It’s been a horrible week. People murdered in the most horrendous way joined the international death toll that goes up every day in Syria, in Iraq, in Nigeria. The thoughts I have I was coming to before last Friday, but the events of this week have – of course – sharpened them.
I am an internationalist. I do not believe that my responsibility to my fellow humans ends at the borders of the UK. I am not a pacifist. I believe war can be the right response to some situations and while it should always be the last alternative, it can be one that saves a greater amount of lives and actually reduces the overall burden of suffering. I felt this was the case in Kosovo for example.
I supported the war in Afghanistan. In part because the Taliban were supporting and sheltering the 9/11 attackers but also because I had been concerned for many years about the cruelty and horror they were inflicting on the people of Afghanistan.
I did not support the war in Iraq. I was under no illusion about the horrors of living under Saddam Hussein’s regime. But it was the wrong war at the wrong time. the rationale was far from clear and it was quite clear that there was a sense that succession planning was considered seditious in itself – a way of acknowledging that our self-vision as the “Great Liberator” may not be universally shared.
I marched against Iraq, I wrote to my MP and Tony Blair, I debated with fellow Labour members and I thought long and hard about leaving the Party. Everything that happened subsequently proved me right.
But my being right about Iraq was not a good thing – for me or for Iraq. When I look at the chaos in the region now, I wish so much I had been wrong. That it could have been an easy, clear, morally unambiguous and welcomed victory for allied forces and for the people of Iraq freed from the undoubted oppression of Saddam.
For myself, being right about my caution in Iraq has furthered this instinct in me. I have no expertise in either defence of international relations. But I speak of wanting to see a clear, comprehensive and well thought out plan for both war and its aftermath before I could countenance supporting engagement. As if I have the knowledge and foresight to judge such a thing, having been right once.
The truth is that such a plan can never and has never existed for any conflict. The variables are too big. Of course planning is essential, and Corbyn is right that we need to ensure that any action taken is well thought through. But any plan will not be comprehensive because it simply cannot take into account all that can and will happen.
Being cautious and planning properly is essential. But we cannot let this become a byword for inaction. Whether it is this current conflict in Syria or another war, if – like me – you are a non-pacifist internationalist, at some point there will be an engagement we believe to be just. “Stop the War” is a fine slogan, but as a strategy, our non-involvement does not stop wars. It just stops us feeling immediately culpable for them.
But what if our inaction is actually leading us to a wider culpability? What is getting involved could end the war sooner? Could – on balance – save more lives? I don’t know if this is true, but I can no longer believe that this is a black and white question.
I don’t know if I support action in Syria. But for a while now I have been coming to the conclusion that I think I might. That I am unsure of the right path rather than certain in my righteousness. That this is a situation so horrific that to walk away is the bigger moral failing. That this might be a moral failing of my own, so changed was I by my previous experience of being right. I miss the certainty that rightness gave me.
People are dying and being tortured every day. Whether or not I personally support action in Syria won’t change that. But by not having these difficult conversations with ourselves; by pretending this is a simple black and white issue of bad western imperialism or cartoonish Middle Eastern bad guys, we fail ourselves and the wider world.
There is not an answer to this conflict that doesn’t bring with it confusion and bloodshed. Whatever I decide personally, whatever we decide as a Party and whatever the UK decides as a nation, we must start from that simple and horrifying truth.