The Liberal Case for Non-Intervention in Syria. Probably. Or Not. Whatever.

Tim Farron – Fearlessly Leading the Fight Back Against Liberal Interventionism

Some issues merit considerable attention.  Some don’t.  Tim Farron is one of the latter.  In his speech to the Lib Dem conference in September, Farron posited the following argument for people with liberal political convictions in other parties to join the Lib Dems under his leadership.

‘If you are a liberal, why don’t you join the liberals?  If you have never been involved in politics before but are dismayed by the blame, division, fantasy or fear you see peddled by others, join us…  Because, now more than ever, being a spectator is not an option.  Action is vital.’

Let me explain why, despite being a classical liberal in almost every sense, I will not be joining Tim Farron.

I prefer my Liberal leaders to understand the possibility that defence of liberal values and national defence may require armed intervention.  Paddy Ashdown understood the necessity of liberal interventionism, notably over the Balkans, even if he disagreed with the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq.

There is always mileage for an opposition party at Westminster in attempting to capture the moral high ground when challenging government policy.  Charles Kennedy did this by exploiting the mainstream canard about the illegality of the Iraq war, although the results of the 2005 general election (which saw the Labour vote decline by 5.5% and the Lib Dems gain 3.7%) indicate that public disapproval of Iraq, and the assumed toxicity of Blair himself, was overstated.  At least Kennedy’s opposition had some level of consistency behind it in comparison to the Conservatives, whose defection to the anti-war camp in the name of political expediency reaped the meagre rewards of a 0.7% increase in the popular vote; little consolation when considering Blair’s return to Downing Street.

Judging by that result, leading the ‘anti-war’ consensus did little for the Lib Dems.  It is tempting to suggest that the high water mark for the contemporary brand of Lib Dem opportunism principled opposition was Norman Baker MP.  Baker’s 2007 book, ‘The Strange Death of David Kelly’ book exploited the miasma of conspiracy theory surrounding the suicide of an Iraq weapons inspector and at least made him some money confirmed by Lib Dem party policy.

How different things are in 2013-15 for Farron over Syria.  Following the model of ageing military generals in fighting the last war all over again, Farron skipped Ashdown’s response to Bosnia and Kosovo.  Faced with the greatest refugee displacement since the Second World War, driven by the ruthless mass-murder of civilians by the Assad regime using chemical weapons to desperately cling to power on the one hand, and the barbaric ethnic cleansing, mass-murder and sexual slavery imposed by ISIL on the other, Farron responded fearlessly to defend Liberal principles:

‘Tonight I did not vote for military action on Syria. There should be no rush to take military action. We must instead continue to exhaust every possible diplomatic option.’

Well, that was 2013.  Before the Paris attacks and before politicians started to perceive that an anti-interventionist stance was not necessarily the ticket to public support that it had been.  After two more years of mass-murder and increasing refugee mass-migration. Now everything is different.  Dimly grasping the fissure in Labour between a traditional PLP and a left-wing non-interventionist constituency exposed as a result of the Paris terrorist attacks, Farron has now revolutionised his position by applying five tests necessary to government policy to justify Lib Dem support for military action against ISIL.  So let’s run through them here.

1.  Military intervention must be legalised.  Fortunately UN Resolution 2249 does this for Farron, despite the fact that this is a non-binding resolution and has only moral, not legal validity.  If you want a UNSCR to do the real thing, say hello to Putin’s veto.

2.A diplomatic settlement in the Vienna talks.  Where Russia can succeed in delaying or halting any attempt to depose Assad.  A no-bomb zone to protect civilians.  Fine; now who enforces it, and stops ISIL/Assad bombing, bombarding or shooting anyone in it?  One thing would – western troops.  Are you willing to do that, Tim?  I thought not.

3. Pressure on Gulf States for increased support in the region and prevent the funding of jihadists.  Fine by me.  But why are they going to listen to you?

4. A Post-Isil plan.  How about a disarmed, democratic Syria with stable liberal institutions which can (eventually) defend individual rights and minority communities, thereby obviating the necessity for others to militarily intervene.  Too liberal for you, Tim?

5. Publish government report on Muslim Brotherhood and investigate funding of extremists here in the UK.  Fine by me.  But why does that have to be attached to any question of intervening in Syria?

All of this comes down to the problem Farron and his constituency have with the use of force for humanitarian intervention in defence of universal liberal values in the post-Iraq era.

The reality has always been that the diplomacy to resolve a conflict like that is contingent upon the military power deployed to faciliate it.  Which is why Ashdown advised Blair that ground troops would be needed in Kosovo in 1998, not just air strikes.  If Farron wants British and international liberal values to be defended in Syria – or anywhere else – he needs to grasp the nettle of understanding what that may involve.  If he wants to embrace cynical realism, bemoaning the inability or unwillingness to intervene, he should say so and thereby spare the rest of us his hypocritical sanctimony in the process.  And just for aficionados of hypocritical sanctimony:

‘Because, now more than ever, being a spectator is not an option.  Action is vital.’ – Tim Farron, Lib Dem conference speech, September 2015.

So much for the rhetoric.  The reality is that, understandably blinded by the post-Iraq narrative of the ‘illegality’ of western intervention, and even complicit in it, Farron has denied himself tactical room to move when the calculus shifted.  This is precisely the similar problem faced by the Corbynite Labour party, although to their credit Labour actually have a constituency capable of making the liberal case for interventionism by the international community in the form of the PLP.  But it does no credit to Farron’s capabilities, and leaves Ashdown’s criticism of his leadership bid with greater resonance.

‘Judgement is not his strong suit’

Which is the main reason why Farron’s loudly-announced attempt to steal centre-ground from the Labour party is doomed. Elected on a left-of-centre platform to replace a discredited centrist leadership, Farron is, effectively, the Corbyn of the Lib Dems.  I anticipate a demonstration of this when Farron parrots the opposition of ‘realist’ Tory anti-interventionists and regretfully claims the case for military intervention has not yet been made.  But he would be strongly in favour of it if it was.  Honest.

If this prediction is correct, and the related prediction that there will be enough Labour rebels defying Corbyn to grant Cameron parliamentary approval of British participation against ISIL in Syria, it will prove that a coalition of Tories and post-Corbynite Labour party rebels will demonstrate the capacity to outperform the Lib Dems when it comes to the defence of liberal interventionism.

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