Thursday, April 19, 2007

The end of morality

Menzies Campbell surpassed himself on the Today programme this morning. John Humphrys broke with tradition and gave him a couple of critical questions on Iraq.

Humphrys: But we can’t cut and run because we’re losing soldiers, can we?

Campbell: … I think you have to be careful, if I may say so, about words like ‘cut and run’, because they are incredibly emotive. … It’s four years since the military action ceased, and in that time we have committed a lot of money, we’ve committed a lot of fine young men and women and we’ve lost more than 140 of them. There is a point at which we can no longer justify that degree of commitment.

Humphrys: But surely that point is not when the country is in the kind of chaos it is in.

Campbell: Well, just examine the logic of that proposition. Does that mean that so long as there is any threat or anxiety about disorder then we will continue to stay there?

Humphrys: You could argue yes, if it was our – I emphasise if it was our responsibility, what is happening there now, then yes we should stay. You could argue that, and it is argued.

Campbell: Well, I accepted, although I was someone wholly opposed to this, I accepted a moral obligation. But that moral obligation can’t be open-ended. And we have a moral obligation to our own young men and women.

There is an argument sometimes made that the US/UK presence in Iraq is doing more harm than good – that our troops’ presence serves to inspire sectarian violence and prevent a political accommodation based on the domestic balance of power.

But Campbell isn’t making that argument. He’s not urging withdrawal based on a judgement of what’s in the best interests of Iraqis. He’s saying that even though we did take on a moral responsibility for the security of Iraq, now that the going has got tough, we should do the expedient thing and quit.

Waste of space.


Matt M said...

The end of morality? When did it begin?

They don't call him the Merciless for nothing and, given that the decision to invade was made on largely on the grounds of national interest, making the decision to withdraw on them would at least have the merit of continuity.

Personally, without a major shake-up of the way international affairs are conducted, I can't see a solution to the problems in Iraq that doesn't involve continued bloodshed. The only hope I can see is that the graduall effort of rebuilding going on throughout the country will eventually overwhelm the violent factions. But that's not going to happen overnight.

Tom Freeman said...

Any improvement there is going to be a grim, slow process. And our role in it is likely to be at best an enabling one.

But his argument that our casualties should dictate withdrawal defeats the point of having a military. Yes, they're tragic losses, but if we're going to pull out on that basis, that's a logic that could lead to early abandonment of any engagement, anywhere, with any aim.

"Brave Sir Ming bravely ran away..."

Anonymous said...

Even if you think 4 years is too soon, there does have to be a limit to the "you break it, you buy it" school of troop deployment.

Right now, sure, let's say that the situation in Iraq is sufficently Britain's responsibility that we have to accept soldiers' deaths as the price for grim, slow improvement. But in 5 years? 10, or 20? If we're still there, and there's no improvement, are we still responsible for the situation? Enough to see 30-40 soldiers killed a year? Now, it may be that the British presence, while not necessarily making change for the better, is stopping things from becoming a complete shitstorm. Could be. But it's very difficult to know, and it's a hell of a bet to make with soldiers' lives.

If you're not ever going to pull out on the basis of troop losses, your moral obligation could easily leave you with a slow accumulation of dead soldiers and nothing to show for it. I'm not completely sure that this solution keeps morality alive.

(The other point, of course, is the opportunity cost. Keeping soldiers where they do no good means that you can't send them somewhere they concievably could be of use. Blair got laughed out of court for suggesting the UK might fly a couple of missions over Darfur. That loss of operational capability is quite a big sacrifice to make for a principle.)

John Gray said...

I think the bit b4 the interview (the "desperate" non-story) showed "Today" and John in his true light.

Good post!

Tom Freeman said...

Andrew, I think that if someone thinks our presence isn't acheiving anything meaningful (or that such a cliam is dubious at best), then I can perfectly well understand that as something that could motivate leaving.

(Personally, I'd guess that at the mo we probably are helping to fend off a complete shitstorm but I wouldn't bet on this continuing indefinitely.)

I'm just having a go at the suggestion that we should pull out regardless because we're losing people. To draw a contrast, we suffered more casualties in 10 weeks of the Falklands than we have in 4 years of Iraq, and we were right not to write it off on those grounds. Or when Belgium led the troop reductions from Rwanda in 1994 after they lost 10 soldiers, that was a terrible decision.

Hi John. Yeah, the "desperate" bit wasn't exactly top-notch investigative reporting or incisive analysis, was it?

Jane Henry said...

This is exactly why the Lib Dems have lost my vote, and oh they had it, for years and years they had it...

I agree Tom, we shouldn't get out because it's tough. War is tough and horrible and bloody and probably mainly pointless. I think we're in a big big mess in Iraq, and wish to god we'd never got involved, though I am pleased Saddam has gone. But, we are there, and we do have responsibilities, so on that basis we shouldn't walk away. But, I think it is coming to a slight crunch point - the shitstorm is probably going to happen/is happening anyway. If we end up doing more bad then good by staying I think it is time to go. But if by some lucky fluke we can influence events to make for a better country for those poor sods, I hope we can do it.

But I'm not betting on it...

Jane Henry said...

PS Did I say last time I posted here, how much I liked your blog?

Tom Freeman said...

Hi Jane. I think you may have said that before, but if you want to repeat it I'll try to find it in my heart to forgive you!