Tony Blair was the champion of interventionism as a justifiable part of international politics, and as a mechanism for peace. He sent British troops to war more times than any other British prime minister in history, and oversaw British intervention in Iraq, twice, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. During his famous 1999 Chicago speech – in which he espoused the need for universal rights and the spread of liberal democracy and defended international institutions and laws – Blair set out a clear test for intervention, describing the ‘five major considerations’.
As David Cameron grapples with his next move on Syria, what could he learn from Blair’s doctrine? With The Guardian reporting that he has decided against a second vote on airstrikes aimed at Isis because he lacks MPs’ support, and experts claiming Britain is facing a crisis of confidence in foreign policy that leaves it “sidelined in Syria”, perhaps it’s time for the prime minister to apply the formula.
Firstly, Blair spoke of certainty. Blair himself acknowledged that ‘war is an imperfect instrument for righting humanitarian distress’ and his first consideration was the need to be sure of the case for intervention. Cameron has no conviction in his case for intervention in Syria, and it shows. This isn’t because he respects the Commons or cares about the public’s opinion; his refusal to use his royal prerogative or confidently argue his case is down to personal weakness, and a lack of real belief in the arguments for intervention. Though many disagree with Blair, he was sure of his case and was therefore willing to use the royal prerogative (for action in Kosovo – he didn’t need to in 2003) to pursue what he genuinely thought was the best course of action.
The second consideration was to have ensured all diplomatic routes had been explored and options exhausted. The UK and United States have not done this in the case of Syria. No serious attempt at a diplomatic solution has been made, concerning any of the actors involved. The peace talks in Vienna and the inclusion of Iran are a stepped forward, but come under the shadow of increasing involvement, revealing them as nothing but a shambolic sideshow to distract the media. If diplomacy is conducted at the same time as military action, it becomes meaningless: its purpose is to make intervention unnecessary.
Blair’s third consideration presents the greatest difficulty in Syria with regards to the UK’s involvement: ‘are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?’ With Russia, American and Turkish bombs falling all over Syria, on top of the Civil War, the benefits of Britain’s involvement are questionable at best. This is not a ‘typical’ two-sided civil war with an easily identifiable good guy and bad guy, so what military action could the UK feasibly take that would improve the situation? The technicalities around the possibility and practicality of military involvement are so complex and contradictory in Syria that even if the moral compulsion to do something was great, there is little we can realistically achieve.
Fourthly, Blair spoke of long-term planning. What happens after the fighting? This is ironic given that one of the greatest criticisms of the 2003 Iraq intervention was the lack of post-conflict planning, but it remains a valid question. Even if Cameron’s intervention were able to bring an end to the crisis, what would come next? Numerous problems would remain, notably President Assad and his support base, the bitter rivalries of the rebel groups, and the Kurds demanding self-governance. What hope is there of rebuilding a country torn apart by savage violence?
Finally, and perhaps the biggest consideration, is whether national interest is being considered. There isn’t one great national interest in Syria, because the country is fractured and split; the idea of Syria as one state after this conflict is hard to envisage given the bitterness and cruelty shown by all sides.
These are questions that are not being asked. Any intervention without asking them would not just be pointless, but actively harmful. For all the rhetoric and jingoism that is building around intervention in Syria, there is still no case for it: any true interventionist would heed Blair’s 1999 words. It may pain us, as compassionate beings, to stand idly by whilst such atrocities unfold before us, but sometimes the reality is that doing something is worse than nothing.