Simon Jenkins on military intervention reminds me of the times we didn't act

Mission Accomplished? The Crisis of International Intervention shows how military action can lead to suffering - but what about inaction?

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Journalism, it is said, is the first cut of history. Simon Jenkins’s Mission Accomplished? – a collection of his newspaper articles published from 1999 onwards – proves the strength of that maxim. This book allows readers to assess Jenkins’s contemporary judgements with the benefit of hindsight, and he deserves credit for his willingness (rare in a columnist) to offer up his judgements for such scrutiny.

That willingness may perhaps stem from the striking consistency of his views on ­interventionism over the tumultuous early years of this century. Those years – during which I served in parliament and in government – brought UK military interventions of different forms in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Throughout these conflicts, he pretty much maintains a scepticism (bordering on hostility) about the utility of intervention, perhaps rooted in his experience reporting from Vietnam in the early 1970s.

Naturally, given that he’s a gifted writer, Jenkins’s columns – even the ones now more than a decade old – prove readable and the collection is both intelligent and informative. His criticisms of actions undertaken are always pithy, usually trenchant and many have been vindicated by subsequent events. At some point the publication of the Chilcot inquiry’s findings will reopen the debate about the lessons of the Iraq ­intervention. Jenkins can claim fairly to have anticipated from the outset many of the risks involved in postwar planning and prolonged occupation that the ­long-awaited report will address.

Many of these insights have since become commonplace: it was a former US defence secretary, Robert Gates, who told West Point cadets that, after Iraq, anyone who advised a future president to send a big US land army into Africa, Asia or the Middle East should “have his head examined”.

Yet Jenkins is on much shakier ground in his assessment of the motives of the politicians and personalities involved. Writing in 2000, at the time of the conflict in Sierra Leone, he claims:

Mr Cook finds himself at Summit conferences, in the spotlight, on television. Ultimatums are made.

Critics of intervention are dismissed as cynics. Bombs are loaded. It all gets rather exciting.

I came to know Robin Cook, the then foreign secretary, well in the latter years of his life, and that is not a description I recognise of the man or his motives. He willingly shouldered the responsibility of decision as a politician, but he certainly understood the human cost of conflict.

Jenkins’s misreading of motive makes for dramatic copy but exposes a poor understanding of the thoughts and hopes that underpinned many of the actions the book describes. He certainly gives the reader due notice of his determination to ascribe mostly malign motives to the politicians ­involved. The opening lines of his preface state that “the end of the cold war with the Soviet Union left western governments seeking a new sense of purpose on the world stage . . . This intervention moved from that of charitable aid and exhortation to economic sanction and military aggression.”

I began attending cabinet meetings in 2005 – as minister for Europe – and continued in cabinet until 2010. From 2007, as secretary of state for international development, I was heavily engaged in the development aspects of Britain’s operations in Afghanistan and visited the country frequently during these years. At no point in this period did I have any sense that Britain, or indeed any of our other partners in the Nato mission, was seeking “a new sense of purpose on the world stage”. Instead, there was an earnest endeavour in those years to secure and support a country simultaneously afflicted by insurgency, narcotics, poverty and poor governance.

To my mind, the Afghanistan campaign, although it confirmed the extraordinary courage of our armed forces, ultimately showed the limits of such a “comprehensive approach” – limits in the sense of a lack of public support in the UK after years of sacrifice by our troops, and also the limits of the security, governance and development gains that could be achieved on a meaningful timescale.

What is notably absent from Jenkins’s writing is any serious exploration of what effective alternatives to intervention could or should look like. The reader is left with a very clear sense of the risk the author sees in military intervention, yet there is very little sense of how those risks should be weighed against alternative courses of action, or inaction.

Coincidentally, while reading this book, I visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial on a trip to Rwanda. In the room dedicated to children murdered in the frenzy of violence there is a photo of one of its victims: a ten-year-old boy called David. He loved football and dreamed of being a doctor. His final words before being tortured to death were: “The United Nations will come for us.”

When I returned to the UK the newspaper front pages were covered with shocking images of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who died when the boat carrying him, his brother and their parents capsized as they headed towards the Greek island of Kos. The family had previously fled Isis fighters in Kobane.

These images speak powerfully to man’s inhumanity to man. Both remind us that the enduring cost of conflict is high. They remind us that both action and inaction can lead to terrible human suffering. What neither set of pictures – nor the human tragedy that sits behind them – does is to offer political leaders an easy or straightforward set of lessons or guide to policymaking. In truth, we ask our politicians to stand where most of us would choose not to stand: facing difficult practical and ethical judgements of great consequence, based on limited information and partial understanding.

Each future generation will be called to reach its own judgement regarding the legality, practicality and utility of military interventions proposed in the circumstances of the time. They will also be obliged to assess the costs and consequences of action or inaction. Jenkins’s new collection will at least provide a valuable guide to one ­leading commentator’s concerns and a critique of those judgements made in the early years of this century.

Douglas Alexander is a Fisher Family fellow in the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Mission Accomplished? The Crisis of International Intervention by Simon Jenkins is out now from I B Tauris (£9.99)

This article appears in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War