George Osborne’s speech in parliament yesterday has been widely reported. And in saying that the UK should have done more to prevent the unfolding tragedy in Aleppo, I’m sure that he’ll have struck a chord with many. He’s far from being alone in feeling frustration at what has been happening over the months and years, as well as anger and sorrow over the loss of life.
I’m not sure though that he’s offered much of an alternative. As I understand what he’s saying, it is that lives are being lost as a result of the bombing and fighting now because the UK decided not to bomb the other side three years ago. Now it is, of course, possible that the total number of people killed might have been lower had the UK decided to start bombing Assad’s forces (although it’s not certain – it could, on the other hand, have led to a more direct clash between Russia and the west, with even more far-reaching consequences).
It’s certainly true that it would have been different people being killed. However, the argument that fewer people would have been killed in total if only we’d killed different people earlier isn’t one which is going to convince any of those of us who were opposed to UK military intervention. It’s akin to comparing two piles of bodies, and deciding that what’s ‘right’ is whatever produces the smaller pile; it reduces casualties to numbers rather than seeing them as people.
But I’m equally uncomfortable with the idea that the rest of the world should, in situations like this, stand aside and let events take their course until one side or the other emerges ‘victorious’ over the piles of rubble and human bodies. I wish that those of us who reject the simplistic proposition of military intervention from outside could propose an equally simplistic solution which did not involve inflicting more death and destruction on a country. The immediate problem is that there are no easy, simple, short term solutions; peace is an elusive thing which needs a great deal of human endeavour to bring about. The bigger problem is that current international agreements and institutions barely scratch the surface of what is required.
There are places we could start, however. Controlling and reducing the trading and manufacture of armaments would be one good step to take; rejecting the concept of unilateral intervention in the affairs of another country would be another. Both of those require a strengthening of international institutions, particularly the UN. But all of those things are tackling the symptoms rather than the underlying causes, which are about power, and control of resources, and the real, or merely perceived, differences between the earth’s tribes.In an age where there seems to be an increasing tendency to split humanity into ‘us’ and ‘them’ rather than building an understanding that we have a shared existence on one small and fragile planet, I’m pessimistic for the future. On this issue, as on so many others, it seems that most of humanity is currently determined to advance its own interests at the expense of those of others. I still believe that things can be different; but presently, there just aren’t enough of us who want them to be.