A terrible thing, to be torn. Last Sunday was International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, a very painful condition affecting the nether regions of women who have just given birth. I very much wished to observe the occasion in some way, but Sunday was also World Turtle Day, which naturally commended itself to me as well. Having thought about it, my hope was that those suffering from obstetric fistulae and the turtles might put aside whatever differences they may have and waddle together in a show of unity and I could commend them both at the same time.
Better still, however, would have been if last Sunday had been designated International Day to Bomb Minsk. I sometimes feel that the people who choose what stuff to campaign about tend to miss the bigger picture. Turtles etc are all very worthy but liberals (for it is always liberals who decide these things) need to focus a little bit, get themselves better acquainted with reality. Worried though I am about obstetric fistulae and all forms of marine reptile, I am more worried right now about our own sclerosis and lack of will when it comes to threats from rogue states which we might, if we were tempted, call fascist. In general, when faced with these threats we do nothing. We have become, I think, too comfortable to do anything but appease and appease. The only country which the liberal West gets worked up about is Israel — itself a liberal democracy that has been attempting to defend itself against the genocidal terrorists of Hamas.
A MiG fighter from Belarus intercepted a civilian Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius and threatened to shoot it down unless it diverted to Minsk airport. The MiG pilot informed the Ryanair pilot that he had been given permission to open fire, i.e. this was not a rogue act but one sanctioned by the Belarus president, Alexander Lukashenko. After the plane landed in Minsk, Belarus thugs boarded it and dragged off the young journalist Roman Protasevich, who apparently informed a fellow passenger that he expected to receive the death penalty.
Our response to this hijacking and threat to civilian life has been one of tearful, unrequited pique. We have told the Belarusians that we are really, really, cross and that our airplanes will no longer fly over their benighted, marsh-ridden country. Well, I bet that’s told old Lukashenko.
Both he and his puppeteers in Moscow are laughing at us: they know we will do nothing. Meanwhile, in great seriousness, we are convening to ‘consider’ what else might reasonably be done that doesn’t frighten the horses. Eventually, somewhere down the line, we may impose sanctions which restrict the import of chives to Belarus, long after Protasevich has been tortured in his cell. The United Nations will be too busy debating the latest resolution against Israel to wield even its flimsy, ineffectual weight.
There will of course be no protests in the West about Lukashenko — once again for protesters, only imagined and anti-Semitic falsehoods about Israel really capture their imagination. Transnational repression will continue with impunity. How do I know this? Because it is what has happened every time before. In the liberal West we flex our muscles only to punish some militarily weak Arab tyrant or deranged ragtag Islamist militia. Against the real enemies, we back down.
We did nothing when Russia bullied Georgia and did nothing again when Putin annexed the Crimea. When China herds thousands of its own citizens into concentration camps, we do nothing — any more than we take decisive action when, contrary to agreements, Hong Kong is deprived of its semblance of independence. We look a bit miffed when Vladimir Putin tries to kill people in Britain, such as Alexander Litvinenko or Sergei Skripal, but in the end we do nothing. When China menaces Taiwan and tells our close ally Australia that it is ‘insignificant’ and first in line to be ‘hit’, we do nothing.
The Belarus incident, though, was of even graver import: citizens of our own countries threatened with murder by a tyrant if they didn’t accede to his demands. And here’s the problem: Lukashenko knew we would do nothing, because doing nothing is, in the end, what we always do. The authoritarian Asian bullies — Russia, China, Turkey — know we have no stomach. We’ll moan a bit and impose a few sanctions and then give up the ghost.
This is an existentially dangerous mindset and occasioned by a terror of standing up for what we believe in — which is democracy and the rule of law. Back in the early 1950s, President Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles addressed this problem. Small but grotesque infractions by ideological opponents are allowed to continue because we don’t want to get in a fight over what might seem a ‘trivial’ issue, such as the hijacking of a civilian plane and the arrest of one of its passengers. And so we look the other way for a while, and keep looking the other way — until it is too late. That was Dulles’s assessment and I make him right. Appeasement works just fine. But only for a while.
What to do about Belarus? Until Protasevich has been released and the country has admitted its crime, ban every plane into or out of Belarus from the airspace of every European or North American country, on pain of being shot down. Hack their useless IT networks and give them power cuts. Treat Lukashenko as the US treated Osama bin Laden: put a price on his head, threaten and menace him. Make sure there are plenty of military on the Lithuanian border. Isolate Belarus. And then let’s see who blinks first.