Thursday, 3 September 2015

Refugee crisis: if only we helped as much to make peace as to make war...

Have you seen the film Charlie Wilson’s War

It may not be Aaron Sorkin’s best screenplay, but his work’s so good that even a minor piece is worth more than what most others produce.  

Based on historical events, by the end we see Charlie Wilson, a far from pure Democratic Congressman from Texas, managing to bargain up the minimal support the US was prepared to give the mujahideen fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan, into a billion-dollar subvention providing, among other things, the missiles they could use to bring down Russian assault helicopters. Wilson had, in effect, engineered a victory for the anti-Soviet forces.

Then, however, he goes in search of a mere million to help build a school and is unable to win a hearing anywhere. For war, he could find money. For help in peacetime, none.

That’s interesting, given that within the mujahideen the US backed, were the Taliban who eventually seized control of Afghanistan, with lamentable results for the West. As we all know. A million for a school? Chickenfeed. A billion for weapons? Impressive but hardly breathtaking. How about nearly a trillion dollars spent by the US fighting its erstwhile Afghan allies up to the end of last year?

We too, in Britain, share this Western love of astronomic expenditure on war. The war in Iraq cost Britain £8.4 billion. That’s trivial compared to the US Defense Department’s estimates of its own direct expenditure of $757 billion, and Brown University’s estimate of total costs at $1.1 trillion, but it’s still a massive expenditure for a smaller country less used to making that kind of military outlay.

Tony Blair, the chief figure responsible for Britain’s involvement in that war as the Prime Minister of the day, still maintains it was worth fighting. The world, he has always claimed, is better without Saddam Hussein. That’s true enough – as long as what replaced him was an improvement.

We live in perpetual fear of the next terror attack in the West. But in neither Britain nor the US has anyone died in a terror attack so far in 2015 (unless you count US gun crime). In contrast, in Iraq there have been 3500 deaths already.

Far more serious still, the election of a government representing the majority of the population – a good thing – has led to the arrival in power of Shiite leaders and the exclusion to the point of alienation of the former rulers, Sunnis – not such a good thing. That in turn has been a fertile breeding ground for ISIS, which now controls a large part of Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

Tony Blair may be right that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a good thing, but his replacement by a failing state subject to constant terrorism, and above all the rise of ISIS, undo any good that came from it.

This is becoming increasingly critical today in Europe, as refugees driven from the region by ISIS atrocities begin to flood our borders. We’ve actually been fortunate not to have experienced the problem in its full intensity before: Lebanon, for example, with 4 million inhabitants has already taken a million refugees.
Refugees piling into trains in Hungary, aiming for Germany
What our £8.4bn – and the US trillion – bought us
Out £8.4 billion bought us a growing refugee problem. In an increasingly xenophobic country, that’s a terrible difficulty for a right wing government that isn’t particularly friendly towards immigration to start with, but likes to think of itself as Christian. In the face of a humanitarian catastrophe, clearly calling for a Good Samaritan response from anyone claiming to share the values of Jesus, David Cameron’s government is tearing around in panic trying to make it more difficult for migrants to reach the country.

This is in the face of a few thousand trying to reach Britain, compared to the 800,000, now expected to reach a million, forecast to be making for Germany.

The government claims to be doing more than one might think. It points to 5000 Syrians given asylum in this country, but fails to state that a great many of them were already here and were simply unable to return to their own country. In other words, they were students or tourists or businessmen – reasonably well off and probably able to cope with their exile. These were not the desperate individuals clinging to inflatables for the tricky crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands.

In one respect, though, the British government has adopted an intelligent policy: it feels the long-term solution lies in helping the home countries of the refugees to improve conditions, so that fewer leave in the first place. That’s certainly the best approach. However, when the government points to its investment of nearly £900 million over the next four years or Syria, one can’t help feeling it’s a little low compared to the £8.4 billion spent on war.

Equally, though the government is trying to make up for its passivity so far over the refugee flows by agreeing to take a few thousand from the camps inside Syria, that seems inadequate given that over 3 million have already left the country.

Isn’t that Charlie Wilson’s War again? So much to spend on war. So little on help.

Which reminds me of Aldous Huxley: ”that men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”

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