The Axis of Do Nothing

Surely everyone can agree with Conor Foley’s view that aid should be supplied to Burma, despite the repressive military junta in place. David Aaronovitch discusses the right to intervene when such aid is refused:

There has been, right from the first day of this crisis, a wing of the anti-interventionist movement that has sought to shift blame for the aid debacle from the Burmese generals to the West in general and America in particular. I first heard it from some professor interviewed on the Today programme, and have read it several times since. The junta (this apologia suggests) is just paranoid, this paranoia is justified because of the West’s hostility, and therefore it makes sense from the Burmese point of view not to admit foreign aid workers, who might be CIA spooks.

In a way I prefer this adamantine daftness to the slippery arguments of those who have used the Burmese disaster to attack liberal interventionism, while suggesting that in this particular instance there are grounds for some kind of uninvited action. Their reasoning runs like this: Burma’s crisis is different and more urgent than was the case in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, because of the immediacy of the humanitarian disaster. So the stakes are clear, and whereas it would be illegal to remove the Burmese junta, it is somehow legal to invade Burmese air space and docks to deliver and defend supplies. Presumably (though the anti-interventionist interventionists don’t spell it out) we would protect our aid convoys from attack, so the possibility of military action is implicit.

And here’s Anne Applebaum:

the phrase “coalition of the willing” is tainted forever—once again proving that the damage done by the Iraq war goes far beyond the Iraqi borders—but a coalition of the willing is exactly what we need. The French—whose foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, was himself a co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières—are already talking about finding alternative ways of delivering aid. Others in Europe and Asia might join in, along with some aid organizations. The Chinese should be embarrassed into contributing, asked again and again to help. This is their satrapy, after all, not ours.

Think of it as the true test of the Western humanitarian impulse: The international effort that went into coordinating the tsunami relief effort in late 2004 has to be repeated, but in much harsher, trickier, uglier political circumstances. Yes, we should help the Burmese, even against the will of their irrational leaders. Yes, we should think hard about the right way to do it. And, yes, there isn’t much time to ruminate about any of this.

Or should we depend on some sort of regional solution, as Conor Foley has suggested, because of the loss of “moral stature and political will to take on the role of world policeman” the West has suffered? Given the time frame in which aid is required in Burma, that sounds suspiciously like “do nothing” in practical terms. The Axis of Do Nothing is exemplified by the RCP/Spiked/LM crowd, who reserve particular loathing for Koucher’s agenda of humanitarian interventions.

Here’s my bet. The Burmese Junta will continue to control the situation, the Burmese people will suffer appallingly, and in time we will learn to live with the failure of the international community to act in the face of another humanitarian disaster. It’s something we should be used to.

However, once this crisis has dropped out of the media, as it will have done in a few weeks, then the international community should continue to pressurise the Junta in Burma using sanctions, increase long-term direct aid to the people of Burma, and seek to explicitly support the democratic opposition. We have got to stop dealing with dictatorships on an event by event basis. Long-term international plans should be brought in to support democratic change in all totalitarian nations, with particular emphasis on the most brutal and repressive regimes.

UPDATED 14/5/2008 15:57 : with introduction drawing attention to Conor Foley’s article about the need to supply aid to Burma, despite the military junta.