Syria: intervention can never be democratic
Getting parliamentary backing for a military campaign doesn’t make it right.
The anti-war drums are now beginning to beat just that little bit faster. And with good reason. First, there was the news that 20 British military personnel are already involved in US-led airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) in Syria, and, then, over the weekend, UK prime minister David Cameron told an American TV audience he wanted ‘Britain to do more’ to help ‘destroy’ IS. It’s more baby-steps to war than a march, but the shift to a ‘get stuck into ‘em, chaps’ position is palpable. Defence secretary Michael Fallon even talked hamfistedly of fighting a new ‘Battle of Britain’. Over Raqqa, presumably, rather than Coventry.
There are certainly good, principled grounds to oppose what promises to be further and deeper Western involvement in Syria. These derive from the simple idea that external intervention completely alters the nature of a conflict. It corrupts any nascent popular struggle, removing the capacity of a people to try to determine their own affairs, and placing it in the hands of external actors. And in the case of Syria and Iraq, that’s a long list, from the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, sponsoring the Wahhabist-cum-Salafist cause with one hand while trying to resist its terroristic outcome with the other, to an anxious Turkey and the assorted Western states, bombing and droning on at several risk-averse removes. That is the problem with intervention: it works against and eventually snuffs out the self-determining impulse of a people. It places their future in the hands of others.
But those criticising Cameron and Co’s Syrian jaunt are not making a principled case against intervention. They’re not concerned with its effect on the region. They’re not bothered by the vacuum intervention leaves, into which assorted movements, militias and, most spectacularly, IS, are quickly sucked. No, the main complaint has been that Cameron has not gained approval for intervention from parliament. Their problem is that Britain’s current involvement, as limited as it is, and its future involvement, whatever that may be, has not been signed off, given a thumbs up, a-okayed by MPs. This criticism is not principled; it’s procedural.
Indeed, over the past few days, never has opposition to military intervention sounded so officious. ‘If we have got troops operating in Syria and we are part of air raids then there is no mandate for that’, squeaked new Lib Dem leader Tim Farron. Labour’s prospective leader Andy Burnham likewise demanded parliamentary approval for bombing Syria, saying it was important that ‘the will of parliament must override and be upheld at all times’, and that the government needed to ‘proceed cautiously and responsibly’. (Rabble-rousing stuff from Andy there.) Labour’s shadow defence secretary, Vernon Coaker, added his two-penneth: ‘It is crucial… that in these important and sensitive matters the confidence and trust of this parliament is maintained as well that of the British people… You can’t take parliament with you if you keep parliament in the dark.’
All of which raises the question, ‘So what?’. So what if parliament votes to approve military intervention in Syria? Does a majority of ‘ayes’ in the House of Commons suddenly transform a bomb-happy military campaign thousands of miles away into something good, something right, something principled? Too many currently opposed to Cameron’s Syrian adventure seem to think that, yes, a parliamentary mandate for military intervention makes it legit, much as many of those who opposed the 2003 Iraq War would have been quite happy to support it if the UN had given it the green light and, therefore, made it ‘legal’. Cue another Labour leadership hopeful, Yvette Cooper: ‘The big question about intervention in Syria: is it in line with international law?’
But that’s not the big question. The big question – of whether intervention is morally and politically justified – is constantly being dodged in favour of bureaucratic back-covering, dressed up in the language of democracy, of ‘mandates’ and ‘legitimacy’. And here’s the grisly irony to all this talk of Cameron having to win parliamentary backing for intervention, of his having to make it democratic: military intervention in the affairs of another people is the very antithesis of democracy. The people being bombed, and the people in whose name such bombing takes place, did not vote. They didn’t pop to the ballot box last May and give 600-or-so British MPs a mandate to govern their affairs. No, they’re having the British state’s will imposed on them, from 3,000 feet, without so much as an opportunity to murmur their dissent.
Flipping it around, if Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad won approval from the Syrian parliament to launch airstrikes against the UK – he could even mount the campaign in the name of the moderate anti-Tory majority – would we experience it as democratically legitimate? Would we think, ‘Fair enough, Syria’s parliament have backed this, so there’s definitely a democratic mandate’? Of course we wouldn’t, because we’d experience firsthand what we ought already to know: namely, that democracy has nothing to do with being the passive objects of another nation’s will.
So, yes, those banging the anti-war drum are right to say we need an open and public debate about IS, Syria and Iraq. We need to argue openly and honestly about the rights and wrongs of intervention. But a democratic debate about intervention can never make intervention democratic. By its very nature, getting stuck into the affairs of another people, dictating and guiding their future for them, is not democratic. Those blathering on about parliamentary mandates, and respecting the will of the people’s democratic representatives, ought to bear that in mind as they ponder the possibility of further immersing the British state in the unravelling of the Middle East.
Tim Black is deputy editor at spiked.