Syria: lessons from history for the west

Much more can be done short of an Iraq-style invasion.

All too often, international events bear out the adage that "history teaches us that history teaches us nothing". Lessons from the shameful response of the international community to other crises must inform our policy on Syria.

First, we must not describe events as a "civil war", thereby creating an image in western minds that the combatants are morally or militarily equivalent when this is a cynical perversion of reality. One is the army of a dictatorship attacking civilians; the other are freedom fighters defending a popular uprising of democrats. In the 1990s the "civil war" descriptor was used by John Major, Douglas Hurd and their foreign counterparts, to justify inaction in the face of overwhelming Serb aggression. Tragic consequences followed.

Second, we must not accept that providing solely humanitarian aid satisfies our responsibility to protect civilians in Syria from war crimes. We must not copy the model used in Bosnia of sending in UN-helmeted western troops to protect humanitarian aid convoys, merely to feed today those who will be murdered by a powerful aggressor tomorrow. The so-called "safe havens" of Bosnia seared an image of the wilful impotence of the international community onto the minds of countless dictators, no doubt including Assad and Saddam Hussein. Now is the time for moral potency in bringing to life the growing norm in international relations that, under certain circumstances, we have a "responsibility to protect" when illegitimate governments murder or persecute their own people.

Third, we should recall that much more can be done short of an Iraq-style invasion. We should learn the lessons of the work of Ann Clwyd MP and others who set up the organisation INDICT in 1996 to seek the indictment of Saddam's regime for war crimes. Suffice to say Western governments did not take up this option. The UN Human Rights Council should be encouraged to act on the recent findings of the UN-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

Fourth, we must remember the crowing of those opposed to the international liberation of Iraq in 2003 who said at the time: "why invade now for WMDs or oil...why didn't we invade when Saddam was massacring the Kurds and Shias in the 1980s." Western powers did, eventually and under public pressure, do the right thing by the Iraqi Kurds and instituted a no-fly zone and a safe haven which allowed the Kurds to return from the mountains and start building what has become the safest and most prosperous part of Iraq so far. We are now witnessing events akin to those dreadful crimes of the 1980s against humanity and failure to act will reap a terrible future harvest, not least for the people of Syria but for the Middle East and the wider world.

Finally, the Arab Spring has shown that the universal human urge to live in freedom can topple governments unwilling to reform. History will remember those who upheld and protected the rights of people whose desire was not death and destruction, but the dignity of living in freedom. The lessons of history teach us that we must not allow those who disparage and fear such universal forces to be the arbiter of human progress in Syria or elsewhere.

John Slinger is chair of Pragmatic Radicalism and blogs at Slingerblog. He was formerly researcher to Ann Clwyd MP (accompanying her to Baghdad in 2005 & 2006 when she was the Prime Minister's Special Envoy to Iraq on Human Rights).

Twitter: @JohnSlinger

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era