I like simple straightforward answers. They are good. They require no risk, they don’t require analysis and it’s usually the easy option. But this is the real world where there aren’t any absolutes, very little consistency, and there’s that inconvenient fact that if we do not intervene somebody else invariably will. That is the reality we face.
Insomuch as we have national interests we also have common regional interests with our neighbours and trading partners. Their problems are our problems. For right or wrong, immigration has been a growing concern for many in Britain and Western Europe. There is a growing feeling that it is unsustainable and undesirable. Many of us don’t like rapid change and it’s clear that many of our systems and our infrastructure cannot keep pace. So it then becomes an issue of management to which international solutions are needed.
Recent unrest in the Middle East has lead to a growing refugee crisis, and while Egypt and Turkey have signed the UNHCR refugee convention that defines them as refugees, it is with heavy restrictions and limited effective protection, which means refugees migrate further afield. The natural destination is the EU, where we all then feel some of the pressure. It is a fact that half of the cost of any civil war is met by neighbouring countries and that has wider regional implications for immigration, especially in this instance, so we need the co-operation of Turkey.
If we respect the sovereignty of Turkey, a useful ally in the world, we have no right to demand that they sign up in full to the UNHCR conventions. It is a relatively poor country and less able to cope with a sudden influx than we are. But we can persuade them to take off some of the pressure by way of trade deals, tariff concessions and international development aid. The same can be said of Egypt in managing refugees from Libya.
In 2012, the UK gave £80m in aid to Turkey to upgrade their sewer system, which has obvious benefits for health and disease prevention. If we can develop Turkey collectively with the rest of the EU, in exchange for concessions on refugee status, then compared with the costs of population growth on our own sewers and civic infrastructure, international development is then an investment - and a degree of protection against unsustainable population growth.
The Ukips of this world don’t want to spend money on international aid, but at the same time wishes to slow immigration, and are happy for our neighbours to bare the stresses expecting that there will not be consequences, assuming that the world can go to hell. In our splendid isolation we be immune from those effects. But the world does not work like that. We need co-operation.
That is not to say that we need to be shackled to the EU in order to affect international agreements, and in fact we would have more influence at the top table were the EU not negotiating on our behalf. But it is in our own best interests to help the rest of the world develop. It’s good for trade, it’s good for our security and it’s good for humanity.
Now we can argue that Western intervention may have aggravated the war in Syria, but with Russia having a regional influence and a strong suspicion of militant groups funded by Iranian/Saudi petro-dollars, it’s hard to quantify our own adverse influence when everyone is meddling. We face consequences in either case. Therefore intervention is a means of shaping the outcomes to our advantage (notionally).
All too often it doesn’t go to plan because our preferred outcomes are not the same as other regional powers. In a perfect world nobody would be interfering but this is far from a perfect world – and a mess like Syria was always going to create problems that we are not divorced from. We can fairly say that our diplomatic interventions have been clumsy and ill-directed, and quite probably the refugee crisis is in part a consequence, as is the mass migration across the Mediterranean as a result of intervention in Libya. But there is nothing to say that failed states will not produce similar levels of immigration in any case, and the kleptocratic regimes like those of North Africa do inevitably fail.
In the case of Italy, the mass migration from North Africa is a worrying development and an expensive one, with the capacity to destabilise Italy. Being that we live in a connected world, that has consequences for Britain and it has consequences for trade in Europe. So we have international agreements to take our share of refugees. It is in our national interest.
But the bottom line here is that it is in nobody’s interests for states to fail, and it is certainly in no-ones interests to let civil wars like Syria becoming regional wars. So what do we do about it? Well there was that Iraq thing: Installing a constitution that distributes oil revenues and creates a democratic assembly for an Iraqi federation, which affords sovereignty to the distinct regions. The Iraqi constitution also has its own equivalent to Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty whereby a region can secede. It is an entirely voluntary union. In bringing that constitutional entity to maturity we have been coaching the administration in modern systems of governance so as to prevent the hoarding of wealth by a corrupt elite. Whether it is working is a whole other debate. It is certainly not without problems to put it lightly, but it isn't a total disaster either, especially compared with Syria. Saddam wasn't going to live forever and a conflict of this nature was an inevitability.
Curiously the number of refugees from Syria were greater in last two years than Iraqi refugees throughout the whole of the Iraqi occupation. I suspect the presence of American forces has a great deal to do with that. While conditions on the street mean that women have to adopt Islamic dress codes, the violence is no longer happening behind closed doors as it was under the Hussein regime and most excitingly, since the occupation ownership of mobile phones has skyrocketed. That is the bedrock liberty and I think that is the most significant metric of all.
Many cite the incursion of ISIS as evidence that the big project has failed. Not necessarily. This is the first real test as to whether there is the political and democratic will to reclaim their territory and assert their sovereignty. What we are seeing in ISIS is the Croydon looting writ large, and it is a loose coalition of tribes that will soon fracture as they begin to divide the spoils. It's little more than a rolling bank heist, and if the post-Saddam Iraqi government cannot fight and win this, then it was never going to survive as a nation with or without US intervention, and some would say it doesn't deserve to and shouldn't anyway. I hope it can and I believe it might.
Moreover, regional factionalism was always going to mean cross border incursions into Iraq from Syria, with or without the US invasion, and had it been so, would it even have been newsworthy? Would it have been reported? It goes with the territory and wars like that in Syria often spill out. The big surprise to me is that it hasn't engulfed Lebanon.
The question for the West was whether whether a mass uprising resulting in a bloodbath in Iraq (worse than what we saw), and whether an all out civil war in the region (without the presence of US forces) was in the Wests interests. Arguably it was not. And I can think of several good reasons why it wasn't. We are talking about a regime that has fired Scud missiles on Israel.
As to whether the disintegration of order under the occupation could have prevented, well, with hindsight, having examined the military failings in detail rather the political ones, I rather think it could. We saw retreats into ethnic identities largely as a matter of safety, because occupying forces, namely the British, could not provide it. This is a lot to do with the fact British forces were penned up in barracks because they did not have the necessary equipment to fight a full blown insurgency. So Iraqis turned to forces that could keep the peace.
It has to be stressed that this was not the fault if Tony Blair or the MOD because when the generals were asked if they had the kit they needed, they said yes, because they thought they were running an NI style peacekeeping operation rather than fighting a full blown war. That's why, if I recall, US Stryker Brigades had to race South in an emergency to bail the British out. We started out with some flawed assumptions but lacked the necessary flexibility to change the mission profile in the time required.
There are institutional failings within our forces that mean we keep losing our small wars, but that is not to say that such issues aren't resolvable. I don't buy the consensus that the Iraq war wasn't winnable, nor am I yet willing to write the whole thing off as a bad job when contrasted with how bad things could have been otherwise, and certainly not without seeing if it stands up to the ISIS threat, which it may yet do.
But let’s look at the non-interventionist approach of continued trading without intervention. Two great examples in modern history have been Nigeria and Saudi Arabia where oil revenues have gone to corrupt and violent minority ruling elites. In the case of Nigeria it has caused pollution, war, ethnic cleansing, piracy and poverty. Piracy is a new threat to global trade and while we can mop up the symptoms at great expense, we could use international development to cure the disease. But not without military protection.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, our unrestricted trade has produced vast wealth for another minority elite but has also given them dangerous levels of influence on our own economies as we are dependent on them for oil, and much of that wealth goes toward undermining our own ambitions of sovereign, democratic nations trading freely with a respect for human rights (with all the caveats). That is what the West notionally stands for, hypocritical and clumsy though it may be in its execution. It would have been better to supervise the evolution of Saudi Arabia through occupation to prevent it becoming the monster it is today.
So why do our modern interventions fail? Some would have it that there are no interventionist solutions, but I wouldn’t let the Romans or the Chinese hear you say that. The Romans managed to build a civilisation in Britain, bringing roads, aqueducts and new technologies and here in the modern era, China is making impressive developments in Africa, building roads and civic infrastructure. What is missing from our interventions is a priority for the national material interest. If it's about oil, we need to say so and not pretend otherwise.
You will not find a more glowing example of Western stupidity that the effort to rebuild Afghanistan, where Western NGO’s with their "liberal" Western values sought to change the social orthodoxies overnight by installing schools and educating women and taking children off the land. All that succeeded in doing was to piss off an awful lot of the menfolk enough for them to take up arms. One of the more egregious examples of Western stupidity was DfIDs Women only theme-park: An actual Ferris wheel in the middle of the desert. No really! But no roads, bridges or airports to speak of, and no infrastructure to maintain them. The Taliban will have no trouble reasserting control because, unlike Iraq, we left no legacy worth defending. We will feel consequences.
Contrast that with Chinese efforts in Africa (using the British Colonial model), acting entirely in their own interest, building roads and infrastructure to get at materials they need. In so doing, the economy grows up around the new roads and airports, and then local goods have access to a global market. Give them the means to trade and the means to create wealth and soon enough those liberal “Western” values will arrive in their own good time as wealthier nations develop a better educated population.
Meanwhile Western efforts in India extend only as far as building “Fair Trade” plantations and getting rural farmers to reduce their Co2 emissions by converting their paraffin cookers to solar energy. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. Our foreign policy is dictated by the idiotic and childish fixations of unaccountable climate-change obsessed international NGOs who put gender equality issues ahead of the basic need to feed people.
But yes, there is a case for economic and military intervention. It serves our needs, it develops other countries and it reduces the immigration push factor. But not until we get back in the habit of putting the national material interests first rather than touchy-feely, feel-good sentimental fluff, we will continue to fight wars of intervention with all the wrong objectives - and continue to lose them. If we recognise that liberty and prosperity is a superior way of life we need to stop being ashamed of it, lose the post-colonial guilt, and recognise that free nations (stop laughing at the back) advancing their own interests is advancing everyone's interests.