Most folk who think of Hilaire Belloc’s books these days – he was one of the most prolific writers in England in the early part of the last century – probably think of his Cautionary Tales for Children which includes the tale of Jim: Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion memorable for the phrase holding on to nurse for fear of something worse. However, his historical books are worth reading too. In his 1937 book The Crusades: the World’s Debate, he wrote:
“The story must not be neglected by any modern, who may think in error that the East has finally fallen before the West, that Islam is now enslaved—to our political and economic power at any rate if not to our philosophy. It is not so. Islam essentially survives, and Islam would not have survived had the Crusade made good its hold upon the essential point of Damascus. Islam survives. Its religion is intact; therefore its material strength may return. Our religion is in peril…. There is with us a complete chaos in religious doctrine…. We worship ourselves, we worship the nation; or we worship (some few of us) a particular economic arrangement believed to be the satisfaction of social justice…. Islam has not suffered this spiritual decline; and in the contrast between [our religious chaos and Islam's] religious certitudes still strong throughout the Mohammedan world lies our peril.”
Prophetic words indeed when, at the time at the time Belloc wrote these words, the Islamic world was still largely under the rule of the European colonial powers and the more immediate threat was from fascism and Nazism. And relevant as the West once more contemplates military action against yet another Islamic country whose leader’s atrocities against his own people are seen as a step too far.
Everybody agrees that something must be done involving military action but, scarred by the recent experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, and despite the success (depending on your point of view) of action against Libya, the “coalition of the willing” seems rather less willing this time. President Hollande of France, which sat out the Iraq war, is keen to take military action, David Cameron in the United Kingdom is keen but managed to mishandle Parliament into voting no and President Obama who is also keen has referred the decision to the United States Congress. Meanwhile, here in Poland, the government is also keen that military action be taken but alas, as Foreign Minister Sikorski told Secretary of State Kerry, does not have the capability to take part. But what to do?
In this case is not safe to assume that one’s enemy’s enemy is ones friend since the Syrian opposition contains some elements that are doubtless as unsavoury as President Assad and certainly are not friends of the West. We are told that any action will be proportionate, limited, effective and not involve troops on the ground or “regime change” but it is hard to understand (in practice as opposed to in theory) what can be done against the Syrian forces that will have the supposed desired effect of stopping Assad in his tracks but not so weakening him that there is not regime change anyway. Indeed the objective has already undergone a subtle changed to be limited, proportionate and a degradation of Syrian military assets. The conclusion must therefore be that regime change is in fact the aim. The extreme cynical view, of course, is better the devil you know. Ironically, what the largely secular kleptomaniacal military dictatorships of Hussein, Gaddaffi, Mubarek, and Assad had in common was that they kept Moslem extremists in check, were tolerant of Christianity and generally confined their terrorism to their own people. What makes the tragic death of some 1400 folk from chemical weapons worse than the tragic death of the preceding 99,000 odd which did not seem to merit intervention? Looking at the region today, the dislocation of caused by armed conflict has allowed “fighters” of extremist views to enter these countries from elsewhere to ferment chaos and spread intolerance. Forcing women to wear veils, shooting young girls who would like an education and driving non Moslems (or the wrong sect of Moslems) out of their homes while preaching hatred and repression under the guise of a distorted form of Islam is surely not the result for which the West intervened in the first place although without a long term plan and commitment of support once the shooting stopped it was the predictable result. And it does nothing for our long term security.
Be that as it may, since the equilibrium has been disturbed sitting back and doing nothing is not a realistic option. First, we need to see some intelligent diplomacy which means involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the permanent members of the UN Security Council in discussions. For example, recognising Iran as the heir of Persia and one of the historic centres of Moslem civilisation (Turkey and Saudi Arabia being the other two) and engaging with Iran constructively is a better approach than simply writing the country off ab initio as the home of mad mullahs with a penchant for embassy sackings. Intervening in other countries’ civil wars is a futile task at the best of times but if we are to do so, let us at least try to agree some a workable approach with those who are in a position to sabotage any initiative on the ground and try to avoid this conflict from escalating into a general war in the Middle East. Second, there has to be recognition that intervention, to be effective requires a long term commitment to establishing stability and the rule of law throughout the region which is not achieved by firing off a few cruise missiles from a safe distance. Third, we need to give the dictators away of bowing out gracefully and going into exile. The greatest good for the greatest number is not achieved, galling as this may be, by encouraging them to fight to the death. Fourth, if the West is to be the world’s policeman we need to be properly equipped for the role, both in terms of military equipment and morally. We need to recognise each small step to democracy as progress and reward it – if a government is elected democratically we should be pleased rather than punishing the country because they elected the wrong (in our eyes) folk – for example, Hamas in Gaza. After all it takes a long time for democracy to take root. Speak softly and carry a big stick as the West African saying (which Teddy Roosevelt made his own) has it and, as David Cameron has seen to his cost, is far better than the reverse – talk tough, cut your armed forces and then be surprised when nobody is listening.
Like it or not, we are poised on yet another Middle East intervention. Perhaps if our politicians knew their history better we would avoid the fate of another of Belloc’s literary creations: George: Who played with a Dangerous Toy, and suffered a Catastrophe of considerable Dimensions.