Why I’m anti-intervention, but not anti-war
Read spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).
Name a war of intervention, and the chances are that I have protested against it, from the Falklands in 1982 through the Gulf War of 1991 to the 1999 Kosovo war. Today, however, I also feel as if I should protest at the war-weary calls for British troops to be withdrawn from Iraq.
I share all the concerns about what is happening over there; the invasion and occupation have been a predictable debacle. But today’s peculiar anti-war mood also illustrates a problem over here. There seems to be a growing feeling, not simply that America and Britain are wrong to fight in Iraq, but also that there is no big cause worth fighting for these days, nothing for which it is worth making a sacrifice. If such a defeatist outlook is allowed to triumph, then we are in line for some serious setbacks on the home front.
The West’s wars of intervention should be opposed because history shows that they do not work. When big powers assume the right to save smaller nations from themselves it backfires, as in Vietnam. Internationalising local conflicts inflames tensions rather than relieves them, as in the Balkans and the Middle East. Attempts to ‘liberate’ other people on their behalf leave a dangerous vacuum, as in Iraq.
So I am anti-intervention – but I am not anti-war. There have often been just wars that were worth fighting and the Americans and British have fought theirs. Pacifism is for masochists, and the meek are less likely to inherit the earth than to be left lying in it. In a week when all are quoting the Olympian wisdom of Ancient Greece, it is worth recalling Aristotle’s observation that sometimes circumstances mean ‘we fight wars that we might live in peace’.
The real question is never ‘are we for or against war?’ in general, but ‘what are we fighting for?’ On Iraq, few feel that they have a convincing answer. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction has exposed the lack of any wider sense of coherent mission behind the war. The coalition’s uncertainty about what to do, symbolised by the toing-and-froing at Najaf, has become an almost daily illustration of the crisis of conviction at the heart of our own society.
In turn, that lack of conviction in the West is what the anti-war mood is feeding from, rather than anything specific to do with Iraq. It looks less like a committed stand against this war than a cynical shrug about taking a forceful stand of any sort. Many people just wish the war would go away. They are not concerned that we should leave the Iraqis alone to sort out their destiny. Rather, they wish Iraq would leave us alone and disappear off the map.
This mood is encapsulated by the anti-war movement’s slogan, ‘Not in My name’, which I could not bring myself to march behind last year. It is not a political statement advocating any cause. It is a personal opt-out clause for those who want to disengage from anything bigger than themselves, for whom ‘Stop the War’ means Stop the World I Want to Get Off. Which, incidentally, helps to explain why such huge protests have had such little lasting impact.
Iraq should teach us the folly of launching wars of intervention. Whether the coalition forces stay or go, it is likely to be a disaster. Yet everybody has been so busy picking over the minutiae of dodgy dossiers that few have raised their sights far enough to bother debating the principles of intervention, sovereignty and self-determination. Opposing wars of intervention, however, is not the same thing as hiding in your bunker at home. The do-nothing mood that is taking hold is one of moral defeatism. That is for losers. Perhaps the next war we need to launch is a new culture war in the West, to decide what values and ambitions we might be prepared to stand and fight for – and against.
When we marched against the Falklands war all those years ago, some friends and I were abused in the streets and threatened with arrest for treason because we suggested that ‘the Malvinas are Argentina’s’ (a proposition that any glance at a decent atlas or history book should confirm). Those who suggest that Britain should get out of Iraq are unlikely to encounter any such heated opposition. Yet I would rather have a clash of competing convictions than a shrug of consensual indifference, rather that people believed in something I abhor than in nothing much at all.
On those old peace marches, it seemed that somebody would always have a tape of Edwin Starr singing ‘War – what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!’ There is a lot of truth in that. But it is also true that a society which abandons the very idea of fighting for a good cause will eventually be good for nothing.
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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