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Jo Cox MP: the compassionate road to war

Jo Cox MP was the embodiment of humanitarianism, but does that make her politics - specifically her stance on intervention in Syria - beyond criticism? 

Stop The War march is September 2002 in London. Wikimedia/William M Connelley. Some rights reserved.

Jo Cox’s tragically brief career as a Labour MP was cut short by Thomas Mair who, inspired by a far-right ideology, murdered her just over a year ago on 16 June 2016. The Labour MP left behind a husband and two young children aged four and five. During the trial, the MP for Batley and Spen was described by the judge as generous of spirit which was “evident in the selfless concern she had for others even when facing a violent death”. Brendan Cox described his wife as being driven “by a very powerful sense of empathy and so when she would meet people who had a problem, she would be committed to dealing with that problem no matter how difficult or seemingly unsolvable”.

Jo Cox was the embodiment of humanitarianism, having worked for several NGOs, most notably Oxfam but also Save the Children and the National Society for the Protection of Children. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, paid tribute to the Labour MP’s “deep commitment to humanity”. This humanitarianism, her compassionate character and appalling murder seem to place Jo Cox’s politics beyond criticism. But on how to intervene in Syria, are they?

Military intervention in Syria

Labour and Conservative hawks have invoked Jo Cox’s memory to generate support for western military intervention in Syria and beyond. These powerful political interests, allied to Syrian rebels, use claims of genocide, human rights abuses and humanitarian crisis as trumps to win political debate and delegitimise opposition to war.

The most notable aspect of Jo Cox’s tragically short parliamentary career was her outspoken stance for escalating war in support of the so-called 'moderate rebels' in Syria. From the Blairite wing of the Labour party, she worked with neoconservatives and other Conservative hawks to use claims of genocide to support taking humanitarian intervention on the side of the moderate rebels by establishing safe havens, the delivery of humanitarian aid to rebel areas and support for the White Helmets.

At the time of her death, Jo Cox was working on a report with the Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat (former principal adviser to the Chief of Defence Staff). This has been posthumously published by the Conservative think tank Policy Exchange as The Cost of Doing Nothing: The price of inaction in the face of mass atrocities (January 2017). In this report, the Labour MP Alison McGovern, chair of Progress, the Blairite think tank, and Tugendhat argue in support of military intervention: “a commitment by all parties to move in this direction would be a fitting legacy for our tireless, brave and humanitarian colleague, Jo Cox”. 

The report was due to be published on the day of the Chilcot inquiry on 6 July 2016, to counter growing British scepticism about foreign military interventions. The preface of the report was written by Dean Godson, director of Policy Exchange and a prominent British neoconservative. Professor John Bew, a founding member of the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society, also contributed. This organisation, established in 2005, is the leading think tank in support of military intervention. It also has a history of demonising Muslims.

Conservative hawks tend to emphasise less altruistic motivations for military intervention and can be more explicit about the implications of establishing supposedly humanitarian initiatives such as safe havens. Michael Weiss, director of communications for the Henry Jackson Society, argued in Intervention in Syria, published in December 2011, for the establishment of a safe area which should “not only be used as a base for home-grown rebel military operations but as a political and communications hub for the Syrian opposition.” Weiss added: “Its role should be tantamount to the one played by Benghazi in helping the Libyan Transitional National Council topple the Gaddafi regime.”

While Tugendhat favoured human rights and humanitarian military intervention, he was critical of the human rights laws that constrained the actions of British soldiers, stating that “judicial imperialism should urgently be reversed.”

Imperialism and humanitarianism have a close historical association, imperialism was often justified as a humanitarian or “civilising” act. Tugendhat stated that he and Cox wanted to elevate the role of the military as a force that can “change lives for the better”. He added: “‘We wanted to show that Britain’s history of intervention, military and otherwise, is common to both our political traditions and has been an integral part of our foreign and national security policy for over two hundred years.”

War or humanitarian intervention?

In the post-Cold War period war has become reinvented as “humanitarian intervention” to make it more palatable to sceptical western public opinion including the leftwing. During the nineties, leftists who had opposed the Vietnam War, the US interventions in Central America, and the nuclear arms race were seduced by human rights and humanitarian arguments for war. Kosovo in 1999 was depicted as the first “humanitarian war” and a model for future military interventions.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was also justified as a “humanitarian intervention”. The disastrous consequences of that invasion and the exposure of the deceptions and calculations behind the war undermined “humanitarian” justifications for war. Some humanitarian organisations, most notably Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), became critical of the way powerful western states were using human rights and humanitarianism to justify war and imperialism.

In Afghanistan, NATO used humanitarian aid as part of a counterinsurgency strategy and propaganda to win the hearts and minds of the local population. The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, notoriously described NGOs as “a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team”. Humanitarian NGOs signed Afghanistan: A Call for Security described as a “gung-ho” document demanding more ”robust” NATO military action.

The intensification of Britain’s involvement in the “good war” in Afghanistan after 2006 was supposed to restore the reputation of the military after the “bad war” in Iraq. General David Richards, who was head of the British armed forces, reflected on the war in Afghanistan: “in practice, we ended up killing a lot of people, destroying lots of bazaars and mosques. We absolutely knew it was not what we were there to do, and would not be helpful”.

British public opinion defied cross-party support for the “good war” in Afghanistan and consistently opposed intervention from the start of the escalation of the war in 2006. The public’s reluctance to suffer casualties joined with no-win outcomes to explain why deception and humanitarian arguments had to be deployed to reduce public misgivings.

The example of Libya

There is considerable evidence to suggest that deception was used to justify and extend NATO’s intervention in Libya 2011. Advocates of humanitarian intervention claimed that President Gaddafi’s forces, which were advancing on the rebels in Benghazi, would commit genocide against civilians – another Srebrenica – unless NATO aircraft intervened. In 2017, McGovern and Tugendhat argued that the Libyan intervention “almost certainly saved tens of thousands from slaughter by Gaddafi and the current level of violence is nowhere near the genocide he threatened to unleash”. The House of Commons supported military intervention on 21 March 2011 by a vote of 557 MPs to 13 (the latter included Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell).

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) report on Libya, in September 2016, found that Gaddafi’s threat to civilians was “overstated”. This claim is backed up by academic research that suggests the regime was trying to negotiate and targeted rebels rather than civilians. The FAC argued, ”by the summer of 2011, the limited intervention to protect civilians had drifted into an opportunist policy of regime change. That policy was not underpinned by a strategy to support and shape post-Gaddafi Libya.” Jack Holland and Mike Aaronson have argued that “the UK’s political objective may well have been the removal of Gaddafi, but it was not astute to openly articulate it as such.” President Obama was to describe post-intervention Libya as a “shit show”.

The Russians and Chinese argue that NATO’s deception on Libya is why they are reluctant to support similar humanitarian action in Syria. The chaotic consequences of “humanitarian intervention” in Libya have underlined the ineffectiveness of military action already apparent in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During her parliamentary career Jo Cox was a co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group Friends of Syria that urged stronger “humanitarian military” action in support of moderate rebels and against the Assad regime. Humanitarians often claim to be “non-political” or “above politics”. After all, who can be against “humanitarianism”, saving “civilians” and opposing "genocide”? The key question is: who defines what these terms mean and what are their implications for policy? Compassion has too often been a cover for escalating war.

 After all, who can be against "humanitarianism", saving "civilians" and opposing "genocide"? 

Jo Cox allied with Andrew Mitchell – former Conservative International Development Secretary and Libya hawk – to argue that Syria was a case of genocide by comparing it to Bosnia and Rwanda. They presented war as a Manichaean struggle between the evil dictator Assad who is perpetrating a genocide on the Syrian people and the moderate rebels: ”never again can we let innocents suffer as they did in the Holocaust. Never again”. Innocents are depicted as always the victims of Assad and not of the rebels – but the rebels have also carried out atrocities.

The humanitarian proposal of a “safe haven” was effectively a call for the escalation of NATO’s military involvement in Syria and risked a military confrontation with Russia. For Cox and Mitchell, a military component was part of an ethical response, but what was critical was “that the protection of civilians must be at the centre of the mission”. Safe havens should be created to offer sanctuary from both Assad and ISIS. They argued that “preventing the regime from killing civilians, and signalling intent to Russia, is far more likely to compel the regime to the negotiating table than anything currently being done or mooted”. International law should be broken by ignoring Russia’s and China’s veto on UN action.

A "successful" invasion?

So in December 2015 Jo Cox refused to support British involvement in the bombing of Syria because she thought this military action did not go far enough in support of moderate rebel groups. She opposed an “ISIS first” strategy because it would alienate “moderate rebels”. Although Jo Cox thought the invasion of Iraq was Labour’s “darkest hour”, she argued that this was because there was ”no follow up strategy”, suggesting that such invasions could be successful. Elsewhere she argued that she opposed the Iraq war because “the risk to civilian lives was too high, and their protection was never the central objective”. Kosovo and Sierra Leone were successes, she argued, because ”civilian protection was key”.

Jo Cox took a hard line in favour of Syrian peace negotiations aiming at the removal of Assad and a rebel victory rather than a diplomatic compromise that might end the violence. Western intransigence can encourage rebels to hold out on negotiations in hope of a Libyan-style NATO military solution. In February 2016, Jo Cox and the German Green Party MP, Omid Nouripour, rejected US negotiations with Russia of a peace settlement in Syria in favour of a “much more muscular” European response. They added: “the US seems intent on a peace settlement that will be dangerously unbalanced. Such is the determination to secure [a] deal at any cost that they are prepared to offer far too many concessions to Assad and their Russian allies. This undermines the Syrian opposition, who feel betrayed by the international community. It also diminishes the chance for a sustainable peace and relegates the protection of civilians virtually out of the conference room. If we don’t stand up for them, nobody will”.

Jo Cox’s advocacy for the White Helmets in Syria follows from this convergence between humanitarianism and arguments to escalate the war on the side of 'moderate rebels' for war. She nominated the White Helmets for the Nobel Peace Prize for their rescue work in Syria and one third of her memorial fund is to be donated to them. The White Helmets appear to be a humanitarian organisation that is above politics and prepared to help Syrian people in distress regardless of their politics. Max Blumenthal, however, has uncovered evidence that the White Helmets are aligned to rebel groups. They were founded by a former British Army officer and are financially backed by western governments. The White Helmets leadership is “driven by a pro-interventionist agenda conceived by the Western governments and the public relations groups that back them”. The British government has, reportedly, been involved in propaganda campaigns in support of “moderate rebel" groups.

The key criticism of the Labour and Conservative hawks' proposals is that their humanitarian arguments are misleading.

The key criticism of the Labour and Conservative hawks' proposals is that their humanitarian arguments are misleading. Proposals for no fly zones, safe havens, humanitarian corridors, humanitarian access seem so “reasonable” and “non-political” that they conceal the highly politicised nature of asking NATO to take one side in a civil war, and the threat of escalation.

In 2012, the head of the US military, General Martin Dempsey, estimated that at least 70,000 US servicemen would be required to impose a no-fly zone over Syria. Some experts have estimated that about 200,000 troops – and perhaps several times that number – would be needed for 'peace enforcement' in Syria or 300-500,000 for a full-scale invasion. The consequences of deeper military involvement became even more serious after September 2015 when Russian aircrafts were deployed to Syria, raising the prospect of a wider war.

President Obama opposed the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria because it was an act of war that would involve attacking the Syrian air force and destroying its air defences, sophisticated defences designed to protect the country from the Israeli air force. Hillary Clinton, a key US Liberal hawk and then-Secretary of State, admitted privately that to achieve a no-fly zone “you’re going to kill a lot of Syrians” because air defence systems were located in civilian areas. Protecting some civilians means that other civilians will die.

The former UK Foreign Secretary and military interventionist, William Hague, opposed the creation of safe havens which was “impractical at best dangerous at worst”. He argued that “in Syria's fluid battlefields, massive ground forces would be needed to defend any “safe” area from terrorist infiltration and short-range bombardment. The most thoughtful advocates of this policy, such as my old colleague Andrew Mitchell and Labour MP Jo Cox, recognise this. Yet no one can say which country will provide the tens of thousands of troops that would be necessary, and be ready to reinforce them if necessary.”

Siding with the "moderate" rebels

The west did take the side of moderate rebels early on in the Syrian war. In August 2011, after five months of the Syrian uprising, President Obama called for the removal of Assad and a transition to democracy. Together with its allies, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the west armed the opposition to Assad. At first they provided non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels, but from at least 2012 the US was directly involved in training and arming Syrian rebels. The US spent millions of dollars and failed to create a force of ‘pro-western moderate rebels”. In August 2012, the US Defence Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, reported that “Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq, later ISIS] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria”. It is believed that weapons supplied by the west and its allies to 'moderate' groups have been seized by more hard-line groups, such as the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.

Syrian rebels have an incentive to provoke state repression in order to generate support for NATO military intervention which can be used to defeat Assad. The danger of local forces allying with western llberal hawks and neoconservatives to bring about military intervention was apparent during the Iraq invasion 2003. Iraqi exiles provided suspect intelligence on weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and assured neoconservatives and liberal hawks that an invasion would be easy and popular.

The hawks claimed that the Syrian (and Libyan) uprisings were popular, democratic revolutions which made victory inevitable over President Assad. This encouraged the west to demand his removal from power, to arm rebels and miss opportunities for negotiations that might lead to accommodation. Only with the rise of ISIS and the deeper involvement of Russia has pragmatism won out over 'wishful thinking'.

The military interventionists argue that the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides were the result of the failure of western intervention. This involves the assumption that the simple application of military force will be successful. The key example of success is Kosovo where exaggerated claims of genocide were used to legitimise a humanitarian war in which NATO bombed from 15,000 feet, killed about 500 civilians without any NATO deaths. The effectiveness of military force is undermined by the subsequent failures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Both Iraq and Libya involved the use of deception to justify military intervention.

Jo Cox’s compassion is not in question: but the consequences of so-called humanitarian military intervention can be catastrophic. These arguments demonise and criminalise the participants in war with the clear implication that, rather than negotiate, these wars should be fought until the enemy is defeated, which is when ‘justice’ can be imposed. After the invasion of Iraq, David Kennedy, an academic lawyer and human rights activist, wrote in The Dark Sides of Virtue (2004):

The generation which built the human rights movement focused its attention on the ways in which evil people in evil societies could be identified and restrained. More acute now is how good people, well-intentioned people in good societies, can go wrong, can entrench, support, the very things they have learned to denounce.

About the author

Paul Dixon is Professor of Politics and International Studies at Kingston University and taught at the Universities of Ulster, Leeds, Luton and Queen's University Belfast. He is editor of 'The British Approach to Counterinsurgency: From Malaya and Northern Ireland to Iraq and Afghanistan' (Palgrave 2012), (with Eamonn O'Kane) Northern Ireland Since 1969 (Pearson 2011) and Northern Ireland: The Politics of War and Peace (Palgrave, 2nd edition, 2008). He is working on a book on 'The Northern Ireland Peace Process' which uses a theatrical metaphor to understanding and explain the politics of conflict management


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