(The best policy is) to float lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a diplomatic boathook to avoid collisions.
Lord Salisbury, 1877
In one of the least shocking policy outcomes of the year, the US-Russian brokered ceasefire in Syria did not last the week.
Speaking as a longstanding sceptic of intervention there, being right analytically gives me little joy, as an estimated 500,000 have lost their lives for absolutely nothing. Syria is cause for nothing so much as global mourning.
But being analytically correct remains vitally important, both morally and practically. The fine, ancient lineage of ethical realism – the moral views of Aristotle, Burke, Salisbury, and Morgenthau – holds in contempt those who care above all about feeling good, rather than doing good. Beyond their emotional narcissism, advocates of a showily moralistic foreign policy so often leave their critical faculties behind in the headlong pursuit of “caring”. History records that such faux moralism very often makes matters worse.
Which brings me to the current hapless machinations in Syria, led by that simplistic arch-moralist, gormless secretary of state John Kerry. Kerry is a man who perpetually confuses action with effectiveness, “doing the right thing” with thinking.
On the surface, you can see why an American deal with Moscow was so appealing. The Great Powers would bully their respective allies on the ground – the bloodstained Assad regime and the radicalised rebels dominated by al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) – to adhere to a week’s ceasefire.
During this time, desperately needed provisions would be raced in by aid agencies to hard-pressed Aleppo and other cities blighted by this ghastly war. The “moderate” rebels (that mythical unicorn of the war) would separate themselves from JFS and then together, the oddest of couples – Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama – would have their air forces bomb Isis and JFS.
Such a solution might make sense – devoid of all present day context – on board secretary Kerry’s yacht, but it falls apart almost immediately upon contact with the real world. For here is the insoluble power riddle at the heart of the Syrian tragedy: three of the four major political players on the ground (apart from the Syrian Kurds) ought to be anathema to Washington; the war criminals running the Assad regime, the murderers in al-Qaeda, and the fanatics running Isis. Any true morality (and any practical western policy) must run a mile from helping any of these abominations.
Let’s look at the collapsed ceasefire then through this new prism of Syrian power realities. If the deal had worked, Russia and America would have bombed JFS together, directly and materially helping the Assad regime consolidate its grip on power and furthering primary Russian national interests.
First, such an outcome is surely not in American interests. But Kerry had his beady eye firmly fixed on the overwhelming merits of “international cooperation” for its own sake. For this, and for a week’s grace in the fighting – allowing a teaspoonful of aid to be distributed – Kerry did not hesitate to feel good, even if it meant directly helping a regime that has gassed its own people.
Second, most of our moderate rebel friends refused to separate from JFS, as a kaleidoscope of rebel forces often fight together willy-nilly, and JFS has emerged as the most disciplined and effective of the rebel groups. If our moderate friends refuse to separate from troops whose allegiance is to al-Qaeda, it is safe to say they are not truly moderates at all.
Having survived being in Washington on 9/11, I never want to knowingly advocate a policy that ever, ever helps al-Qaeda in any way. The byzantine politics of Syria mean that, by supporting rebel groups more broadly, America is in danger of doing just this.
Assad, JFS, Isis. The West simply does not have a dog in this fight. To tip the strategic balance from outside – all in the name of feeling good, and with no concrete strategic plan in place – is to invariably help one of these three moral lepers. It is not too much to say it is a form of immorality itself.
New British foreign secretary Boris Johnson is wrong to say that the US-Russia deal remains “the only game in town”. Such a statement assumes that action here – whatever its dolorous strategic consequences – is always superior to inaction.
But in Syria now, that is not morally or practically true. This horrendous conflict must burn itself out, and – after the galling lessons of mindless intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya – we in the West must have the moral courage to do nothing. For tragically, that remains far and away the best policy to pursue, practically and morally.