Friday, 30 August 2013

The view from the hill of beans

That vote in parliament looked very different from where I was. 
Just a few hour’s drive from Damascus. 
Not that it’s a drive I was thinking of. Not that it’s possible. Not overtly, anyway. 
Not without a tank. 
I guess if I’d been back in the editor’s chair at The World at One or Today, I’d have been bouncing around like everyone else at the British parliamentary manoeuverings. 
The microscopic points scored. The tactical blunders. 
And that laziest of lazy journalistic tropes; who’s won? Who’s lost?
It all seemed a bit irrelevant. A bit beside the point.
And the problems of three little people – Cameron, Clegg and Milliband – didn’t amount to a hill of beans … well, you get the point.
Crazy world.
Before the vote, I was selfishly – really, really selfishly – hoping nothing would happen in the real world that’d close the airport before I was due to leave for home. 
Flicking across the Hebrew and Arabic TV channels didn't help the mood. Pictures of gas mask queues. Missile batteries. Finger jabbing threats of retaliation ... in every possible direction. Fatah and Hamas united on this if nothing else - the west shouldn't attack Syria.  
Crazy world, huh. 
But then, the draw of our narrow, self-regarding politics is too strong if you’ve spent your life somewhere in its vicinity.
So I watched what I could of the debate. And shared the shock of the vote. And got swept up in the calculations everyone I follow on Twitter was tweeting about.
What does it mean for Cameron? For the coalition? For what passes these days for UK foreign policy?
How did it happen? Where were the whips? What'll happen when Ed Milliband realises that smoke is coming from the self-administered holes in his feet? Etc. Etc.
Hill of beans.
No means no
We learnt last night what our MPs aren’t prepared to do about Assad. And by extension, it has to be assumed, any other dictator who can't find his moral compass under the barrels of sarin.
So what are they prepared to do? Now and in the future. And if, as the polls suggest, they're more or less speaking for us voters, what are we prepared to see done in our name.
It'd be profoundly depressing if last night's vote means we're heading down some amoral cul-de-sac. Traipsing behind little Englanders, wringing our hands at inhumanity muttering ‘somebody should do something’. Like curtain twitchers who tut at the yobs on the corner, hoping someone will stop them before they pee in our garden and violate the gladioli. 
But if we're not prepared to back the use of force. And still want to see a vaguely moral world ... what is it that we're prepared to commit to to bring it about?
There’s no doubt that Iraq and Afghanistan shifted our perspectives on the use of force.
MPs let us be bundled into war in Afghanistan in 2001 without any serious examination. Two years later, we trooped with more deliberation but more mendacity into Iraq.  
There are similarities, of course, between then and now. But the differences are much greater. And tell us much, much more.
If Afghanistan was instinctive – ‘something must be done’ ‘what?’ ‘dunno but let’s do it’ – Iraq was not. Blair had a roadmap. A detailed one. Written in Downing Street in March 2002.  If you care to, you can even trace his Iraq trajectory back to Chicago in 1999.
Cameron had/has no road map. If he has a foreign policy at all, it’s difficult to spot. And on Syria, his lack of both tactics and strategy has been painful to watch.
Blair’s convictions, of course, took us down another route. And to another difference between then and now.
We now know beyond any doubt that in 2002/3, intelligence that was known to be unreliable and which turned out to be pure fiction was massaged in Downing Street to remove doubt. To match Blair’s convictions and shape a misleading case for war in the shaming September 2002 dossier. Policy-based evidence.
This time, the JIC’s reasoning, doubts and uncertainties have been published intact – or at least sufficiently intact to make John Day’s document a very different one from John Scarlett’s.  
So, while the spooks can come to conclusions about Assad’s use of lethal chemical weapons over the past 18 months …
with the highest possible level of certainty …”
… when it comes to the 21 August, the potential trigger for military intervention:
“... we do not have the same degree of confidence."
And the conclusion that Assad was responsible, as he almost certainly was? Well, the document concedes it's derived not from hard intelligence but from retroductive reasoning – ‘we’ve looked for evidence of the alternative, that it was a fake or the Syrian Armed Opposition, but can’t find any’. That, and a:
limited but growing body of intelligence which supports the judgement that the regime was responsible for the attacks”. (emphasis added)
This time;
“the JIC concluded that it is highly likely that the regime was responsible for the CW attacks on 21 August” (emphasis added)
“Saddam Hussein is continuing to develop WMD … the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt … the threat is serious and current … ”
Of course, the intelligence had done no such thing.
Perhaps it was the frankness this time round, those concessions of doubt that Cameron echoed in the House – another sharp contrast with 2002/3 – that guaranteed the government’s defeat.
Perhaps Blair was right. Perhaps we can only be taken to war in a spasm or on the back of an 'interesting' approach to creating the truth.
Long Haul
Whether you support(ed) or oppose(d) Britain's participation in punishing Assad, it was/is impossible to see how it could end well. Impossible even to see where or when it might end.
Possible, though, to see the global policemen ending up worse off than the crook. A prospect that remains even if - when - the UN inspectors' report demonstrates Assad's crookery beyond peradventure. 
Other options, though, are few - and require levels of commitment to the long haul that the bean-hill builders baulk at.
One is a decades-long project to create a solidly rule-based international settlement. A settlement that would create international institutions with the power and consensus to constrain and contain 'offenders' before they go critical. But we sigh at the thought, knowing that every 'internationalist' achievement since 1945 has seen its ideals trumped by power and self-interest.
Perhaps, too, we need some sort of coherent re-statement of Britain's policy on its role in the global police force.
Or perhaps we need to expect more from diplomacy. Perhaps that 'wait and see' setting needs attention for the 21st century.
If for no other reason than to avoid the absurdity of P5 members facing each other down over the corpses of gassed children.

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