Peace & Chaos

Peace & Chaos

The only sensible answer to President Biden’s question “Shall I withdraw from Afghanistan?” was “I wouldn’t start now?”. You cannot ‘withdraw’ from a war, you can only give up on it.  Which is what he has done. In the safe and secure knowledge that he had to, sometime, and the bullet was probably no more easily ‘bitten’ than now. The disarray and potential for disaster is scary. Lives have already been lost. If American lives are lost the President will be less than wholly popular.

The US has, in principle, retreated from fighting new local wars. Except that there are always very sound reasons for engagement, often economic, sometimes social, always political. The majority of US voters don’t seem to want to shield other nations from the encroachment of regimes that would be detrimental to them. “America first” set the tone of US politics, of other countries’ politics, even perhaps of world politics, for a generation or two, maybe longer. Or maybe just until the United States again regards itself as the guardian of democracy.

Marshalling democracies’ votes is extremely difficult. This applies whether we are talking about the US or Europe or “the West”. How democracy works inevitably makes it slow and steady – a pace the world has thrown out for the present. Can we run a system that allows everyone to have a say? It’s partly what democracy is. When I asked a Permanent Secretary of Education for a major country if he was going to change the education system he replied by telling me that he was dragging many thousands of teachers behind him – and many millions of parents behind them. The head of any democratic system is bound to say that.

But democracy isn’t only about war and peace. It is about free speech, free thought, free expression and freedom of choice. I think those freedoms are seriously threatened in western democracies and have been increasingly so for many years. A pincer movement of regulation and legal resort forces people into prescribed sorts of behaviour. Hong Kong is a perfect example of how this works progressively. There it is a daily tightening of the grip. In Western Democracy it happens more slowly but just as inexorably.

Democracy exists to defend rights – individual, human rights. Human rights have a value. They also have a responsibility. Both the defence of rights and the exercise of responsibilities are profound. Balanced, they coexist well. Imbalanced, they become the cause of autocracy. The precise point at which this happens is not clear. It is probably a moving wand. A wand that divines movement, not eclipse. So watching the wand doesn’t stop its progress. Drawing a red line may.

And what do you do when the red line is breached? Protest? Draw another red line? Discuss with the breacher and declare “peace in our time”? Or fight to protect the human rights, wherever they are, whatever the circumstances demand for their support? Kabul airport scenes will haunt me for the rest of my life. And yet, I think the President was obliged to stop American forces input in a country bereft of reasonable politics, unable to discipline its own defence system and corrupt at every twist and turn. And yet, I think we must marshal the forces of freedom to withstand the forces of modern slavery.

Do you love freedom? You will probably answer yes. Can you say how much? Enough to continue supporting American presence in Afghanistan to protect the country from the rapacious Taliban? If ‘no’, where is your red line? If ‘yes’, also where is your red line?

If you don’t have a red line, your line is white.

I’m sure you don’t want a white line.

Good morning

John Bittleston

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