Sunday, 1 September 2013

Muddling through a conflict - again

I find issues of foreign intervention very difficult to call.

On the one hand, there are clearly appalling things being done in Syria, and I feel sympathy for the desire to "do something" (although I fear the politician's syllogism). On the other hand, I completely see the argument that asks what - exactly - does this have to do with us, or (to put it another way) who appointed us as the judge, jury, and (quite possibly) executioner?  There is also a very practical question arising from the sheer number of nasty things of various types happening all over the world which we are wilfully ignoring.  Egypt and North Korea spring to mind without any real difficulty, I am sure there are others.

What confuses me, though, is why we have this debate again and again, and always in the heat of the moment.  It's a little late to ask for this, I realise, but what we should surely be doing is to have a parliamentary debate while things are quiet, and discuss the philosophical issues around foreign interventions, and set a stance which the UK will then hold to.  That stance could then be the official policy of the UK Government, and when a situation like the Syrian one arises, we could focus on the issues of proof (did Syria actually use chemical weapons?) rather than the philosophical ones.

The policy could be something like:

 "Internal conflicts will, by and large, not be our concern because there are too many of them. So, we will not intervene unless:
  • there is a UN decision to intervene
  • there is proven use of any weapons or tactics on a specific list that we will publish 
  • that the conflict affects UK interests in relation to [specific list, say food, essential imports (i.e. oil), British citizens abroad, UK security, etc] 
  • that the conflict affects the physical borders of any of our [listed] allies and that ally asks for our help or is unable to ask for our help but clearly needs it 
But that if the conflict meets one or more of these criteria then we will intervene as quickly and as forcefully as we are able." 

But that's just my rough first draft, off the top of my head. I'm not especially advocating that particular set of words, the point is more that if we had  a published statement of when we would intervene, rather than always making it up as we go along, then there could be an open debate on the issues of principle, we could act quickly when something does happen, and - who knows - if it became widespread then nasty regimes might think twice about using chemical weapons or the like.


  1. I agree, as usual :-)

    I think despite (or perhaps in spite of) Mr Cameron's rather ham-fisted embarrassing decision-making process, we might actually be moving in your direction.

    I think it would be good, now we've decided not to go in for the moment, to work out what the test will be for next time. Lots of people are suggesting that the region is a powder-keg. Let's get our ducks in a row before the next issue comes up.

  2. As with most issues, there is, ready to hand, a very thorough philosophical tradition on this. What makes this particular action rather bizarre, is that, whereas normally, morality is trumped by a lazy utilitarianism, here, it is even the utilitarian part of morality that is being trumped (though by what?).

    It is surely a sine qua non of any military action that good outweighs the harm. Given that this action does not propose to stop Assad killing people (only to ask him not to use chemical weapons if he does so), then necessarily the utilitarian calculus works out in the negative (even before you speak of risks of escalation). And yet the utilitarian calculus is being ignored.

    That makes this action a uniquely bad one insofar as it does not really pretend to aim at any material good.

    And that's why this feels like Iraq, not the weapons of mass destruction or the questions of intelligence, but the feeling that we're not really being told the truth about why we are supposed to go in. To put it another way, it would be easier to defend a stronger response, or a weaker one, but this looks like having the disadvantages of both and the merits of neither. So it's not philosophy we need here, it's a clearer strategy or the moral courage not to commit the politician's fallacy if there is no option with any reasonable chance of success left on the table.

  3. Thanks BE.

    Albert - I'm not arguing especially for or against intervening in Syria, mainly because I don't know anything like enough about the situation* to judge the issues properly. So if you want to know my opinion, toss the nearest coin and let that tell you. What I'm calling for is some kind of clarity over what the UK considers to be worthy of intervention, rather than running the same old arguments out every time - and therefore distracting us from the detail of the conflict in question.

    That said, you have a point. I'm not sure I fully agree - there is arguably a material good in that it could send out a consistent message that anyone who touches WMDs will trigger an instant response from the West. But there are plenty of arguments against - see Al Jahom for example.

    In the end, the issue comes down to the detail of what is going on in Syria and what was proposed to be done about it - subjects on which I've heard nothing amid the heated debate about the intrinsic merits (or otherwise) of intervention in principle. So the current mode of debate dooms us always to a kneejerk reaction in one direction or the other.

    I think we can agree, though, that calculus is a excellent way of analysing the manner in which one variable changes with another, and offer our heartfelt thanks to Sir Isaac for developing it.

    *going on holiday for the crucial week probably didn't help, although Cameron seemed to cope...

  4. Patently,

    I'm not arguing especially for or against intervening in Syria, mainly because I don't know anything like enough about the situation* to judge the issues properly.

    No, I know you're not - we're all in the dark about this one. However, the point about not even aiming to do any material good seems clear (I would say your suggestion is a formal good - you're not stopping the killing of innocent people (the material issue), but you are making a point about the form of the killing).

    The trouble with your suggestion is, firstly the taboo against chemical weapons is not as strong as the hawks are making out. We know of other examples, and of chemical weapons which are used but not categorised as chemical weapons. So the case for action to prevent a precedent is non-existent because the precedent already exists (it's just that no one cares if the victims are Iranian). On the other hand, why not set a precedent that someone who kills 100 000 of their people by any means will receive action by the West? It seems clear that the West has chosen to avoid that course for fear it will make matters worse. But if degrading chemical weapons makes no difference either, it follows that the argument against attacking Assad for killing 100 000 people counts as strongly against attacking him for chemical weapons.

    As I say, it's either too little or too much - and interesting that noises currently coming out of Washington are suggesting a bigger attack, one which will change the balance of power. And that of course raises the question of whether it will make matters worse.

    1. Precisely - that is exactly the sort of debate that we should have *before* the situation arises!

      It seems that despotic regimes are often like young children (or, at least, we seem to treat them as such). The golden rule with young ones is to set clear boundaries and observe them, yet with despots we are consistent only in that we can always be relied on to make it up as we go along.

    2. Precisely - that is exactly the sort of debate that we should have *before* the situation arises!

      My point would be that the principles on which I built that case are already there - they're not original to me. I've simply taken a set of well-developed philosophical principles and entered the data. Why are these philosophical principles not in play? The answer seems to be that proper philosophical principles are never in play, hence most of our policies are irrational.

    3. Maybe we need to discuss which set of philosophical principles are to apply? I'm not sure there is a single, universally-accepted set...

    4. The basic principles of Just War theory are broadly accepted. But in any case, the point is that theory is there already - it does not need to be made up in the circumstances, and the lack of grasp of it by our PPE PM makes me wonder what goes on at Oxford.

    5. In saying they are broadly accepted, I mean it is accepted what they are. Obviously, pure utilitarians will not bother with some of the principles. But at least it gives us a place to begin.

  5. makes me wonder what goes on at Oxford

    Oh, we have the answer to that already, courtesy of Stephen Fry

  6. In the case of the Syrian conflict where one side seems as bad as the other, I believe that we should concentrate all our efforts on providing humanitarian aid to those displaced to adjoining countries. This would not only help those concerned, but with a bit of luck might not only change the way that individuals regard this country, and also, hopefully, improve our relations with the hard-pressed counties trying to cope with refugees. Not only might it get us "Brownie Points" but helping refugees where they are might discourage them from trying to come here.
    To me situations like this are what our overseas aid budget should be used for, not for helping countries like India and Pakistan buy armaments.

  7. Yes, but EP, don't you see, that policy won't save Obama's face.