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‘To do the right deed for the wrong reason’

I agreed with this comment under a report of last night’s vote in the Guardian.

I’m not a Cameron fan but he’s gone way up in my opinion over this. He thought one way, a tiny majority disagreed; and he democratically accepted their decision.

And it does look as though elements within Labour were driven by opportunism rather than principle.  (By contrast someone like Jeremy Corbyn, however much one dislikes his views, is at least simply acting consistently, as far as I can tell.)

There has been the usual stupidity (and worse) on display from StWC and the rest of the #HandsOffSyria brigade (a hash tag which implies, as The Third Estate notes, tacit support for Assad’s regime.)

Alex Massie discusses these types in a recent article in the Spectator, within the context of Iraq.

It helped – and this is a point of which I am not especially proud – that so many of the wrong people were opposed to the war. Who wanted to be on the same side as George Galloway, Stop the War [sic] and Seumas Milne and all the rest of them?

And I was inclined to agree with his conclusion:

The current situation in Syria may be untenable; unfortunately that does not mean any of the plausible alternative scenarios are any more tenable. Or welcome. There is certainly a moral case for action and I do not think those who favour it should be dismissed as warmongering know-nothings. But the arguments against intervention are just as compelling.

Here’s a passage from today’s Times leader.

Military strikes to deter the Assad regime from further use of chemical weapons and limit its ability to deploy them would not preclude continued diplomatic efforts. At best they could even force it to negotiate. There are many worse scenarios, including retaliation by Iran against Israel, but the worst at this bleak juncture is for America to send the clear message that its warnings mean nothing.

I’m not sure I agree that doing nothing is necessarily the very worst thing that could happen at this juncture – retaliation by Iran against Israel seems a worrying enough possibility to deserve more than a parenthesis if it is probable enough to be mentioned at all, and it’s unclear what Assad’s response to a warning shot across the bows would be, although I understand (and see the force of) the argument that more is at stake here than this one conflict.

The title of a recent article in the Times by Daniel Finkelstein, ‘What happens in Syria will not stay in Syria’, could have been used just as easily for an argument against war.  His points about omission bias (that there is a tendency to judge harmful action more harshly than harmful inaction) are very thought-provoking, but I think in cases like this there is also the possibility of ‘commission bias’ – when a situation is so horrifying and intolerable that one feels one must do something rather than nothing.

But my uncertainties about intervention (in this instance) are very – uncertain.  I couldn’t immediately place the line ‘To do the right deed for the wrong reason’, but it is in fact from T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and is preceded by ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason’. Many of those who oppose intervention seem to have very bad reasons. But if one does think intervention is the ‘right deed’ then in fact I have seen little evidence of people supporting it for the wrong (in the sense of self-serving or morally suspect) reason. Although I do sometimes get the feeling that some on both sides begin with the answer they want – or perhaps I should say the answer they instinctively feel is right – and then reverse engineer the reasoning to match it.