Honest Serving People


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The debate about Syria and the use of chemical weapons as conducted in the UK and beyond these last few days has been marked by lack of clarity and thoroughness in the thinking. In such circumstances it never hurts to fall back on Kipling’s Six Honest Serving Men to make sure you have the basics addressed:

I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

  • What happened in Syria last week? Were chemical weapons used?
  • Who used them?
  • What can be done about it?
  • Who should carry out the response? Where is it most in the national interest to get involved?
  • How will military action help?
  • What will happen as a result? And when will it end?

I’ve traded in my Why for an extra What because the Why is very complex in itself: Why should we respond to the use of Chemical Weapons? Why do we distinguish them from say cluster bombing? Why do the current lead voices reckon they have moral authority when they have used napalm, agent orange, white phosphorus, depleted uranium and the like themselves, even in recent times?

I have a strong conviction, for these and other reasons, that any action to be taken, diplomatic/political or military, needs to be multilateral, preferably through the UN. Whether the United Nations Security Council is up to the job will be tested again. With two major powers who seem to conduct their foreign affairs consistently with no moral dimension it’s a body which really needs to justify its existence. It would be good to find a way to get Russia and China to actually suggest solutions. Likewise it would be good to put a bit more of the onus on the Arab League to see if they can contribute something positive to the world.

In the meantime I’d strongly encourage UK citizens to make their views clearly known by writing to their Member of Parliament via MySociety’s brilliant Write to Them service, the easiest way to get an email off to your elected representative in a matter of moments.

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