Seasonal Area August 2013 and Foreign Affairs

The Seasonal Area picture for August 2013 has been online for the best part of a month now, so once I’ve finished writing this it’ll probably be time to settle down and write the September one.

Nice place, Edinburgh, though the lemonade is abominable and costs a small fortune. I also say “nice place” despite my visits being as a guest of someone and so made without having to research the city’s accommodation costs.


Last night’s bit of Parliamentary excitement was broadly exciting. It’s nice to see a Government being put in its place after many long years of Governments doing whatever they want. It’s also worth noting that the Leader of the Opposition also got put in his place – his little motion wasn’t terribly popular either and is strangely lacking from today’s news – so perhaps the best way forward is for all three party leaders to resign on the basis that their schemes cannot command the support of a reasonable number of their honourable members.

Long-term the best outlook for Cameron is probably that posterity will view him as encountering a situation that he felt he could do something about and duly asking Parliament whether he should. Parliament has said no and so he’s said that he won’t. So long as he doesn’t do anything, he should come out moderately well. It’s much better than Anthony Eden invading Suez until the US President said no and Eden then deciding that he wouldn’t. Lord Ashdown was already politically dead so his rumblings are less important. (Of the other obsolete politicians, Major seems to have retired and Blair tried to say that he was in favour, which is as good a reason to oppose something as any.) Clegg seems to have just fought in favour of something that he previously opposed, but that is fairly usual for him so is hardly noticed. Nobody can remember what Milliband’s position was 48 hours ago, though rumour has it that he was actually fairly keen on guns blazing which would serve to undermine the principled element of his opposition somewhat. Other countries now have to bear in mind that UK Government promises are subject to ratification by the legislature, which is no bad thing. Obama may find that with a key ally sitting this one out he has much greater difficulty with the UN, Congress and selling matters to his own people.

There is of course the usual reflection on Cameron that he is oddly good at getting things to blow up in his face, though this has been so tidily bungled (the case would look much better or have blown over by Monday) that it’s tempting to assign him enough intelligence for this to be a deliberate move to get out of a domestically tricky war.

The line from his spin doctor/ communications director about Milliband’s siding with the opinion polls being bare-faced politicking, or words to that effect, does not reflect well on the spin doctor. The Government may wish to find a new one.

There’s much note of Britain being dragged into an isolationist stance. It would be interesting to know how much the British people have ever been keen on foreign wars. The politicians are in favour, obviously, and after a successful war against the unbeatable odds of a Second or Third World country sans nuclear weaponry or decent military leadership any politician is naturally going to experience a certain bounce in popularity amongst those who admire good judgement, a confident approach and a fighting streak.

But Iraq was marked by massive demonstrations, widescale protest and a general view that this was Blair’s little war, not actually something for the nation to get behind. Blair’s legacy has perhaps been at its most marked in the last few days – whereas before there might have been a large-scale grudging acceptance that the politician had a point, there is now a large-scale firm opposition regardless of any suggestions about subsequent votes, high-quality published evidence and “no boots on the ground”. There were demonstrations outside the House of Commons without any immediate prospect of British troops getting any closer to Syria than is required for the USA to launch a cruise missile from a submarine.

There is the question of the exact point of a “no boots on the ground” approach, raised by a large number of leading politicians and commentators who are deeply intrigued as to exactly what a warning bomb will do in the way of diffusing the situation. Simon Jenkins points out in the Guardian that blowing up a chemical dump will presumably release the chemicals. Blowing up troops is a tricky exercise from a submarine in the Mediterranean. Blowing up innocent civilians is vastly easier, since they can be found scattered all over the place, but may not necessarily overly interest the theoretical government of a nation alleged to be using chemical weapons – though it may make the rebels less interested in listening to Western suggestions regarding the frequency of elections. Blowing up bits of miscellaneous uninhabited Syrian landscape is not an exercise likely to inspire obedience. Blowing up Mr Assad will naturally be inclined to shorten his reign but will also turn the nation over to whoever seizes control first. With Syria being, to put it mildly, something of a hotbed of discontent at present, whoever seizes control is unlikely to be the sort of person who we want to seize control. They will be the sort of person who in a moment of chaos can bring an army into a commanding position and use the facilities at their disposal to persuade the dispossessed that it is in their best interests, at least on an immediate-term basis, to go back to work. The facilities at their disposal will happen to include whatever remains of the chemical weapons stockpile. They may be the sort of person who wishes to utilise a chemical weapons stockpile for its apparently intended purpose on any near neighbours who they happen to disagree with.

We have some interesting international legal principles here too. One of Mr Obama’s predecessors deployed atomic bombs on another country. Both US and British governments detonated practice nuclear bombs in positions rather too close to their own troops for comfort in the years after the Second World War. Britain, the USSR, the USA and Japan have all managed to pollute their landscape with radioactive materials, albeit with wildly-ranging degrees of alarm – the Japanese are looking forward to finding their seawater filled with glowing decopuses, while Britain merely engaged in a wholly routine disposal of one morning’s Cumbrian milk production down the nearest drain.

None of these gestures have been held to be against international law. Nor, indeed, has Mr Mugabe’s casual conversion of a relatively prosperous if racist breadbasket colony into a distinctly not prosperous and still racist basketcase regime. Apparently Mr Kim’s recent decision to have his ex-girlfriend riddled with bullet-holes before sending her family to a gulag for guilt by association is also entirely clean and above board. Readers planning on crushing rebellions in their countries within the constraints of international law may also wish to note that the police force of this world has no known fundamental, game-changing objection to massacring whole villages with flint axes.

Just avoid the mustard gas.

Why this fundamental objection to chemical weapons? They’re obviously a relatively rapid way to kill people, in a general spirit of ranking the relative enjoyment of various methods of artificially-induced death, because they’re a weapon of choice for hard-pressed governments. In the good old days such governments had to resort to surrounding the rebels and waiting for them to starve to death, as was deployed elsewhere in the Middle East at the city of Masada (circa 73). Had the Assad government pursued a starvation policy and then left the opposition to finish themselves off, apparently no red lines would have been crossed and there would still be no plans for international military action.

And we are assuming that Mr Assad’s administration actually used the gas; one of the less desirable allegations circulating is that the rebels are engaging in a strategic round of public relations by borrowing the gas from a supportive local nation and using it in a way for which Mr Assad naturally takes the flack.

Aside from all the fuss over the exact reasoning for bombing Syria at this moment rather than, say, two years ago, and merely bombing the country rather than, say, invading with tanks and half the Army under blanket air-cover as a “peace-keeping” force, there are also good reasons for staying out on a general level. Firstly, the observation of who ends up in command after Mr Assad. This person is an unknown quantity. Changeovers in Zimbabwe (1979-80), Egypt and Libya (both 2011) have not gone particularly well. The removal of the Kaiser of Germany after the First World War resulted in years of political instability followed by the rise of the late Corporal Hitler Esq. while the demise of the French monarchs in 1792 was followed by the rise of the similarly late Napoleon Bonaparte. All-in-all, from an international point of view, the phrase “better the devil you know” springs to mind, even if we do feel that we have no spoons long enough to safely sup with him.

There is also the small matter of expense. In a world where we apparently cannot afford to provide ourselves with a working transport system it is hardly a moot point to say that we do not have the loose change floating around to blow up the Syrian transport system. This country is living off its debts. If Mr Hollande and Mr Obama have full treasuries then they are of course welcome to charitably put the Syrians out of their misery.

There is no way of saying for how long we might get tangled up in the affair. The Libyan matter was settled relatively calmly, but that was more a European than an US one and accordingly featured minimal escalation – in traditional Imperial style, we sent in the gunboats, blew a few things up and left the locals to pick up the pieces. Syria will feature US forces and US organisation – the people who managed to drop two expensive helicopters into Somalia and killed more people while recovering the helicopter crews than if all on board had been killed on impact, who took 10 years to organise a simple cutting-out operation on the late Mr Bin Laden (who was arguably an egotistical irrelevance when they started and was widely thought to be already dead by the time they finished) and who sent a few dozen military advisors into Vietnam for a few months in the early Sixties only to end up withdrawing a large, demoralised and mangled army from defeat at the hands of some Communist villagers in mud huts 15 years later.

There is also the element of a man being known by the company he keeps. There is a certain temptation to say that any friend of Russia and China must be an enemy of the West. Except the Middle East is in Russia’s neck of the woods; in the same way as the US got terribly upset whenever Communists were rumoured to be circulating in Latin America, Russia is liable to get very jumpy when it sees US troops and US missiles floating around on its borders. And Russia is likely to develop working relations with the governments of the area; Assad’s relatively cosy relationship with Putin (Assad probably keeps a long spoon handy for their meetings too) merely means that he is pragmatic enough not to cut himself off from the local superpower. Russia for its part sticks up for his right as a Government leader to manage his country and its sectarian strife in his own way.

Ultimately, it should be remembered that there is some uncertainty, including within Israel, as to the exact legitimacy of the party of Sicarii Zealot Jews slaughtered at the conclusion of the Siege of Masada in 73. Mr Hitler made various moves against his Government before 1933 with bands of thugs in his vicinity and it is hard to argue that the world would have been better if we had arranged for him to take power in 1923. Sometimes rebels are not actually very nice people. Mr Assad may have used chemical weapons on people on his soil and this is an evil thing to do. But – and this is admittedly speaking as someone who has never been to Syria and whose knowledge of Syrian residents comes indirectly through Arthur Ransome – are we confident that Mr Assad was not in fact acting against a rebellion involving people who, given the reins of power, would commit greater evils still?