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Spain and Syria

January 15, 2012

In a typical column in the slow but steady (and, as far as I can tell now, futile) drumbeat for intervention in Syria, this line stood out to me:

As in the Spanish civil war, when Britain and France preached non-intervention while Hitler and Mussolini sent arms and men to help Franco’s fascists, so the “international community” does nothing in Syria today while Iran and Hezbollah pour in Shia troops to slaughter civilians. Contrary to Syrian state propaganda, Sunni terrorists from al-Qaida are not in Syria to fight back against the regime just yet. But I cannot see them staying out for long.

This analogy very stirring and convincing, except for what the course of European history tells us.

Nick Cohen is hardly the first writer – especially the first writer in support of a foreign intervention – to wave the bloody shirt of the Spanish Civil War as proof of the moral turpitude and geopolitical complaisance of non-interventionism. The late Christopher Hitchens was very fond of this trope, which owed something to Orwell and perhaps something else to his fondness for anti-Stalinist Marxism (and of course Orwell, who, fighting for POUM, was among the truly beleaguered participants who sought both an anti-fascist and anti-totalitarian Spain).

In a conversation with Ronald Radosh, Hitchens outlined the logic of Western (that is, non-Soviet anti-fascist) intervention in the Spanish Civil War. Radosh wrote an article claiming that, in the contest between a Stalinist-dominated Spanish Republican force and Franco’s fascist nationalism, ultimately the victory of Franco’s forces was a triumph of the lesser evil. Firstly, because the Falangistas were a much smaller part of the coalition than the genuine fascists and National Socialists were in the governments of Italy and Germany, Spain’s internal repression was less brutal than the example set by Stalinist or fascist/National Socialist governments. In other words, Radosh made the case that an authoritarian Franco was more bearable than a totalitarian Spanish state drained of its republican content. Naturally most on the left found this argument reprehensible, but and here is the key point – Hitchens agrees that a Stalinist Spain, the Spain that seemed set to emerge after the Soviet Union intervened in the war, would have been a monstrous state.

What he proposed instead was Franco-British intervention, on the side of the true, anti-totalitarian left (a category encompassing not just social democrats, anti-Stalinist Marxists, but anarchists as well). Why? Because it would have been a setback to “fascism”:

Yes, absolutely, by revolutionary war in Spain itself, and, which would have been harder to get, and it may be asking a lot to have both, but also by the democracies realizing they had a common interest in the defeat of fascism and in stopping its spread.

It means that in its military testing ground, Spain, fascism has had a military reverse, a big one. Hitler and Mussolini had both been shown to be weaker than was thought. I don’t think then you’d get the Munich Agreement, or the setup of Czechoslovakia. And the Munich Agreement and the setup of Czechoslovakia is the immediate and necessarily prelude, as Trotsky pointed out, to the Hitler-Stalin pact.

So if fascism had been given a bloody nose and a scorched and singed paw and forced to back out of Spain, then you can’t just assume the rest of history is going to be the same.

Hitchens assumes here that a defeat of fascism in Spain is a serious blow to fascists everywhere – and identifies non-intervention in Spain as the predecessor to the appeasement at Munich. In this assumption he echoes the views of many – Orwell among them – that attach undue material reality to the geopolitical agglomerations each ideological category supposes to represent. However, unpacking  these simplifications reveals a much more unpleasant reality.

But how much would a loss in Spain really have weakened the Axis? The British could bleed Napoleon in Spain because Napoleon chose to devote enormous amounts of blood and treasure to maintaining his grip on the country. Were Germany and Italy necessarily so committed? I think not. Hitler’s grand desires were the overthrow of Britain’s liberal naval empire and the creation of an autarkic, racially-pure European continental fortress (at least in the initial phase of his Tausend Jahre Reich). We already know how willing Hitler was to divert resources for his plans of conquest because we have records of his meeting at Hendaye, in October of 1940.

Spanish participation on the Axis side in World War II would have required not just the diversion of even more troops, equipment, and supplies to North Africa, but it also would have created problems with the management of Vichy France, which had its own qualms with Spanish designs in the region. The negotiations were a massive failure, and when Hitler requested permission to assault the British position at Gibraltar a few months later, Franco again denied him. The British were still too much of a threat to Spain, and Germany would not be able to offer adequate protection. To prove his resolve in the Mediterranean to reassure Spain, Hitler would have actually had to weaken his military power by diverting resources to Iberia – a choice, again, Germany (and beleaguered Italy, too) was unwilling to make.

This gets to the heart of the problem with the logic Hitchens presents for Western intervention in Spain – it is based on manipulating appearances, not realities. Munich did not occur because the West merely appeared weak and Germany appeared strong – the West really was weak. As I wrote in a previous post about the abuse of the Munich analogy, the West was hardly ready for waging an offensive military war against Hitler, nor is it abundantly clear that Hitler would consider the failure of the relatively trivial (compared to the troops being mustered in any of his other operations) forces in Spain to secure victory a dire setback to his plan for conquest.

Leaving aside the actual balance of military capabilities to stand up to Germany in 1938, which I outlined in that post, there is also the issue of whether or not the French and British publics themselves would have been willing to lend enough support for the Republic to let it win – and really, how much should they lend to a civil war, that, however noble, turned out to be no hindrance to the defeat of the Axis powers? There were many pro-nationalist, and especially anti-communist, politicians and members of the public in both France and Britain. The British Ambassador to Spain was pro-Franco. Anthony Eden preferred a nationalist victory to a Republican one. Most of the British political establishment was anti-communist, and France, though its political left – more so than Britain’s – desired support for the Republicans, ultimately worried about opening the ideological rifts in its own country and the rise of the French right.

Far from invigorating the West against the Axis, intervention in the Spanish Civil War would have met domestic opposition both from those ideologically sympathetic to Franco, those incredibly fearful of a pro-Soviet regime in Western Europe and by a major British strategic chokepoint, and from those simply fearful of war. Even a successful intervention could have complicated future efforts to oppose more dangerous Axis threats. Indeed, opposition to intervention could have even led to its outright failure.

Hitchens also assumed that the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 could have been avoided (indirectly, from avoiding Munich). But the very plan interventionists in the Spanish Civil War propose could easily have led to a major rift between Paris, London, and Moscow. A Spain of the non-Stalinist left would have required deliberately undermining Moscow’s designs in the country and the purging of its sympathizers from the ranks of the Spanish Republicans. Negotiating the complex politics of intervening in Spain would, at the very least, have severely complicated building domestic Western support for the war, and likely have soured relations between the USSR and the West anyway, in addition to opening the potential of a second Spanish Civil War whereby the anti-Stalinist forces clashed with Stalinist ones.

This long diversion is actually quite relevant to the debates about intervention today. Cohen’s piece trots out tropes we can see in the advocacy Hitchens made, and the advocacy of contemporary pro-intervention intellectuals. Just as Hitchens asserted that only Western intervention on the side of the anti-Stalinist left in Spain could have headed off the ugly choice between Stalinism and Franco, Cohen asserts that only Western intervention can prevent Syria from either becoming a haven for terrorists or remaining under the iron fist of the Assad regime.

The same problems that would make negotiating the complex internal dynamics of the Spanish Republicans a major diplomatic challenge alongside the military challenge of defeating Franco would be noxious to successful intervention in Syria. As the Spanish Civil War demonstrated, preventing a faction you are allied to out of convenience from taking power cannot be ensured without coercion. The pro-Moscow left and Spain, and their Soviet backers, did not ensure their ascendancy within the Republican faction merely by being nice and showing up, it was done with actual purges and show trials.

Additionally, the faction we support may not be quite as amenable to the intervening power’s interests as the interventionists assume it is. While there were undoubtedly members of the left with bona fide democratic commitments in the Spanish Republican ranks, the anti-Stalinist Marxists and anarchist forces may not have been particularly interested in advancing the agenda of Britain and France (and the anarchists, too, could have also run Spain into some other kind of ruin). As Libya demonstrated, the prerogatives of our supported faction will likely change once they have the task of actually running the country, and, less dependent on their foreign backers, they might also be less deferential to their interests. ICC fugitive from justice Omar al-Bashir’s visit to Libya, and Libya’s resistance to pressure to bring him to justice, should surprise nobody. Libya is a sovereign country again, and it is attempting to rebuild regional ties with a major regional player who was also an opponent of Gaddafi.

Furthermore, who’s to say that even in a free Syria, terrorism would not find a foothold anyway? Why would a fledgling Syrian democracy with a fragile governing coalition and a weak grip on the instruments of state power be able to better suppress groups such as al Qaeda and other extremists than Assad’s regime? Al Qaeda banners have flown up in Libya despite the Libyan government’s relatively pro-Western bona fides and democratic outlook. Just as it was far from clear that the Spanish Republicans were worth a war to support, it is far from clear that the Syrian oppositions, or the prospects of post-war Syria, are worth a war to support.

That is because the decision to intervene is not merely a simple moral question about whether or not the would-be enemy is morally noxious and does not deserve to win. Of course Assad was noxious, just as the Falange was, and of course Assad does not deserve to stay in power, just as Franco did not deserve to win. However, these moral questions are hardly sufficient to make the case for intervention. Intervention should be a tool of serving national interests, not an instrument of international political karma. Intervention into a complex civil war, where our preferred faction may succumb to co-belligerents almost (or even more) ideologically opposed to us than our common enemy, can never be a simple referendum on whether or not a given leader is evil.

Ultimately, the Spanish Civil War’s loss was far less a burden on the Allies’ war against the Axis than an intervention in Spain would likely have been. With no guarantee that the factions the Allies preferred would have come into power, and the distinct possibility they would have exchanged one kind of tyranny for another, one can fault their judgments and logic but ultimately not their decision. Far from being proof of a simple conflict where the choice to intervene was obvious, the Spanish Civil War was an extraordinarily complex conflict occurring in the context of a much larger, and much more serious danger of world war for which the Allies were hardly prepared. The situation today is less dire, but the case for Western military intervention in Syria, when the potential outcomes of success are so uncertain, is hardly any more obvious.

Notably, whenever the Spanish Civil War is invoked nowadays, it is to muster foreign state-led intervention. But states cannot merely be moral judges of other states’ activity, indeed, states must moderate their ideological distaste for their sovereign peers with the considerations of pragmatism and the national interest that promote the well-being of their own peoples. Individuals who found their country’s decision abhorrent and were willing to risk their lives, even though the government had determined their lives were not worth risking, went to Spain and fought on their own. Despite the invocation of the Spanish Civil War to justify interventions in Iraq and Syria, nobody I have seen has yet used it to justify or rally volunteer forces to fight against foreign tyranny. However noble these men were, however, Paris and London correctly calculated there was nothing at stake in Spain, nor any conditions of victory certain enough, worth the lives of those who had not already chosen to fight there. If anything, the Spanish Civil War is an example of why a conflict which seemed black-and-white from a distance is far more complex under scrutiny.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2012 8:52 pm

    Why don’t we see volunteers from the West going to Syria to fight the Assad regime, as volunteers from e.g. Britain and the U.S. went to fight on the Republican side (and a smaller number on the other side) in the Spanish Civil War? One reason, I would hazard, is that the fight against Franco was seen as — and in fact was — part of a global struggle against fascism, whereas to fight Assad is to fight against a tyrant, but not to fight against an ideological movement bent on spreading its form of govt over the world. Plus the domestic politics in Syria are if anything more complicated and opaque than they were in the Spanish case.

    On another issue, re the post’s invocations of ‘the nat’l interest’: I know what you’re driving at here but don’t think the phrase all that helpful. Advocates of intervention will doubtless claim that their preferred course is in the nat’l interest. Contra some theorists, ‘the nat’l interest’ is not an objectively discoverable thing. But I agree w the post’s conclusion that intervention is not justified.


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