The perils of intervention

Just one word this morning – intervention.

When to intervene and when not to? The right (and it’s true, not only the right) would have us intervene in Syria, as we did in Libya, but not, for America at least, in Gaza, where the intervention is already happening, and longstanding. But the USA doesn’t have proxies in other parts of the world. The reverse is true. Intervention couldn’t be by subtle diplomatic means, in the current state of things, so it would again be by bludgeon.

And when did bludgeon last work? Melanie Phillips, way off-beam as so often, describes the West as being ‘rudderless’ and ‘leaderless’, and blames Obama for no longer being prepared to defend Western interests. What are Western interests? Can we win favour by more violence? Can we import democracy into countries unwilling to accept it, and unable to define it as we do? Even Turkey – what of Turkish democracy reinterpreted by Erdogan?

What chance intervention working had it happened in Syria in 2011? Fragmentation and violence as is now the fate of Libya would have been the likely outcome. The same result as non-intervention. But that’s another story, and I wouldn’t want to oversimplify it by anything I write here.

As for intervening by way of wider sanctions in Ukraine, they have a poor history. When applied against Saddam Hussein they were riddled with holes. Against Iran in recent years they have put big pressure on the economy, and arguably had an impact. But Russia isn’t Iraq or Iran, and Putin knows it. He’s recently been, after the shooting down of MH17, in Latin America, signing deals. Likewise recently (before MH17 ) with the Chinese. The Russian economy may suffer from sanctions the West imposes but he has too many friends elsewhere for sanctions to have a chance of bringing him down, or even changing his policy.

I’m not opposed to sanctions per se, but I doubt the efficacy of further sanctions. They will polarise, drive both sides further part, they will not advance a solution.

Charles Krauthammer (National Review), in the context of Ukraine: ‘History doesn’t act autonomously. It needs agency.’ Responsible leaders, he argues, have a duty to try and shorten the time span of dictators. ‘History inevitably sees to the defeat of their [the dictators’] malign policies.’ But does it, and if it does, what replaces them? Misplaced agency is a fool’s errand. Follow Krauthammer and you’ll follow more of such errands.

Obama is playing a longer and wiser and braver game. It requires patience, and a determination to work with local people, local agencies, local parties. Think Pakistan, where we can all understand American policy toward the Pakistani Taliban, but the great majority of Pakistanis view America as the great satan. World opinion outside of the West is weighted against America. Obama is trying to readjust that balance. It will be a long game, and there are and will be shrill and foolish voices crying against it.

The appalling violence of the jihadists in northern Iraq is a mighty challenge to that policy. Stopping that violence is a necessary intervention, and it could have come sooner. But, beyond that, Obama’s aim is to work with and support the Iraqi and Kurdish goverments and military.  Reclaiming territory must be handled by local and not American forces.

Where we might intervene, and with success, is in Gaza. Intervention would be to stop violence, engineer peace, seek a two-state solution, but with Israel a proxy for the USA, what chance is there of that?






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