President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet: Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life?Will Bailey: I don’t know, sir, but it is.
If only it were simple to translate what happens next into real life. President Bartlet, struggling with what he and the USA should do as a genocide is beginning to take place in a small African country, finds Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers on the TV, and is moved towards intervention to prevent it.
Throughout yesterday my twitter feed was a slowly bubbling river of comments about the Parliamentary debate on intervention in Syria. Late last night it boiled over in passionate views as to the rights and wrongs of the result of the vote and the motivations of the MPs who voted. Remarkably, for all it’s passion, it was pretty much free of angry digs, name calling and abuse - far more free than the Parliamentary debates that preceded it. I follow good people, you guys.
The West Wing comparison is not perfect: a genocide is not a civil war (though the two sometimes go hand-in-hand), and a small African nation is not Syria. It is, perhaps unfortunately, far easier to come to a judgement on both the the moral rights and wrongs and on a course of action that stands a chance of relieving the situation in the former than in the latter. It is simpler, in the non-fictional world, to say that we should have intervened in Rwanda (currently a point of comparison for much of the media, along with Kosovo, Libya, Suez, and of course, Iraq) and to see a way that intervention could have been beneficial, in a way that it is harder to do : Israel and Iran do not flank it, Hamas and Al Quaida did not lurk, Russia did not loom nearby, machetes are not the modern military machinery, a call to kill is easier to trace than the paths of chemical weaponry.
But it does throw it in to sharp relief. The truth, says Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest, is rarely clear and never simple. And yet the truth of this statement is abundantly clear in relation to how we (UK, US, NATO, UN, etc…) respond to the situation in Syria right now: there is no good choice, and even the bad choices before us are compromised by murky motivations and the whisper of self-interest. We see and hear terrible reports of what is happening in Syria, and rumours of what each side in the civil war is doing to the other, and we want to see it stop, to come up with a way to make it stop. But then we ask ‘how?’ and start to flounder in the mud. It’s no longer as simple as what a life is worth - and whose life is worth more.
One of the problems with the debate as it is being framed now is that we’re being shown a straight binary choice: ‘do nothing’ or ‘do weapons’, effectively. Intervention and action, of course, are not necessarily military, but we seem to have lost the imagination and nous to come up with much else - and possibily the ability to enforce other measures on various economic global networks (such as banks) that might have an impact. Stable governments still own their armies, by and large, so they’re the easiest thing to use. They might not be the best in this situation.
According to The Times, Adam Holloway MP, who is also a former army captain, told the Prime Minister that, “Anger is not a strategy.”’ Which, of course, brings us to the question of whether we trust our government to intervene in a way that might be intelligent and have some chance of bringing some relief to the people of Syria, and whether we even trust them to think that through - a question that is particularly pertinent given that we’re still very hung up on Iraq. We might mock Donald Rumsfeld for his ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’, but at least he had the wit to recognise that there was going to be fall out from the US entering Iraq, and that some of the possibilities were a little bit predictable and a lot of them weren’t - even if you think he didn’t get much further than that or that the responses he helped come up with didn’t work. Honestly, I don’t think I trust the current government to throw a marshmallow across the room, let alone intervene usefully in a two-year long civil war.
They way that we’re also being told that we’re either appeasing Assad (‘no’ vote) or censuring him (‘yes’ vote) - with the implication that this is more important than the nature and results of that censure - only amplifies my concern that they’re not thinking through how a military intervention might work and run. Sarah Vine has been tweeting that a ‘yes’ vote would have sent a signal to Assad, it wouldn’t have automatically mean military action. Both of these things are true. The wording of the bill was such that it was to support intervention in principle. But it’s also a terribly self-indulgent reason to vote ‘yes’ - because it lets us feel better about expressing our disapproval without being actually committed to doing anything - we can carry on agonising (or not) about that.
But as we get tangled up thinking about possible options, the danger is that we end up becoming as much - if not more - concerned with our moral repution and international standing than we are about the people of Syria - and we end up in a place where, as The Times today reported from the Commons debate, one close associate of the Prime Minister was fretting that, “This is the first time in recent years where the special relationship hasn’t delivered.” Really? That’s what you’re fretting about? Not about whether or not intervention is the right course of action, what it might look like, and what the fall out and our response to that might be?
So, I’m not happy about the result of the vote last night - it feels spineless, and like we’re letting the people of Syria down, like we’re too concerned with ourselves in worrying about ‘proof’, our legal position, and the fate of our soliders. But I wouldn’t have been happy if it had gone the other way: it would have felt to me like posturing, with the extra added worry of not believing that we’ve actually thought through what we were going to do. But then, happiness is not an emotion that has any place in the debate (and those MPs who cheered the result last night should be ashamed of themselves). All of this involves hard work, hard choices, and more willingness than I sometimes have when it comes to politicians, to believe that the people you’re debating want to make the best possible decision in a miserable situation as much as you do. And to keep thinking and talking.
In an earlier episode of The West Wing’s fourth season Sam and Leo are discussing a foreign policy question that is more murky than the genocide in Kundu - the Middle East.
SAM: What do I know? Shareef was a bad guy. Feels like he had money in the Bahji cell. LEO: He did. He was also behind the plot to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge. … LEO: It’s that I don’t know what winning looks like. What does it look like. Is it… I mean, is it honestly the U.S. flag flying over Mecca? Is that what’s going to straighten this out? And if that’s the case, why are we postponing that? What are we hoping is going happens in the meantime? SAM: That somebody will think of something before we have to do the unthinkable. LEO: You’re one of the big minds of your generation. Have you thought of anything yet? SAM: No. LEO: Neither have I. Neither has the Preisdent of the United States– also a pretty good mind. … (later) SAM: I was thinking about what you asked me before, about have I been able to think of anything and I said, “No.” And you said, “Neither have I or neither has the President.” LEO: What about it? SAM: I wouldn’t speak for anybody else but you know I’m not done yet, right?
Keep thinking, Parliament. You don’t get to be done yet. If last night’s vote marks the end of Parliament’s discussions about Syria, I will be as disappointed as anyone who voted or would have voted ‘yes’ was last night.