Thursday, March 08, 2012

On Afghanistan, Syria - what should be the Liberal Response?

I have been a bit inactive on my blog recently. Busy elsewhere, but no excuses really. I get the same urge to vent my spleen from time to time - but my spleen tends to end up deposited elsewhere.

So what has got me back to my personal therapy space? It's the news over the last day of the loss of six servicemen in Afghanistan. Whenever we hear the news of a British soldier lost on active service I admit to shedding a few tears. These are usually young men and occasionally young women, with their whole lives ahead of them. But the enormity of the situation has focused all our minds on why we are there and what a "price worth paying" amounts to.

And it raises again the question of whether we should intervene in Syria, how, why and when.

As a young woman of 17 I took "the Queen's shilling" and joined the army. Never believing my country would ever ask me to do anything that was immoral, illegal or unjust. So my opposition to the Iraq war was augmented by a recognition that many of our young men and women would have done the same thing. And the news today that those young men who lost their lives, apart from one, were aged 19-21 was excruciating.

We grieve for them, but also their families, in my case, especially the mothers. I have a son a wee bit older -  I immediately think about how I would feel if it was him. I imagine what it will be like for these mothers on Mothers Day - only a few days away. An empty space at the dinner table. No loving card or message, no bear hug, or that inevitable phone call "Mum, can you lend me some money?". The child you have nurtured, scolded, taught, nursed, encouraged, excused. Laughed with, cried with, lain awake worrying about. The much loved fruit of your womb lost - and lost forever, no parent ever expects to bury their child.

It is a serious responsibility when our politicians send our young people to war - and one too often influenced not by a commitment to human rights, peace or our own security, but as we saw in Iraq, personal gain and vanity. And who can honestly say we have made things better in Afghanistan? A country that like Iraq, was a convenient scapegoat in response to 9/11.

So what to say about Syria? We intervened in Libya for much less. Can we stand aside while communities are massacred? Will we remain inactive until it becomes akin to what happened in Bosnia, or Cambodia? How do we value life - in units of one, or in multiples of 1,000?

I confess I really struggle with this. The obvious answer is a robust UN response (isn't that the whole point of the UN?) with peace keeping troops protecting the vulnerable. But, rather in the way the US has continually blocked a humane response to the actions of the state of Israel,  Russia and China do the same in their own interests.

One of the most tragic legacies of the Iraq war has been to undermine any moral legitimacy we, or the US may have had in terms of intervening - and I have heard robust arguments against any intervention, given that often the inevitable result (as in Iraq) is likely to be far more civilian deaths.

If we return to the principles that underpin our party, the idea that we can ignore what is going on elsewhere in the world is inconceivable. The long term lesson surely is that we ignore despotic rulers at our peril. However, the challenge for us now is to find the right response - what that is, I guess many of us are still struggling with.

So as I write this, tears running down my cheeks listening to the tributes to these young men from their "brothers in arms" I continue to ask that question, what should
our response be?