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Picturing Intervention

BS6MTgmIIAAY_C5.jpg-largeImages can make or break a war. I was reflecting on the power of emotive images over public opinion at the beginning of the week, when those images from Syria seared our screens, a repeating history at its cruelest and most grotesque. Battered with such visual atrocity, it seemed obvious to us that something, anything, must be done to protect those people. It is our duty as an ever more interconnected international community.

Except the vote in a recalled Parliament on Thursday and its fallout demonstrated that emotive images do not necessarily by themselves guarantee a response that is either ethical or efficacious. If direct military action is the most effective – or even the only – possible way of dealing with these atrocities, then it should be a no-brainer regardless of any other political considerations, but there still seem to be other avenues of action. And I think that David Cameron was aware of that, which is perhaps behind the urgency of his recall of Parliament and desire to go to war with the full backing of the British democratic process, rather than trying to be the singular hero of the hour. Comparisons, flattering and otherwise, are inevitably drawn with Tony Blair’s decision to send troops into Iraq, put to Parliament only when the forces had to all intents and purposes been deployed, as Matthew Parris commented in today’s Times Opinion column. He champions Cameron for his willingness to adhere to the democratic process. Others condemn the government for failing to address a moral obscenity. The British Aren’t Coming! The British Aren’t Coming!” one US headline cries in mock horror.

Like many people, my first reaction to the vote was to avoid any articles dealing with the issue. For some reason, I suspect not unrelated to those dreadful pictures – I felt helpless, as if I could vicariously claim that I cared because my government was meeting moral atrocity with military force. Yet now that military intervention is ruled out, at least from a UK standpoint, we have an even greater responsibility to lead the world in non-military solutions to ending the use of chemical civil warfare. It’s easy to talk about the invasion of Iraq under the Blair government being a mistake, even unethical – but “what-ifs” are a very lazy way to think about international intervention.   “What-nows” are far more challenging, require more boldness of spirit and careful but speedy negotiation. We have a glaring, devastating “what-now” before us, and Cameron’s government must now respond with cutting-edge strategy and great wisdom to ensure first protection for those at risk, help for those already afflicted, and justice to bring those responsible to account, and that should be our focus and our way of continuing to engage with the brutalities of the world, regardless of the US’s will they/won’t they of military intervention and the obscurities of Russia’s alternative agendas.

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