No easy answers

THE GREAT journalist H L Mencken one said that “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” The quote springs to mind when considering one of the latest utterances from Donald Trump, after his meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping.

Mr Trump thought that China could easily solve the problem of North Korea’s intransigence, until President Xi explained the complex history. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” he said.

Leave aside the thought that the President might have been expected to know all this before he met the Chinese leader*. What the anecdote indicates is the enormous gulf between the kind of slogans that politicians like to utter on the campaign trail and the practical difficulties of governing.

Many political problems are complex, and they are also international. How do we fight global warming, without damaging economic growth and allowing countries that do not take action to have a “free ride” at the expense of the rest? Whether the topic is trade, tax evasion or refugees, these problems can only be tackled with the co-operation of other countries, which may have different perspectives. Getting a deal means making compromises, and compromises mean that every nation will not get its own way. But the risk, for elected leaders, is that compromising exposes them to criticism that they have “sold out” domestic interests. And if nations refuse to compromise, nothing will get done.

The pretence that there are easy answers leads to a lot of “Monday morning quarterbacking”. There has been much commentary over the last year to the effect that President Obama allowed matters to drift in the Middle East, and was outmanoeuvred by Vladimir Putin over Syria.

We cannot possibly know the counterfactual; what would have happened if a leader had followed a different policy? Broadly speaking, however, there are three possibilities; outright invasion to unseat a tyrant; limited bombing to intimidate, or destabilise, a tyrant; and non-intervention. The first one was tried in Iraq, and proved a disaster. The second approach was tried in Libya, and has resulted in an unstable state that could be the next hub for terrorism and has been a source of refugee trafficking. And the third approach was followed in Syria, and has resulted in a bloody civil war.

The decision not to intervene in Syria was, of course, partly driven by the failures in Iraq and Libya; neither the British Parliament nor the US Congress had the appetite for action. Perhaps, if President Obama has backed up his comments on the “red line” over chemical weapons with bombing, Assad might have been unseated in 2013. But we can’t know. All that the US might have achieved is to bomb civilians, creating more anger in the Middle East, more political instability, and more terrorist recruits. Perhaps Assad would have been replaced by a militantly Islamic regime.

Russia did act to prop up Assad and saved him from defeat; in other words, it took the opposite approach from that urged on Obama in 2013. But the Russian government can act without seeming to care about the effect on public opinion, or the consequences on Syrian civilians. Western governments cannot behave in the same way; nor should we want them to.

The Syrian civil war is immensely complex, with Russia and Iran backing Assad, a member of the Alawites (a sect of Shia Islam) against the majority Sunni population. The US and the rest have attempted to support a democratic Sunni opposition, but Isis and other militantly Islamic groups are also fighting Assad. A third element is the Kurds, who have established some autonomy in northeast Syria, only to be attacked by Turkey, which worries about its own Kurdish minority.

What about peace talks, as urged by Britain’s opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn? There have been talks in Geneva but these have made little progress; first, because the opposition is divided and second, because the Assad regime believes it is winning and sees no need to compromise. So calling for peace talks is a cop-out equivalent to allowing Assad to keep bombing his civilian population. Likewise, calling for a UN investigation into the latest chemical attack, as Mr Corbyn has recently done, is to do nothing; Russia has already vetoed such an investigation.

Mr Trump has done something — bombing some Syrian airfields in response to the use of chemical weapons. Perhaps that will discourage their further use. But the danger is that this is “sugar rush” diplomacy; we feel good for doing something but the feeling will not last. Syrians may not die from chemical weapons but they will continue to die from barrel bombs.

Bombing campaigns don’t always work; the US dropped 4.6m tons of bombs in Vietnam and still lost. Because of US air superiority, its enemies do not group together into a neat target but scatter themselves among the population. “Bombing Isis” — a meme during the Republican primaries — faces the same problem.

As for North Korea, bombing its nuclear weapon sites sounds tempting but these are hidden or underground. The dictatorship’s response would be to attack South Korea; Seoul, a city with a population of around 10m, is just 35 miles from the border. Outright war on the Korean peninsula might drag in China, as it did in the 1950–53 conflict. China does not like the North Korean regime, but nor does it want to see it collapse, both creating a refugee crisis and uniting the country under US hegemony.

So doing nothing and letting the North Korean develop and intercontinental ballistic missile is unappealing. Military action is unappealing. That leaves a third option; applying sanctions and hoping that the regime will collapse of its own accord. But this Obama approach, dubbed “strategic patience”, has been rejected by the Trump administration. The recent bombing of Syria and Afghanistan may have been designed to intimidate North Korea into acquiescence; it is just as likely to convince them of the need for effective nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

In other words, there are no easy answers, and we should hesitate before criticising politicians for not finding them. Or to use another Mencken quote: “Life is a constant oscillation between the sharp horns of dilemmas.”

*Hard at this point not to think of another Mencken quote: “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”


Former Economist and FT columnist. Author of More, Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Philip Coggan

Former Economist and FT columnist. Author of More, Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine