Ian Dunt:

Comment: The anti-war left’s response to Syria has been teenage and irresponsible

Comment: The anti-war left’s response to Syria has been teenage and irresponsible

Before I continue, allow me to quickly establish my credentials:

I protested against the war in Iraq. I marched over and over again. I was arrested and I went to court (public disorder section five – case dropped). I participated in direct action.

I did the same for Afghanistan, a petulant and strategically short-sighted war which some commentators still continue to support, for reasons which will never cease to baffle me. After all this time, how much worse could it possibly have gone?

As a Latin American, I do not need any instruction in how laughable America's claim to be a defender of freedom is. America's role in the world, and in particular in Latin America, has more often than not been one of tyranny and bloodshed.

But the anti-war left's reaction to the crisis in Syria is supremely teenage. It is to international relations what stickmen are to fine art.

So far this morning I've heard that old George McGovern quote several times – "I am sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in" – as well as the repeated refrain of 'warmongers' pushing for intervention.

At the heart of the anti-war left's view of international relations is that the west is incapable of acting in a way which does not reflect its ruthless self-interest.

There are good reasons for people to reach that conclusion. The history of western foreign policy is not a proud one. It has more often diminished democracy than nourished it. It is motivated primarily by economic and strategic factors and only rarely by moral ones.

But just because something is often the case does not mean it is always the case. US and UK foreign policy is indeed hypocritical, because it is the pursuit of ideals within the restrictions of practicality. But that does not mean the ideals do not exist.

It is depressing and obscene, for instance, that the UK should refrain from criticising Saudi Arabia, one of the most destructive regimes in the world. But its control over energy and role as a strategic partner in the Middle East means any British government working for the interests of its people would do the same thing.

In the case of Syria, the practical benefits of intervention or non-intervention are non-existent. This is not about self interest. The west long ago gave up hope that Assad would become a more liberal leader than his predecessors – an optimistic dream fuelled in part by the quasi-racist reassurance of his wife's British education. It long ago gave up hope of being able to work with a secular, unified opposition.

But because the anti-war left does not sufficiently differentiate between individual foreign policy cases, it is blinded to the absence of self-interest in intervention.

The vast shadow of Iraq makes this syndrome even more damaging. The repeated comparison with the 2003 conflict is increasingly unhelpful.

Iraq was an unnecessary war of aggression. That was what made it so diabolical. In Syria, the war is already taking place. We are debating our reaction to it.

If the west does not intervene, people will still die. They have been dying, in their tens of thousands, without any protests by the anti-war left, with barely a mention in the press. They will die either way. We are debating how to make it so fewer people die.

If the intervention is illegal, is it more or less illegal than the use of chemical weapons against children? Illegality, of the most sickening kind, is already happening. The purpose of the intervention is to limit the extent of this particularly atrocious illegality. It is not unthinkable to suggest that some limited illegality may be a worthwhile price to pay for preventing the butchery of children.

The anti-war left argues that we should not enter in to the conflict without a clear idea of our endgame. This is a valid objection, but let's not pretend that we know what the endgame is now. If the west does not intervene, there will still be unexpected outcomes. What is happening right this very second is an unexpected outcome. Everything which takes place in Syria has far-reaching and unpredictable knock-on effects across the Middle East, regardless of our participation.

There is an element of conspiracy theory mentality among sections of the left – the impassioned belief that the west never participates in any international process without it benefiting the military industrial complex.

Those who believe such a thing must ask themselves what the benefit of intervention in Syria is.

What are the benefits, in terms of resource or tactical advantage, of getting involved in a bloody conflict with no clear allies? What are the political benefits of following a policy opposed by the UK and US public with no electoral advantage?

Obama couldn't be more reluctant. He is like a child being dragged out of his room. You can practically see the nail marks on the floor.

And Cameron is not a natural hawk. His instinct is to stay away. He is about to risk his political life in the Commons for a policy which is not supported by the public. If MPs vote against him tomorrow it would do permanent damage to his reputation. It would lead to questions about whether he had the authority to continue as prime minister.

It is to his considerable credit that he is willing to take the risk. His approach to Syria is the precise opposite to George Osborne's constant efforts to put Labour on the wrong side of dividing lines on immigration and welfare. Where the Tory leadership is usually cynical and populist, here it acts according to principle. It is an honourable sight.

I have the same reservations about the conflict as anyone else. I do not even know if I could support it.

But this is an instance of political leaders doing their best in impossible circumstances. It deserves a higher standard of debate than that offered by the anti-war left.

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