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The wisdom of restraint
Sometimes it is braver to do nothing; more courageous for a politician to admit openly that he cannot save the day than it is for him to call for immediate action. Too many of our leaders are too quick to cry ‘something must be done’, without worrying about whether that something will make things better or worse.
Which is why William Hague deserves credit this week for stating clearly and firmly that Britain cannot and will not intervene in Syria. The Foreign Secretary was rightly criticised in the early days of the Arab Spring for being slow to grasp the gravity of the situation, but this week he has been quick off the mark and admirably candid. Military intervention is ‘not a remote possibility’, he said, ‘even if we were in favour of that, which we’re not’. This is of course a practical reality as well as a political judgment: Britain and America are overstretched abroad and broke at home. All is not going entirely according to plan in Libya. But Hague’s statement is also a refreshing admission of the intense complexity of the situation in Syria and the deadly importance of not pandering to popular outrage and of avoiding facile promises.
All decent people must deplore President Assad’s brutal repression of the protestors in
Hama and the ongoing murder of civilians and children. But to treat this as a simple battle of evil against good is to be worryingly naive. As this magazine has reported, the Muslim Brotherhood — the worm in the rose of revolution — is seeking to turn the uprising to its own advantage. Tunisia provides an object lesson. As the country prepares for the first elections in its history, secular liberal Tunisians are growing ever more anxious. The best organised party and the one likely to get most support is Hizb alNahda (Party of Renaissance), the conservative Islamic group that under one name or another has been banned on and off since independence.
It’s easy to call for Assad’s immediate exit, as has Robert Ford, the US’s ambassador to Syria, and to say, as he did, that one shares with the Syrian people ‘a vision of an open and democratic country’. It is harder to face the fact that under Assad’s regime — Allawites in a mostly Sunni country — religious minorities have been largely protected. The country is, as a result, one of the few remaining safe areas for Christians in the Middle East. If Assad is replaced by Islamists, the future will look bleak for Christians, not to mention homosexuals and secular women.
Should the army in Syria be encouraged to abandon Assad and form an interim government? This seems a sensible solution, but even this must be tempered by a hard look at the surrounding reality. Consider Egypt. As former president Mubarak prepares to take the stand, the army shows no signs of organising elections and have become almost as brutal and controlling as they were under him.
Assad must answer for his appalling crimes, but we must beware of what the Germans call a Schlimmbesserung — an improvement that makes things worse. As we go to press, the European Union has extended its sanctions to the defence minister, Ali Habib Mahmoud, and four others linked to the Syrian regime. Including the President himself, there are now 35 Syrian officials facing travel bans and asset freezes. All four EU members of the UN Security Council — the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Portugal — have lobbied for a resolution condemning the violence, which Russia now says it might not oppose.
This is progress of the right sort: not posturing or political rhetoric, but slow and steady measures. The Syrian people are best served by an international community that is not divided and self-serving, but united and intent on restoring peace.
It may seem small beer, but the news that British microbrewing is booming deserves celebration. A new report shows that, in spite of the recession, small-scale ale makers are doing a roaring trade. Microbreweries are opening at a rate of 50 a year, and are now benefiting from the coalition’s tax breaks for small businesses.
This is creative destruction at work. Traditional pillars of the British beer trade — the Victorian firms whose grand old breweries once stood on the edge of almost every city — continue to falter, but in their place a new breed of brewer has emerged. The West Yorkshire microbrewery Ilkley, to take one example, is fast becoming a macro the spectator | 6 August 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk operation: in two years its sales have risen by 500 per cent. British beer drinking is changing, it seems, and about time. For too long we have binged mindlessly on strong continental lager. Now we are thirsting for more local brews and subtler, less alcoholic tastes. So, while the rest of the economy sinks, at least we can drown our sorrows in real ale.