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Britain Is Deluded if It Thinks It Can Bomb Syria to Freedom

A warning from history ahead of today's Commons debate.

by Gavin Haynes
29 August 2013, 7:00am

Anyone following the recent farrago over the Rock Of Gibraltar will, at some point in the tedious back-n-forth over artificial reefs, have been astounded to realise that the Rock Of Gibraltar still exists. That, at the bottom of Spain, a fair few nautical miles from Plymouth, there lives a little sliver of the Spanish Peninsula that is forever England. A sliver that we won in a high-stakes game of soldiers in the 1730s and have clung to ever since. It's no secret that the British are notorious rock collectors and have been for many years. Hong Kong. Falklands. Solomons. The Turks and Caicos Islands. Ulster. But at certain points, you've just got to pan back and go: “What in the name of all that is holy are these rocks for?” At which point, someone goes: “To maintain the projection of British military power around the globe.” And they are right. Technically-speaking.

This morning, it was announced that Parliament will wait for UN inspectors to file their report on last week's alleged chemical attack before voting on whether to take action against Bashar al-Assad's regime. But if and when it does arrive, MPs should not see a vote as a referendum on Syria. Because that's exactly how our parliamentary system forces us into such things. The reasons to act are always large and pressing. The broader point has to do with the potential of action to affect change. To actually make anything better. Even if Assad were spotted standing at the top of a minaret blowing raspberries at wounded children and we just got one big Maverick Missile and scudded it right up his arsehole, would that actually improve the situation in Syria? It would change it, yeah. Improvement? Improbable, because there's a broader, factional, regional thing at play here involving Russians and Iranians and Egyptians and Lebanese that is beyond our power to solve at the level of gun-based interventionism without tip-toeing our way into WWIII.

British MPs are not renowned for their ironclad independence. In 2003, most of them trooped dutifully through the lobbies for a war that most of them rapidly grew to regret. Many even regretted it at the time, yet onward rode the 500. In the debate to mark the ten-year anniversary of Iraq, many took the time to express severe regret over their votes. To genuinely punch themselves in the face. Many of these were very fine people. Clever, courageous. Yet the procedural blinkering of the system had walled them in, and just like now, they'd only been able to see their decision in terms of the very narrow proposition put to them – do we save Iraq, or do we not save Iraq? What they could do – they won't, but it's worth putting it out there – is to vote down the idea of Bomb Syria. Not because Syria doesn't need saving. God knows, it does. But because we can't save it.

If and when it arrives, much of the Commons' decision to bombard Syria will be based on the past. On the fact that intervention has always been the theory. We swashbuckled our way through a more swashbuckling age, blowing various tribesmen to bits for their long-term betterment, knocking Hitler for six and proving our moral superiority, before mellowing and founding the UN. Now we're at a stage where we think we know what's good for everyone, and even America doesn't always know that. We do. It says here on our business cards. UK Of GB & NI. Global Policeman. We do interventions. No intervention too big or small. Iraq. Sierra Leone. Kosovo. You name it.

No one is claiming that many of our interventions didn't have benefits. No one is suggesting that our interventions aren't, on the whole, better than, say, Vlad Putin's. There's no place for cultural relativism here. We've got some great values, and we should pat ourselves on the back for that. The problem is more fundamentally that interventions are dick, and they are on the whole A Bad Thing and when Syria is put to a vote, British MPs will have a chance to strike a blow against the whole tendency of British foreign policy in the Middle East over the past 80 years or so that will resound down the ages. When it happens, this vote could be historic. It could be the day we changed. Or, it could just put one more step on a road to nowhere very clear, certainly nowhere very cheap. (Hint: it will be the latter.)

This is the reality that we will never wake up to unless parliament changes its bearing. That despite having frankly killer uniforms and really great lantern-jawed young men to do its bidding, Britain is not actually a "great power" in the way it imagines. It needs to start acting its size. We've shrunk our army by 15 percent these past few years but it's still too big for us. Do we really need to keep beating our cock against the UN's desk with this outsized army we insist on maintaining? And, having maintained, inevitably feel it is incumbent upon ourselves to use? We seem stuck in a cycle of military-intervention dependency and we're back on the sauce again. We swore that Iraq would be the last time. Then there was Libya. And now relapse is going full-blown, as we push ourselves into a region that, to be perfectly frank – between Suez and Iraq and Afghanistan 1 and Afghanistan 2 and Palestine and much else – we have a slightly less-than-sparkling track record in.

As usual, cheeky-chappy Tony Blair has been drunkenly whining at our window, calling us all toward liberal interventionism. “Go on. Let's have a liberal intervention. We're all liberals around here, innit. Me – you. We all believe in being a good person, and, like, women's rights and stuff. So come on, let's do an intervention...” As ever, Mr Blair is right. Evil does go about its business more freely when good guys take a siesta. And as ever, Mr Blair still has the fixed and glazed look of a civvy who has just been told the specs on a Challenger 2 Tank by a man in a full dress uniform with five gold pips. He believes his generals when they tell him about the glories of British hardware. That if we can just get the exact right bit of kit from BAE's priciest labs, it'll solve this once and for all. A missile called The Syrianator, perhaps. Blair's strength is for action but his weakness is for believing he's the only actor. That there aren't a dozen or more other forces working at cross-purposes here, and that the law of unintended consequences isn't going to blow things way off course. So too, Messrs Cameron and Clegg, who have both argued passionately against the mistakes of the past, and now find themselves stepping up to repeat them after only a snifter of success at liberal interventionism with Libya. For precisely the same noble reasons that lured in their predecessors – reasons that make sense on a micro level, but ignore the bigger picture.

There will always be another Syria. Someone, somewhere, will always be doing bad things to good people. The point is to reach a moment of adulthood of our own. To realise that we simply cannot keep on going round the world clonking regimes on the head. That this never ends well. That the Maxim Gun is no longer a diplomatic metaphor we are up to, and the sooner we realise it the happier we will all eventually be.

Follow Gavin Haynes on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes

Image from Marta Parszeniew. Commons credits via / via / via / via.

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