is to do so through that last refuge of war criminals, the UN Security Council. “Engagement with the UN,” he insists, both provides “moral authority” and “ensures such action has the very best chance of success.” Engagement with the UN here means authorisation by the Security Council, and that means obtaining the acquiescence of Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Communist Party. Quite why they should provide moral authority for a British Prime Minister escapes me. Quite how their approval would ensure an intervention’s success is simply defies logic.
There’s one more difference between Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, the crimes against humanity had occurred years before. War had to be justified either to punish Saddam Hussein for the crimes he committed, or to prevent him from doing so in the future, should be decide to commit them again. Saddam Hussein was an evil enough tyrant to make it worth asking whether a war, even though it would kill many innocent civilians, Iraqi conscripts who though required to harm the invading forces, had no choice but to serve at his whim, and of course members of the invading forces, who though they had volunteered for service, must not be casually sacrificed, would be justified. The right time for a humanitarian intervention, this argument goes, would have been in 1985 during Saddam’s campaign against the Kurds, or in the early 1990s as he massacred the Marsh Arabs in the south.
In Syria men women and children are being gassed and set on fire and shot and blown up now. The right question for a Leader of the Opposition to ask is whether the intervention being contemplated can save them. If it cannot, it is to ask whether a different intervention is within our capability and can be done without disproportionately sacrificing vital national interests. Only then may he conclude with regret, and not with sneering triumphalism, that the costs are too high, the risks of getting embroiled in a civil war too great, and the danger of aiding fanatical jihadists to serious, to contemplate the use of force.