The Empire Strikes Back: On Britain, Syria, and Military Involvement

by Julian Ratcliffe

7 February 2016

Recent viral footage reveals the wasteland Syrian Civil War has made of the formerly thriving city of Homs. It’s a scene of devastation in which Britain is far from an innocent party. As such destruction becomes a daily feature of our newsreels, it’s worth dwelling on the driving ideological forces behind Britain’s military presence in the region. Whilst the country lost its last formal colony in the frosty power handover of Hong Kong in 1997, imperialist attitudes are embedded in the heart of government, animating its foreign policy.

The relatively overlooked comments made by William Hague in an address to the House of Lords were the most important revelation to come of the parliamentary debate on whether to extend British military intervention against Daesh from Iraq into Syria. They illustrate two vital points: the ideological framework the proponents of British military intervention are working within, and why Jeremy Corbyn has been thoroughly outclassed on the issue. While Labour remains divided on the matter, the Conservative government’s underlying ideological structure – most clearly presented by Hague – shows the party to be incapable of bearing the responsibility of war.

First and foremost, it cannot be said that military intervention in Syria should be ruled out entirely. As the Syrian people are bombarded on multiple fronts, their real, lived suffering demands something more than armchair pacifism. However, there are manifold considerations that weigh in against specifically British military involvement. Perhaps a broad coalition involving the US, Russia, the Free Syrian Army, Iran, etc. can justifiably tackle Daesh militarily – they might just even be successful in their efforts. Nevertheless, this doesn’t justify British involvement specifically (leaving aside the possible role it could play by way of indirect intelligence, logistical and diplomatic support) because of worryingly archaic sentiments at the base of the Conservative government’s argument for intervention.

In his inaugural speech to the House of Lords, Hague said: “We should be open to new solutions. In the end, if communities and leaders cannot live peacefully together in Syria and Iraq then we will have to try them living peacefully but separately in the partition of those countries, regretfully though I say that.” Hague has long been a mainstay of the Conservative party. He was leader from 1997 to 2001, British foreign secretary between 2010 and 2014, and most recently the leader of the House of Commons from 2014 to 2015. Having cycled through the ranks of power like no one else, he is incomparably useful as a litmus test for the mood and ideological presuppositions associated with the Conservative government. In short, Hague takes the Tory cake. Indeed, given his credentials, he is arguably more representative of the party than many newer front-bench MPs. It is on this basis, the fact that few others have been so intimately connected to Conservative party policy and decision-making, that his statements should be thought of as the attitude of the party machinery as a whole.

Hague’s comments provide significant evidence for a stark and overlooked contention: that, simply put, the Conservative government is operating within an imperialist ideological structure. Needless to say, it is an ideological structure better suited to the times of Empire than to the multiculturalism and social democracy that constitutes our current political and cultural climate. It is characterised by developmental psychologist, sociologist and philosopher Ken Wilber as a worldview in which the world is a game that one must play for the greatest gain. This worldview is most illuminatingly exemplified by traditional corporate strategy. Following this analogy, corporate interactions with other social institutions are both the products and the creators of a system of norms in which the greatest personal benefit takes priority over the (equally legitimate) benefit of others. This is not to say the Conservative government has nefarious and conspiratorial motives, just that it sees itself as having the moral authority to assert its ends above the ends of others. A simple calculation with outdated and potentially deadly results.

Hague’s suggestion that Britain, or any other country, might have the authority to partition Iraq and Syria on their behalf is utterly deplorable. When measured against the the principles of contemporary liberalism, it proves itself entirely bankrupt. It makes a mockery of the classical liberal notions of sovereignty and the right to self-determination – which the Conservative party claims, in its more charitable moments, to defend – and it also makes a mockery of strands in contemporary political theory (informed by feminist discussions of the relativity of ethical and political claims in light of one’s position in society). That a white, Christian Lord might know what’s best for a people and culture which he has no familiarity with is quite frankly arrogant and antiquated. Hague’s comments are completely out of line with current norms of international relations and the extent of a government’s legitimate authority.

But moreover, it also speaks to a deeply deluded view on Britain’s practical and moral authority in a post-colonial landscape. Hague does not realise that Britain is no longer, nor should it ever be again, the imperialist power it once was. In just the same way that only the British voting public have the right to determine their domestic political agenda, so too do only Iraqis and Syrians have the ability and the right to determine their own destiny. Recent polling indicating that over 40% of the British public have positive attitudes to the days of Empire should worry us because it has the potential to engender political responses that accord with such public sentiment. Hague’s comments perfectly mirror these widespread, dangerous attitudes. It’s a pity, in this case, that the oft-quoted saying that the people get the government they deserve indeed seems to ring true.

While it is indeed true that the current borders of Iraq and Syria are the product of previous violations of sovereignty, a similar contemporary solution would not be better. They were created largely by the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement which determined the division of the Ottoman Empire into areas of British and French control and influence (with the assent of the Russian Empire no less). This is, of course, a paradigmatic example of the operation of the imperialist worldview; the game board wrangled over and duly divided. A contemporary agreement to amend those violations and account for the actual cultural and ethnic reality in Syria and Iraq might be thought a welcome solution in comparison. However, given the UK’s participation in the liberal political community, it is committed to seeking other routes for a solution to the Syrian Civil War and the threat posed by Daesh. It is simply not Britain’s prerogative to suggest such a solution, since it would have to be motivated by the people it would actually affect both in order for it to be a viable peace settlement and in order for the West to stand by its ideals of liberal social democracy. The old adage that two wrongs don’t make a right is nowhere more relevant.

It is also worth mentioning that David Cameron himself condemned Russia’s involvement in Syria on the grounds that its actions would be a radicalising force, pushing more militants into the arms of Daesh. Setting aside the hypocrisy of such a condemnation, the interesting thing to note here is that Cameron obviously does not see Britain as a similar radicalising force even though Russia and Britain’s actions amount to the same. Once again we see resurfacing the imperialist mindset within the Conservative government: by seeing the world as a game which must be played to win, all other players threaten that win regardless of whether their actions reflect or part from Britain’s actions, placing Britain in the right merely in virtue of it being the operative player. This strongly suggests that Cameron’s ultimate goal, whether he realises it or not, is not the good of the Syrian and Iraqi peoples, but rather some domestic or international political benefit for Britain and, more specifically, his government. This motivation needn’t be understood as malicious or ulterior, but rather as a self-reenforcing product of imperialist ideology.

Lastly, and most importantly, the structure of Hague’s suggestion fails to grasp the nuances of the current situation in the Middle East. The imperialist mindset he is exemplifying worked in its time because ‘the civilisers’ saw themselves as patrons – as figures who had come to rescue ‘the savages’ from their barbaric and primitive ways – meaning their actions were self-justifiable as working towards a greater good that the conquered simply didn’t know they desired. Moreover, imperialists did not recognise existing geopolitical partitions, bringing the different cultures and ethnicities they encountered under a single artificial umbrella based on the colour of the other’s skin, religion, and so on. This created an us-and-them that allowed for the horrors of Empire, rendering imperialism an effective means to (atrocious) given ends; namely the development of the British economy and British political power through the expansion of its natural and human resources.

The fact of the matter now is there’s no simple case of conqueror and conquered in this situation. The USA, Russia, the Free Syrian Army, France, the Gulf States, Iran and the Assad regime – not to mention Daesh – are all important parties, forming an intermeshing web of competing interests and fragile allegiances based on mutual antipathy. This creates an irresolvable tension between Hague’s suggestion – a simplistic two-place structure – and the complex reality facing the international participants combined with the real suffering of people on the ground. The old imperialist ideological structure simply does not have enough placeholders in which various actors can be plugged to account for the multiple agendas and interests of the current situation.

So if such ideological motives – at best outdated, at worst wilful – are openly voiced in parliament, how might we explain Corbyn’s defeat in the Commons vote to bomb Syria?

Cameron successfully lured Corbyn into his political game, a game for which Cameron set the rules. In laying out his opposition to military intervention, Corbyn cited the human cost that intervention would effect on the civilians in Daesh-controlled territories, took issue with Cameron’s claims about the effectiveness of a possible coalition already present on the ground that could combat Daesh, and claimed Cameron had failed to show that military intervention would be sanctioned by the structures of international law. Social media sentiment objecting to military intervention lambasted MPs who voted yes either on the grounds that they have civilian blood on their hands, or by questioning the effectiveness of military intervention as a constituent of a counter-terror effort. The problem with these anti-interventionist points is that they distract from the broader issue at hand. Yes, Corbyn himself did not escape a similar social media backlash, but those who were supportive of him often focussed on tangential issues.

These considerations are particulars that can – in theory, albeit with difficulty in practice – be overcome. This is not, of course, to say the suffering of Syrian civilians is a nonissue. But the issue at stake here is whether or not the Conservative government is fit to handle the responsibility of war, whether it can be trusted to uphold the liberal principles that we, the British populace, live by in the face of atrocity. As it stands, the answer would appear to be no. The current government has an ideologically-grounded inability to grasp the current principled norms of international relations and the West’s nominally liberal political culture. Moreover, it has a structural inability to grasp the reality of the conflict. Cameron, very cleverly, kept the debate focussed on the details of intervention and the prima facie motivations for it – security, humanitarianism, duty, etc. In doing so, he established a debate that couldn’t reach down far enough to expose its greatest flaw and danger: the imperial sentiments at its heart.

In light of this it seems very clear what Corbyn (and, more broadly, the British left) should do: change the terms of the debate. We cannot fall into the trap laid down by the structure of Cameron’s argument, even if it is tempting to call him out on particular pieces of evidence about which he may be wrong. We have to bring this debate back to the fundamental ideological structure the Conservative party is operating within. If the structure can be discredited, then every argument built atop it, including this one, will crumble.

Photo: Freedom House/Flickr

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