(Photo: The Conversation)
By Daniel Wright-Mason – Editor-in-Chief
“In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. ‘Pop’ would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech – and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight.” (Heart of Darkness, 12)
In his 1899 book, ‘Heart of Darkness’, Polish-English writer Joseph Conrad laments the absurdities of imperialist foreign policy, and the tactics used by the likes of Britain in their colonies. This ‘gunboat diplomacy’, in which a ship would fire aimlessly into the jungle as a ‘warning’ to the native population, could not possibly achieve anything, yet was seen by its orchestrators as a necessary and effective show of strength and superiority.
Whilst British foreign policy may have evolved since the 19th century, often the sentiments behind it have not, which has led to consistent military interventions by the British government in foreign nations, often without provocation, and without a clear goal, which has led to some disastrous consequences.
Take for instance, the 2011 bombing campaign in Libya. Whilst implementing widespread austerity cuts at home, the British government under David Cameron was instrumental in contributing to the NATO missile strikes into the North African nation of Libya, with the justification of ‘humanitarian intervention’ against the tyrannical reign of Muammar Gaddafi. This campaign, which utilised £750,000-a-strike Tomahawk cruise missiles, is reported to have cost around £320m in total. The result was the overthrowing of the Gaddafi regime by a coalition of militia groups, with help from NATO air support. What has followed however, has been nothing short of a catastrophe for the region. Since 2014, the country has been embroiled in an intense civil war between rival governments, with much of the country becoming essentially lawless. The UN-backed ‘Government of National Accord’ (GNA) currently controls the capital of Tripoli, whilst large parts of Eastern Libya are controlled by the ‘Libyan National Army’ (LNA), who are backed by the likes of Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, from the Western city of Tobruk. As well as this, there are large areas of Southern Libya where rogue militias have taken control.
The humanitarian consequences of this have been immense, sparking a refugee crisis that has made Libya a transit hub between Africa and Europe. As of July 2020, there is believed to be around 430,000 people that remain displaced in Libya, as well as 1.3 million in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN. Add to this, the repeated reports of kidnapping, open slave markets and government internment camps that have been circulating since the civil war broke out.
Whilst it would be unfair, and inaccurate, to entirely blame the UK government for the current situation in Libya, it highlights the arrogance of British foreign policy. When trouble arises in a foreign nation the first thought of politicians is not that ‘something must be done’, but that ‘something must be bombed’. Political points can be scored, narratives about bringing peace can be crafted, and leaders can sail away whilst the other country burns.
“There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world – what I want to forget.” (Heart of Darkness, 18)
Perhaps the most inconsistent and hypocritical example of modern British intervention has been surrounding Syria, which has been embroiled in heavy conflict for almost a decade, after civil war erupted following protests against the Bashar Al-Assad regime, and its subsequent use of violence to attempt to shut down dissent. However, the response of the British and American governments over the past nine years has been as destructive as it has been ineffective.
Beginning in 2012, when rumours began to circulate that the Assad regime had been using chemical weapons against civilians, both the U.S and UK were quick to establish their positions, with then President Barack Obama claiming that this was a ‘red-line’ that would result in military intervention. These accusations continued into 2013, when a video of supposed victims of chemical attacks began to circulate across the West. In response, both President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans for airstrikes against Syrian Government infrastructure, in an attempt to aid rebel groups in the civil war. However, evidence began to emerge from British intelligence that the alleged chemical used had no provable links to the Assad regime, and there were even suggestions that the Turkish government may have secretly supplied the chemical to the ‘al-Nusra Front’, a jihadist faction of the Syrian rebels, in order to force the West to intervene. Because of this, Cameron’s attempt to enter the fray was voted down in Parliament, and the UK’s support of the rebel groups was reduced to strongly worded rhetoric by British leaders.
This was until a year later, when the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS) began seizing control of cities in Syria’s Southern neighbour Iraq, another region infamously destabilised by British intervention. IS then began to move into Syria, fighting both with and against anti-Assad rebel forces, and sweeping across the already war-torn nation. In response, the UK immediately flipped their stance on which side they wanted to bomb, and Cameron proposed mass airstrikes across much of Iraq and Syria, including territory still occupied by the rebels that his government had been formally supporting a year before. This time, the motion was passed, and the UK joined the large coalition of nations, including the Assad government, who were queueing up to drop bombs on Syria. Once again, the UK was instrumental in the campaign, dropping over 3,400 bombs, second only to the U.S, at a predicted cost of around £300 million. The result was that whilst IS were officially defeated in 2019 (although mostly by ground assault by the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces), the chaos caused by the bombing campaign allowed the Assad regime to reclaim large parts of territory previously occupied by rebels, which heavily strengthened the dictators position.
However, in a final absurdist twist to the saga, in April of 2018 the British government once again turned their sights onto the other side of the conflict, this time back to the Assad regime. This was because of a video circulated by U.S and UK funded organisation ‘White Helmets’, which appeared to show a hospital in Syria filled with victims of a chemical attack. This account was contradicted by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, who claimed they found no evidence of any chemical weapons, and many international experts raised questions over why the Syrian regime would choose to unleash chemical weapons on a town they had already captured, when the consequences of doing so had already been laid out so clearly mere years before. Despite the evidence being far from certain, Western countries immediately condemned the supposed actions of the Assad regime, and another wave of bombing began, this time under the leadership of Theresa May. It is predicted that in total, over £1.75 billion was spent by the UK on the bombing of Syria, killing between 6,259 to 9,604 civilians, according to research group Airwars. As of the end of 2020, the Assad regime is still in full control of Syria.
It is not only the ineffectiveness of the bloodshed that should be highlighted, but the persistent hypocrisy of its perpetrators. Over the course of the past decade, the British government has directly and indirectly funded and joined forces with both sides of the Syrian civil war in bombing the other, inevitably failing to end the conflict whilst spending billions to demolish a nation and kill thousands of its people. The conflict as a whole has led to a predicted casualty rate of as high as 600,000, as well as the displacement of almost half of the pre-war population of Syria, and it seems almost impossible to claim that the intervention of the UK has contributed anything other than to worsen the situation.
“They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force–nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.” (Heart of Darkness, 3)
Overall, the reality of Britain’s interactions with the wider world is far from simple. In the examples of Libya and Syria, as well as in other countries the UK has recently intervened in, such as Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo, the opposed regimes had all committed horrendous crimes against their own people, or the people of other nations. However, it is the response of the British government time and time again that demonstrates a rigid mindset of arrogance in their show of strength. Whilst Prime Ministers stand on stages and speak of the need to “alleviate extreme humanitarian suffering”, as Theresa May did regarding Syria, the solutions they impose bring almost as much violence as the problems in the first place. Meanwhile opponents of such intervention attempts are often branded as ‘regime supporters’ for opposing such actions.
The solutions are often complex, with complete non-intervention also presenting uncomfortable realities, such as possible repeats of atrocities such as the Rwandan genocide, which many believe could have been heavily reduced with more international attention. However, what is clear is that the insanity of instinctive ‘gunboat diplomacy’ that was highlighted over 100 years ago by Joseph Conrad is still being pursued by the British government. In order to reform this ‘heart of darkness’ at the core of British foreign policy, there must be a change in the way the UK approaches conflicts in the modern age. There are no more Victorian gunboats, and as more time goes on it is becoming clearer that stable nations do not blossom from the ruins of a Tomahawk Cruise missile. Maybe something must always be done, but that does not mean that something should always be bombed.