Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The missiles will soon be flying ...

Hand-wringing aside, what is a rational case for a military strike against the Syrian government? Tony Blair, writing today in The Times, is both smart and well-informed. Surely if he can't make the argument, then nobody can.

He starts by talking about Egypt and I agree with every word.
" ...

Let us start with Egypt. To many in the West, it is clear: the Egyptian military have aborted a democratically elected Government and are now repressing a legitimate political party, killing its supporters and imprisoning its leaders. So we are on a steady track to ostracising the new Government. In doing so, we think we’re upholding our values. I completely understand why this view would be taken. But it is a grave strategic error.

The fallacy with this approach lies in the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. We think of it as a normal political party. It isn't. If you want to join the UK Conservative Party or the German Christian Democrats or the US Democrats, you can do so with ease and they will welcome you with open arms. And in all these countries, the basic democratic freedoms are respected by all parties. The Muslim Brotherhood simply isn’t like that. To become a member even at the lowest level is a seven-year process of induction and indoctrination. It is run by a hierarchy that is more akin to the old Bolshevik party system.

This is a movement. Read their speeches — not the ones they put out for Western ears, but the ones they actually believe, for their own ears. What they were doing in Egypt was not “governing badly”. If you elect a bad government, then tough — you live with it. What they were doing was systematically changing the constitution, taking control of the commanding heights of the State in order to subvert them and to make it impossible for their rule to be challenged. And they were doing so in pursuit of values that contradict everything we stand for.

So you can rightly criticise actions or overreactions of the new military Government but it is quite hard to criticise the intervention that brought it into being. Now all the choices that Egypt faces are ugly. The bloodshed is horrible and will shock all Egyptians. There are large numbers of soldiers and police among the casualties as well as civilians and, partly as a by-product of the fall of Gaddafi, Egypt is awash with weapons. But simply condemning the military will not get us any nearer to a return to democracy.

Egypt is not a creation of 19th or 20th-century global power games. It is an ancient civilisation stretching back thousands of years and is imbued with a fierce national pride. The army has a special place in its society. The people do want democracy, but they will be disdainful of Western critics whom they will see as utterly naive in the face of the threat to democracy that the Muslim Brotherhood posed.

We should support the new Government in stabilising the country, urge everyone, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to get off the streets, and let a proper and short process to an election be put in place with independent observers. A new constitution should be drafted that protects minority rights and the basic ethos of the country, and all political parties should operate according to rules that ensure transparency and commitment to the democratic process."
Now we come to the heart of it: what to do about Syria? Blair continues:
"In Syria, we know what is happening. We know it is wrong to let it happen. But leave aside any moral argument and just think of our interests for a moment. Syria, disintegrated, divided in blood, the nations around it destabilised, waves of terrorism rolling over the population of the region; Assad in power in the richest part of the country; Iran, with Russia’s support, ascendant; a bitter sectarian fury running the Syrian eastern hinterland — and us, apparently impotent. I hear people talking as if there was nothing we could do: the Syrian defence systems are too powerful, the issues too complex, and in any event, why take sides since they’re all as bad as each other?

But others are taking sides. They’re not terrified of the prospect of intervention. They’re intervening. To support an assault on civilians not seen since the dark days of Saddam.

It is time we took a side: the side of the people who want what we want; who see our societies for all their faults as something to admire; who know that they should not be faced with a choice between tyranny and theocracy.

... "   (my emphasis).
OK, great, but here's the problem. In Syria we see the Alawite ruling clan, a Shia offshoot battling with radical Sunni forces, some of whom are signed-up with Al-Qaeda. The majority population are surely less politicised and less relentlessly religious; still, it's the guys with the guns who'll end up running the place and setting the policies.

The people who want what we want - secular, western-oriented, progressive - are socially and militarily insignificant. Nothing we can do can either strengthen them or help them prevail (as they have not prevailed anywhere else in the Arab Spring). So sure, we can hit Assad and/or we can hit the Sunni fundamentalist armed units - but to what end?

Blair's arguments amount to no more than wishful thinking. The problem is that the stifled development of capitalism in the Arabic Middle-East has resulted in a flimsy and weak civil society: the people who want what we want won't exist in great enough numbers to call the shots until those economies have been totally transformed.

Neither the Islamists nor the generals have a great track record at sponsoring modernity so we can be confident that our grandchildren will be having similar outbursts of angst about the piteous and dangerous Middle-Eastern situation.

Note: I would be shocked, shocked to think that Tony Blair was being disingenuous - and that this was really all about Iran, and Russia.