Tuesday, April 26, 2011


The true test of an ideal is when it hits the reality of how it will work in the practical world.

That's is the problem with 'R2P' - a great sound-bite, but not something people will die for. And exactly when does it apply.

This column examines the issue . . .


Everyone wants to protect the weak and innocent. If the word ‘civilisation’ is to mean anything, then it means assuming the burden of the citizen. But the key question is; to whom (or what ideals) does one owe anything? Are the limits of responsibility defined by national borders, or does it stretch across them? As we remembered yesterday, war should only be engaged in as a final resort. Unfortunately, over the past decade, the barriers that should prevent a democracy in engaging in military action have been progressively reduced. Instead of acting like a stile which requires a hefty effort to overcome, politicians are rushing to embrace the use of military force. Once again we’ve fallen into a muddy mess of double standards and duplicity, tripping over fine rhetoric but achieving nothing.

This is the burden that accompanies anyone who urges the killing of other people: will the end result be better, will the world be more stable, as a result?

For many, events over the past few days will have demonstrated vividly that the “responsibility to protect” – or “R2P” as that fun hipster who is unilaterally making our foreign policy at the moment prefers to call it – is an empty concept that should rapidly be consigned to the dustbin of history. It’s a hollow, claytons, idea: it’s the war you have when you aren’t having a war, engendering the sort of “feel-good” internal warmth within the developed world that thinks it doesn’t have to live with the consequences of the fighting. It’s the gambit of pretentious, delusional grandees who arrogate to themselves the right to decide when force should be used.

Unfortunately, what begins as a harmless, basket-weaving activity for world statesmen jetting around the globe rapidly evolves into a game playing with people’s lives. By engendering false hope in the breasts of those who are already persecuted, those who’ve been repressed are encouraged to act. But the idea that the so-called “international community” will then accept the responsibility of backing-up words with actions quickly dissolves into the chimera of fantasy it always was.

Let’s deal with the legal concept first of all, because this is where the idea gains its veneer of legitimacy. It’s based on the simple observation that, although governments are supposed to be good, many are bad. This is not, of course, enough in itself to make international action legitimate, otherwise, for example, the New South Wales Labour government might have been toppled long before it eventually met its demise at the hands of the people. But the particular point is that there are some crimes, like genocide and other mass atrocities are just so vile they are insupportable. No one can disagree with that.

The problem begins with the attempt to turn the principal into a legitimate cause for action. After successful revolutions in first Tunisia and then Egypt, it appeared as if Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in Libya was also ready to topple, but the strongman was ruthless and unwilling to surrender power. That’s when the West began invoking R2P in an effort to boost the rebels. But no other institution in the country (like the military) was strong enough to act against the dictator, who called in mercenaries to ruthlessly kill his opponents. Although the flames of revolution continue flickering, the Western intervention has failed to either successfully overthrow the regime or halt the killing.

Admittedly, part of the problem preventing decisive military action has been the United Nations. In mid-March a resolution was passed which specifically referred to the R2P as a legitimate reason for strictly limited military action – unfortunately, attempting to ‘limit’ war is a logical absurdity. Once let slip, the dogs of war cannot be reined in. Everyone understands the West’s objective, but turning this into an achievable mission is something those very same statesmen who called for the UN to act balk at. For a very good reason. They know that neither the international body, nor their own citizenry, would be prepared to accept the military action that will be required to overthrow Gaddafi. But now the very idea of R2P that was invoked so enthusiastically to justify the action against Libya is rapidly becoming exposed as hypocritical.

The West has hated the Libyan dictator for years, but the situation in Syria has been different. The seemingly perpetual regime of the al-Assad dynasty may have been abhorrent, however it understood strategic geography offered Damascus the ability to act as it chose, as long as there was no resumption of overt conflict with Israel. This is why, although the violence on the streets of the Syrian capital might seem to be just as bad as that in Libya, there’s been no sudden outbreak of more shuttle-diplomacy as Kevin Rudd attempts to drum up support for an intervention in Syria. Nor in Bahrain, the home to US Forces Central Command and the 5th Fleet. Here, Saudi Arabian forces crossed the border to physically stuff out the demonstrations. They made it extremely clear that there was no chance that they would be allowed to be successful. The West’s clear moral code has nowhere been in evidence.

The point is that real-politick rules. This is probably as it should be, in a world that remains trapped in a structure using the nation-state as its primary building block. The individual who attempts to exist without a state is nothing more than an asylum seeker, searching for another country that will accept them. There’s nothing wrong with this, but remember it the next time someone comes preaching the gospel of war, sorry, ‘legitimate military intervention’, and attempting to pretend that they have moral grounds for doing so.

The ANZAC legend we celebrated yesterday was founded by diggers who believed they had no choice other than to go to war. They needed to in order to defend the homeland. By the time of World War II even Labor’s earlier anti-conscription politicians had changed their tune, recognising the need to protect Australia. Fighting for something concrete, like a country, make sense. It’s far more difficult to create a persuasive case when you’re asking people to lay down their lives for a moral cause. That’s not to say it can’t be done – it’s just that it hasn’t been persuasively argued yet.

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