Being a non-interventionist is not easy; after all, the emotive arguments are all on the side of war. With pictures of chemical weapon attacks pushing people into demanding that we do ‘something’ it takes a strong will to remember that doing a knee-jerk something is not always better than not acting at all.
Syria is a prime example of when the cries for bombs need to be ignored. With competing rebel groups who have no love lost between them, many who are likely to be just as bad as the current tyrant, whichever side we were to join would have seen awful consequences. With no exit plan or real proper strategy as to what we would have done if limited bombing had not prevented further chemical weapon attacks, just how far could we have gone?
The bellicose and the do-somethingers so often got their way. From Vietnam, where the affects of Agent Orange still impact on newborn children today, to Afghanistan, where the UK has spent £37bn in an endless war where thousands of soldiers have died on both the pro- and anti-Government sides. Not to mention Iraq, where up to 125,000 civilians and 50,000 combatants have died. Even Libya has seen gross human rights abuses and a huge wave of political and judicial assassinations.
War is at best a quick fix, satisfying the desire for action but ultimately causing more problems in the future. Western military action in the Middle East may often seem initially successful as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and even our initial meddling in Iran may well have done, but the results often turn sour. Our military interventions in the long term do little more than anger and upset, providing angry new recruits for terrorist organisations. Indeed it was directly due to the West starting a coup against a democratically elected Government that has led to Iran hating us so much and for so long. Blowback is cited by the 9/11 commission as one of the primary causes of that shocking atrocity.
I am not as naive as to think that realisation of the unintended consequences of war or an understanding of possible blowback swung the vote against Syria. While the majority of the population as well as a majority of MPs opposed action, I would argue this was more the reality of Blair’s legacy and a Prime Minister pushing for a vote before (in many MPs’ eyes) full evidence had been gathered. But whatever the reason, it is a breath of fresh air to have a parliament finally err on the side of caution rather than force.
Whilst the mountainous loss of life in our Iraqs, Afghanistans et al is brushed over by the pro-war lobby, I am sure that they will try and paint every death now as being thanks to our lack of action. In reality blood is only on our hands when we act, and the blood of many thousands would have been caked all over us whoever won in Syria had we done so. New regime and old regime alike would have seen much slaughter, and for once I am glad it is not down to us.
Can the winds of change really blow us toward a more non-interventionist foreign policy? I doubt it. The lack of people wanting to kill us is not quite the tangible benefit that people look for in a policy action, and those that think we can drop democracy from 30,000 feet will be quick to redouble their efforts next time the chance comes. However, maybe, just maybe, our recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be as forgotten as quickly as our previous military experiments. Maybe the true legacy of Blair is a public and a parliament more sceptical of sending soldiers off to die in distant lands for no real gain. Maybe we are realising that problems on the international stage are far more nuanced and complicated than is made out, and solutions aren’t as simple as throwing a few explosives at it. Our involvement in foreign wars more often than not causes more harm than good; maybe this is the first sign that we are learning just that.
Author’s note: Non interventionism is not isolationism. There are plenty of ways, from humanitarian aid and diplomatic assistance to taking in Syrian refugees that can help those affected in Syria.