Scotland’s political commentators are having a surprisingly poor war – we sit at a crucial moment in history and proper, informed thinking will achieve more than unthinking belligerence. And what is true for Scotland is true for the rest of Europe
Robin McAlpine is the director of the Scottish think and do tank Common Weal.
Cross-posted from Robin’s website
he political commentary about the war in Ukraine has not shown Scotland’s commentator set at their best. With a few notable exceptions it has been lazy, shallow and of no practical use to anyone.
Much of that commentary seems to have settled around about four key tenets: (1) this is a war unlike any war ever fought in history; (2) there is no context to this war because it is nothing more than an expression of pure evil and Eastern European history began two months ago; (3) the world is at imminent threat of being taken over by Russia unless we kill Putin and extinguish Russian nationalism; and (4) other than Putin the real enemy is the Scottish left…
Not one of these things is either true or realistic. But worse, they offer no path forward, no practical way to bring this horror to an end or to create a better world afterwards. Wishing your enemy would just die and things would all go ‘back to normal’ is for the playground. You need to work out what is the best achievable world and that needs reflection more than slogans.
So let me go through why thinking matters, starting with the personal. I have been an anti-war activist since childhood, born into an anti-nuclear family and steeped in the politics of CND ever since. Which means there is virtually no unpleasant regime in the world for which I have not been accused of being an agent.
This list includes Saddam Hussein (twice, first time at university when I was 17), Slobodan Milosevic, Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin among others. One wonders where on earth I find the time.
And here’s the thing – I’ve never supported a single one of these people or groups. but, with the exceptions of Bin Laden and the Taliban, the British state has supported all of them. I can then list the dictators I’ve not been accused of working for and you’ll find that those are mostly current friends and clients of the British state.
Very often the people who accuse me of supporting one of these awful figures actually used to support them (reluctantly of course, necessary evil and all that) and are currently supporting the pool of people from which the next ‘evil pariahs’ will be drawn.
It is a wearily familiar reality that if you oppose war consistently you will be accused selectively. If you oppose wars ‘our side’ have decided are good wars, you become the enemy. If you oppose wars that our side thinks are bad wars and draw a comparison between the two, you become the enemy. Being anti-war has always been a process of being ignored between wars and vilified during them. There you go.
This is my first point; if the political sphere only listens to the people who create the conditions for war and the people who start wars and ignores the voices of people genuinely opposed to war, how realistic is ending war?
Next is the claim that ‘our’ wars are all about context but ‘their’ wars have no context. When we bomb civilians it must be understood in terms of a complex history of bad actors we’re trying to put straight; when they bomb civilians, mentioning any history, any context, is totally unacceptable.
This is literal, deliberate ignorance. As a genuine rather than selective opponent of war I’ve read a lot over the last 30-plus years. I have a solid understanding of geopolitics as it actually unfolded over those years – the history of conflict isn’t something I discovered yesterday.
I have read extensively from all sides of the analysis of what happened geopolitically after the fall of the Soviet Union. I know that an alternative path could have been followed allowing Russia to transition from Communism towards a form of European social democracy which could have allowed the gradual integration of Russia into the European Union.
I also know that the US was absolutely dead set against this and was determined to turn Russia into the far ‘wild west’ of its neoliberal fantasy world, broken, weak and subservient. I know precisely how this led to massive and frankly horrific economic crisis that resulted in many millions of excess deaths. I know this was risking either a kind of anarchy or a reversion to some kind of communism.
I know that, as its solution to this, the West chose to support and promote an autocratic nationalist regime which would restore order through brutality and that Putin was their guy. I know they were very happy to see increasing domestic repression in pursuit of ‘stability’. I also know that the US intervened to basically rebuff most attempts by Russia to integrate more fully into the West.
I know that others knew all of this and drew the correct conclusions. There was a strong consensus among a political-spectrum-spanning group of American foreign policy experts (including Henry Kissinger, hardly dovish) that the West would provoke exactly the confrontation which is happening just now if it isolated and humiliated Russia.
For many years they lobbied hard against the Nato encirclement of Russia because they didn’t want to get back into a war with Russia. They were ignored, the US decided to pursue an aggressive strategy precisely of Nato encirclement of Russia – and as predicted by people who bothered to read and think, it further fuelled Russian paranoia, ethnic nationalism and repression.
From the Iranian Ayatollahs to Saddam to Bin Laden to al-Assad, we keep creating our own worse enemy, for example by creating bitter, paranoid, failed states in the image of our own transient self-interests or funding and training bad people to kill other bad people without following the logic through.
The solution to this is not to scare the western population silly with claims that Russia might invade Sweden next (despite all its military might it is clearly struggling to subdue a relatively poor country like Ukraine). It isn’t expecting the rest of the world to fall in behind our spurious claims that there is a world order which we’ve been policing for them that must be restored aggressively.
It certainly isn’t the prospect of keeping about 150 million Russians pinned down in poverty and penury through a belligerent policy of permanent isolation, pushing Russia further towards an autocratic alliance with China.
I am capable of knowing all of this without seeing it as a justification or excuse for Putin and his actions. But if we don’t reflect on this, how do we learn the lessons to inform what we do next? Make no mistake, there is some 20-something sitting in Russia right now who, with our actions over the next five years, we are capable of turning into someone to be really afraid of another 20 years from now.
This is my second point; history matters, context is real and if you ignore it and don’t learn from it you will repeat your mistakes over and over again.
It is usually the political left which is accused of resorting to simple-minded slogans to solve complex problems, but it is the political centre ground which leads on this when it comes to war. Across much of the West pragmatic voices are being forced out of the discussion.
If you were listening (not least to Joe Biden) you’d think we’ve put all our money on total victory. We have created a picture in which Putin is just a ‘bad man’ sui generis, that this is all just a black-and-white matter of good versus evil meaning that nothing is possible until he and everyone like him is dead or deposed. You know, total victory like Libya, or Afghanistan, or Iraq.
But if we do set that goal (total regime change) we can’t possibly imagine it can be achieved solely through sanctions. It’s not that sanctions aren’t important (they were crucial in apartheid South Africa), it’s just that they’ve never successfully deposed any tyrant in history. Russia has almost designed itself to live with sanctions and Putin has strong public support.
This means our choices are almost certainly between more empty talk, world war or realpolitik. Putin probably isn’t going to disappear, Russia isn’t going to swing back to ‘liberal values’ overnight and Russians are certainly unlikely to denounce their own nation (we expect Russia to apologise and pay penance for its crimes right away yet about 100 years later we can’t bring ourselves even to say sorry for the crimes of the British Empire).
That is the third point; children may wish magical solutions will appear to solve all their problems but grown-ups have to work with the reality in front of them.
Finally, we should really interrogate the idea that this war is without precedent, unlike any war there has ever been. In 1990 when the Gulf War broke out and I was marching against it I decided I’d better understand war. I researched what war looks like, from the twisted remains of children deemed ‘collateral damage’ to the next generation of children born with deformities based on how much depleted uranium we left behind.
It was horrible – I know what war looks like and I didn’t want to look again. So I get angry when people claim this war is totally different than other wars. People who make this claim seem mostly to want to avoid going into an explanation of why that is, but in as far as they do it involves baddies and goodies.
There are good guys and bad guys and when we start wars against bad guys that might be unfortunate but it is understandable but when the bad guys start starting wars with the good guys it’s a different category of war. Oh, and we get to define good guys and bad guys.
Obama’s illegal extra-judicial assassination programme killed more civilians via drone bombings than Putin has in Ukraine (so far) – but because Obama was killing a couple of bad guys along with the much greater number of good guys that makes Obama a good guy, not a bad guy. Are you following?
The horrible, horrible truth is that this war is precisely like all the other wars, the blood, the death, the pain, the inhumanity, the atrocities, the legacy of bitter resentment. There is really only one crucial difference – we’re actually watching this time but not from the perspective of a journalist perched on top of one of the tanks of the aggressor.
Every mangled, bloodied corpse looks much the same because the ripping of flesh, shattering of bone and splattering of entrails looks and feels the same. It hurts ever bit as much if you are Britain’s collateral damage or Putins. Torture is just as awful when its in a CIA black site as when its perpetrated by Russian soldiers on the ground.
And if we’re not watching from the vantage point of a tank, we’re probably not watching at all, like in Yemen or the Tigray civil war. The pain civilians are suffering there clearly doesn’t matter to us.
If you are looking at all, war looks very, very different from behind the gun than from in front of the gun. It takes some helluva hubris to imagine that we, the West, have a unilateral right to decide who’s country can be bombed and whose can’t, whose elections can be interfered with and who’s can’t, who’s territorial sovereignty is protected and whose isn’t.
If we are to build a better world when this is over we cannot enlist the rest of the world so long as we keep telling them that their dead child is less important than our dead child, if we keep telling them that we ‘must destroy their village to save it’. We can’t keep believing that we have the right to choose all the world’s wars, the good ones, the bad ones and the ‘who cares?’ ones.
That is my final point; if we want peace it has to be peace for all, not a selective peace that (coincidentally I’m sure..) tallies very closely with our own economic interests.
On the whole Scotland manages to avoid the kind of dumb, reactionary, belligerent political commentary that is rife south of the border. A media and political culture which whooped with undisguised glee at the death of a bunch of young sailors in the Belgrano can be expected to be hammering ‘death to Putin!’ on its keyboards somewhere in suburban England.
But in Scotland I did expect something a bit more, a bit better, from the generally more thoughtful Scottish commentator class. I seem to have been wrong in that expectation.