The fantasy US President Jed Bartlett seeking re-election, finally found a three word question to ask his republican challenger - 'And then what?' It's a question that I've found myself asking a lot over the past week as Presidents and Prime Ministers have sought to advocate bombing as a response to the use of chemical weapons seemingly by the Syrian government.
Let me set out a few things that seem to be clear. Some are obvious, others appear to me to be in danger of being forgotten.
- The use of chemical weapons is abhorrent, immoral and quite clearly outlawed by international law. It appears that they have been used by the Syrian government against their own people. This is rightly a matter of international concern.
- Since the genocide in Rwanda, there has been a renewed international determination (at least in some quarters) to prevent such terrors happening again. There has been military intervention in conflicts in Kosovo, the Congo and Libya inspired (at least in part) by humanitarian concern. A new doctrine, the Responsibility to Protect, has entered our vocabulary that embodies this concern. It states that the international community has a responsibility to protect civilian populations, even from their own governments.
- There have also been wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in which the Responsibility to Protect has been invoked with rather less plausibility, both in terms of the reasons for going to war and in terms of the longer term consequences of overthrowing the governments of those countries. The most damning legacy of Tony Blair might be that the misadventure in Iraq, and the misinformation used to justify that campaign, has severely undermined the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect of which Blair himself was (rightly) such a supporter.
- Most of the arguments advanced in favour of intervention in Syria have been about demonstrating that the Syrian government are in fact responsible for the chemical attacks. Thus the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect is invoked. It is indeed right that responsibility for the chemical attacks should be demonstrated prior to any attack.
- Here, however, comes Bartlett's question. "And then what?" The question that does not seem to have been addressed by the Prime Minister, the President or the Leader of the Opposition is how dropping bombs on Syria in the 'limited' fashion that is proposed would protect anyone. The lessons of Iraq in relation to planning for after the immediate operation is finished seem not to have been learned. Yet surely it is an important part of this thinking that the efficacy of any intervention be examined.
- As in any civil war, there are complexities within complexities. The government of Syria, whether or not it can be proven that they are responsible for the chemical attack, have certainly committed atrocities with conventional weapons. But the rebels are not a united force. Al-Qaeda are involved, and there have been reports of rebel groups using the war to massacre those of a different section of Islam. How will bombing Syria affect this complex situation? Another unasked question. No doubt someone in the Foreign Office or the State Department has asked this question and even come up with some answers. But our leaders have not thought that we should be privy to them.
- There are atrocities on all sides of the Syrian war, most committed with conventional weapons. Where is the Responsibility to Protect in relation to these events? The damage done to the doctrine by the Iraq war could be compounded by a limiting of the doctrine to atrocities committed using particular varieties of weapons.
"And then what?" This is the question that needs to be addressed. What we need is a fuller account of the positive vision for Syria, its people and its future. Without such a positive future-directed vision, however sketchily set out, there will not be an adequate justification for any military intervention. Indeed, without a broader vision, further damage could yet be inflicted on the 'poisoned well' of the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect that has become an important addition to international law in recent years.
There is some really helpful commentary from Joint Public Issues (Baptists, Methodists and URC). It approaches it as a regional issue and suggests that working with the Arab League, supported by the United Nations, would be a much more positive approach than US/UK led Western interventions.