A few days ago, I asked someone on Twitter whether “the West” should invade every country that commits human rights violations. I’ve been grinding the answer — “I mean, ideally…” — between my teeth ever since. The question was intended to expose the folly of humanitarian intervention — a thought-terminating “gotcha” that would force them to stop and think about the absurdity of attacking some states and not others. Like any good rhetorical question, however, it completely backfired.
It got me thinking, though. What would this ideal world look like, and what would we have to do to realise it? Well we might want to start by bombing ourselves, if we’re going to take the UN’s recent report on the UK’s austerity measures seriously. You might think it’s a bit drastic to go invading ourselves over a little bit of austerity, but the primary difference between publicly executing people and driving them to suicide via a cruel, underfunded, labyrinthine benefits system is that the latter is either unreported in the media or justified by the “long-term economic plan”. An oddly familiar-sounding justification. Oh well.
We ought not to let the United States off the hook either. Not only have successive US governments progressively cracked down on civil liberties and suffocated human rights, but the country is also in possession of the largest military — and the second largest nuclear weapons stockpile — in the world. There’s also the very real possibility that the neo-fascist demagogue Donald Trump could soon be elected president and have this power at his disposal. If there was ever a good time for pre-emptive war, this is it, surely? After literally refusing to rule out nuking Europe, we should be rallying the troops and preparing for war. Why aren’t we?
It’s simple, really. Humanitarian intervention, at least in the way that Serious People talk about it, doesn’t exist. We don’t spend millions of pounds obliterating flesh and infrastructure because it’s the right thing to do. We do it selectively when we can get away with it because we can get away with it. Military intervention does a lot more for soft power than we like to admit. Think about it: Broadcasting the BBC into more than 200 countries is great for British influence, but so is the quiet threat that your country is going to be attacked if you: a) Step out of line, and b) Let your military get too weak. Iraq’s armed forces were 60% weaker in 2003 than when the country invaded Kuwait. That’s when we made our move.
North Korea on the other hand, with it’s maybe-functional-maybe-not nukes pointed straight at Seoul, carries on with the merry business of starving its citizens and stuffing “traitors” into prison camps without so much as a single Western bomb detonating on their soil. Meanwhile not only is China allegedly guilty of numerous human rights violations, but its escapades in the South China Sea are even challenging the “rules based global order”. But we’ve yet to see any jingoistic grandstanding from the heads of the enlightened Social Democracies of the West, let alone a full-on invasion. Our own failure to observe the so-called “rules based global order” along with our myopic foreign policy decisions means much of the world doesn’t trust us, doesn’t like us, and will continue building up their militaries to stop their gooses from being cooked by us.
So where do we go from here? How do we start thinking differently about intervention? How do we even start that conversation? Part of the problem with speaking out against war is it opens you up to a lot of scrutiny and a number of smears. After opposing intervention in Syria in 2013, Ed Miliband was compelled to tell Jeremy Paxman that he wasn’t a pacifist to prove he was “tough enough.” It says a lot about how deeply ingrained the idea of violence as a solution is that no politician regularly has to say “No, I’m not a warmonger,” every time they vote for a bombing campaign. Nor do they have to deny being a psychopath after repeatedly failing to act on the Refugee crisis. I suppose nobody volunteers to do it because once a politician says they’re definitely not doing something everyone will start thinking they are. What could they say anyway? “It’s not that I hate humanity, nor do I take pleasure in reading about the hundreds of deaths occurring offshore. I just don’t feel any empathy for them. No I’m not a psychopath, I just don’t think there’s a long term plan for these refugees and I’m certainly not interested in helping develop one. Can we move on?”
Serious People will also quickly brand you a conspiracist if you claim Iraq was fought for oil despite even former head of U.S. Central Command and Military Operations in Iraq, Gen. John Abizaid, saying: “Of course it’s about oil; we can’t really deny that,” in 2007. We have a strange situation where we believe that politicians are self-serving at home, interested in lining their pockets and maintaining their careers at the expense of the hoi polloi, but capital-m “Moral” in foreign matters. Unfortunately, there isn’t any money in altruism unless you’re part of a charity (that isn’t on the charity watchdog list), and that only works because nobody profits. War, on the other hand, is good for business. Airstrikes against Syria boosted the share price of weapons manufacturers, gave the government a political victory, distinguished Hillary Benn as an oratory genius, filled plenty of newspaper front pages and gave the Prime Minister an excuse to slur the Leader of the Opposition as a terrorist sympathiser. Meanwhile, how much do you actually know about our operation in Syria? We haven’t heard much at all about our Grave But Necessary Moral War Against Fascism. Almost makes you think no one cares, not least our pro-bombing MPs.
None of this is to say that Hussein wasn’t, or Assad isn’t, a brutal autocrat who is responsible for truly despicable crimes against his denizens. I say this because the last common smear is to accuse someone of being part of the “Regressive Left”, or of being a “Moral Relativist”, if they oppose our military adventures abroad. The idea is that a lack of support for military intervention implicitly support lends support for the actions of these brutal autocrats. But there is nothing progressive about destabilising entire countries or opening power vacuums in which women and children are sold into slavery, raped, or killed, while men are executed, forced to fight or extorted for money. Moral Relativism is bombing Syria while supporting and selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Moral Relativism is paying lip service to the Kurds when justifying the war in Iraq while turning a blind eye to Turkish bombardment of the same peoples. Moral Relativism is leaving refugees from North Africa and the Middle East to drown in the water or be trafficked on our land while decrying the brutality of the regimes they’ve escaped. The world doesn’t owe you objective morality whether you like it or not, and flimsy emotional arguments like “we have to try” are getting not only tiring, but only make the world more dangerous in their desperate futility.
I don’t know how to begin putting things back together again, if they ever were truly “together” at any point in our brief history on this planet. Offering humanitarian support to besieged peoples and opening our borders to those who escape would be a good starting point. We’ve seen the violent approach fail in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan — maybe soon we’ll stop trying to play Whac-A-Mole with the world’s problems. But if not, I hate to think what question we’re asking if shedding blood on a massive scale is so often the answer.
All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.