Complexity is so often the province of the wicked and the disingenuous. There is, after all, nothing like a bit of well orchestrated confusion to distract people from what you really want to achieve, or what you really stand for. It is unsurprising, then, that the debate about what to do in Syria and Iraq continues to harbour far too many unsavoury arguments, full of euphemism and sloppy thinking. While this might be to the satisfaction of a “connoisseur of ‘Yes Minister’ prose”, as Denis Healey once put it, it has profoundly stultified our debate. High time to herald in the self-proclaimed ‘New Politics’ and wash away some of the nonsensical chaff from the great foreign policy challenge of the decade.
It is trite to observe that after Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the toxic fumes of failed interventions hang obstinately over Western political discourse. The general failure of these interventions to instill anything like stable, humane and democratic governments in place of those whose behaviour motivated the interventions, continues to inform a general reservation- or, perhaps, resentment- towards the possibility of further incursions into foreign conflicts. Now, so far as these reservations involve subjecting arguments in favour of military action to the most exacting scrutiny, they are undoubtedly sound. Military excursions are, to recite the old cliché, a ‘last resort’, and any sentiment allowing them to be treated as such is, of course, welcome. But tragically, and lethally so far as many in Iraq and Syria are concerned, this attitude of general conservatism to entering conflicts has grown from beneficent companion into malignant tumour. No longer, it seems, are many people interested in distilling from the disastrous campaigns of the past the reasons for their failure. On the contrary, the fact of their disaster is seemingly enough. That certain interventions were generally disastrous becomes the premise for the conclusion that interventions are generally disastrous. The logic of this position is tantamount to never swimming again after once getting water in your eyes. Why not just wear a pair of goggles?
Understandable though it is, the cynical tut-tutting of the sighing pub patron cannot hold sway over the conduct of our foreign affairs. A bland reference to Iraq or Libya and then the conclusion ‘therefore not Syria’, is the stuff of high school debaters and ‘Stop the War’ placards, not serious politicians. This might seem an obvious point, yet its pervasive and unjustified longevity warrants its mention and dispatch. The crude analogy drawn between Iraq or Libya and a potential Syrian intervention must go. ‘Iraq’, ‘Blair’, ‘Bush’ and ‘WMDs’ should not be treated as valid reasons against further interventions; they are visceral responses to complex problems. Enough said, frankly.
So far, so good. The crude analogy of Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2010 is not to be made by fiat with the current crises in Iraq and Syria. The next argument, of considerable utility to those opposed to intervention, is not so easily characterised. Part of the reason why, I think, the argument (or arguments) eludes easy characterisation, is because its makers wish it, where possible, to operate only tacitly. The reason it is deployed only tacitly- or perhaps, even by subterfuge- is linked for the most part to the ferocity and the frequency with which it is criticised. The argument, or the position, is not new to the debate of the past five or so years. Over the ages, it has appeared under various appellations and in various manifestations, each as undistinguished as the other. While its various forms admit of nuances and in some instances wholesale differences, I suggest there is enough commonality to warrant their mention in the same breath. This is pacifism; it is moral relativism; it is contained in the apparent axiom ‘they wouldn’t behave so badly if we hadn’t gotten involved’; it is, in other words and in its least desirable form, appeasement. Before entering onto its substantive merits, I must record that it is no new phenomenon. While I regard many of the opposition (mainly Labour) MPs as being motivated by strands of these arguments in voting against Mr Cameron’s motion to sanction airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria, this unwillingness to engage with foreign despots in the hope that they can be negotiated with, or that their rules will run their course or evaporate, is by no means a Labour phenomenon. We would do well to recall the tarnished name Lord Halifax; the aryan penchant of King Edward VIII; the position in its conservative form. While those two names are two of the most disreputable- and unfortunately influential- occasions of its presence, it cannot be forgotten that it permeated much of the Tory party in the 1930s. It reared its head in the United States during the second World War and disastrously delayed American participation in the Balkan interventions of the 1990s. Its appeal transcends political parties and continues to ramshackle efforts to ameliorate the suffering of millions in Syria and Iraq.
Like an eerie shapeshifter the attitude has found a new form. Rather than hide behind the selfish cries of ‘national interest’, it finds voice in the rather tepid and ostensibly humane euphemism of a ‘political and diplomatic solution’. This phrase- or, as I will now suggest, platitude- was the climactic line of the chorus of the anti-interventionists in the recent Commons debate. After expressing legitimate skepticism about the specificity, factual reliability and general coherence of the government’s case for dispatching the RAF, many of the dissentient MPs- of whom I will take Mr Corbyn as a useful representative- then implored the government to seek a ‘political and diplomatic solution’ to the crisis. In what form they expected this option to be pursued remains unclear. But rather than further the argument, vague references to ‘local forces’ or ‘regional powers’ merely underlined its unrealism. How exactly is ISIS to be negotiated with? How can local forces withstand a rampant ISIS without Western military support? How can regional powers reach a settlement with an expressly expansionist group, blind to existing borders and attempting to establish a caliphate at (literally) all costs? These are all questions not adequately addressed by those who righteously marched through the opposition lobby.
In the absence of a not insignificant change in ISIS’s modus operandi, it is impossible to construe the constant pleas for a political and diplomatic solution as anything other than veiled pacifism, handwringing isolationism and callous appeasement. Now, it is certainly true that important differences exist between a particular instance of isolationism (perhaps motivated by strategic considerations) and full-blown, Jeremy Corbyn-esque pacifism. It might be thought that some of the opposition to British participation in a coalition against ISIS, in its currently proposed form, is predicated on a good faith belief that no material advantage would be made to the anti-ISIS cause by RAF strikes. Or perhaps a belief that attempts to bomb ISIS into submission or oblivion would so unsettle the region or alter the power dynamics as to worsen the prospects for relative peace and stability. Such a position obviously differs from a deep pacifist conviction, which if transparently expressed, would make no attempt to reject war on the basis of factual considerations, but would simply oppose it in principle. I suggest, however, that there is little or no difference in this context between those purporting to base their opposition to airstrikes on factual considerations and the unashamed pacifist. More pointedly though, the disingenuous subterfuge by which an essential pacifism is disguised as strategic opposition to bombing has been most notably perpetrated by the bearded Messiah of the New Politics, Mr Corbyn.
After the unintellectual analogy between previous failed interventions and the present bombing in Syria and Iraq, the disingenuous ‘strategic’ opposition to bombing- the preference for a ‘political and diplomatic’ solution- is the second great orchestrated confusion of the current debate. Mr Corbyn, whose pacifism is undoubted, is the clearest case of this disgraceful manoeuvre. For instance, when pressed by Andrew Marr as to whether he could envisage circumstances in which he would favour military action, Mr Corbyn was unable to answer. Instead, he retreated to that classic political safe-house: the allegation that the question was ‘hypothetical’. As ever, the response to this is to invade the safe-house by replying, ‘so what?’. When Mr Marr simply pressed on, Mr Corbyn delicately changed the subject, in a manner strangely reminiscent of the ‘old politics’. How very odd. In any event, his real views remained unarticulated. Unveiled though he was, Mr Corbyn continued his insincere march in his contribution to the Commons debate. Repeatedly asserting that ‘the case for war is not made out’, he stressed the lack of evidence for the government’s contention of there being 70,000 secular (or otherwise kosher) fighters, whose causes the airstrikes were designed to advance. Moreover, he queried the need for British participation in a coalition which already included France, the United States and Russia, and seemingly invoked the alleged lack of a coherent diplomatic strategy for resolution of the crisis as a further reason for not assenting to bombing. One might note that none of these propositions resembles the pacifist attitude which Mr Corbyn so clearly harbours.
Since opposition speeches to the motion were replete with variants of these arguments, they require careful consideration. As averted to above, they rest on such flimsy foundations that it is difficult to regard them as other than unconfident pleas for appeasement. The issue about the approximate number of moderate fighters present in Syria was the subject of much debate. While, of course, the government must be put to proof on every aspect of its case for war, whether this tentative figure ought to justify opposition to airstrikes- per Corbyn and many of his colleagues- is quite another matter. In his duly lauded, though not morally profound speech, Hilary Benn addressed precisely this point. A vote against airstrikes in Syria, said Mr Benn, would simply grant ISIS more unfettered a theatre in which to further deplete the number of moderate fighters. Therefore, he rightly concluded, if the objection to intervention now was premised on an unjustifiably low number of moderate local assistants, then the chances of any subsequent intervention would, on this theory, be practically nil. So, save for the unlikely event of a great increase in the number of moderate rebels, those like Mr Corbyn whose opposition to intervention was partially based on the apparently insufficiently large rebel force, were effectively committing themselves to absolute abstention. Since it is rather implausible that many (or any) of the dissentient MPs opposed the motion on the assumption that fresh moderate rebels were soon to arrive, here we have clear evidence of the second big fudge. Appeasement and pacifism dwelling in the shadows.
A further alternative to airstrikes- floated at many a Prime Minister’s Questions and during the Commons debate- was the non-violent suffocation of ISIS’s trade routes and the resulting cut in its funding. We’ll call this position ‘austerity abroad’. Favoured by practically all MPs, and legitimately so, the purport of the plan was to pursue and penalise any financial institutions found in receipt of funds tainted by the black hand of ISIS. Not only would ISIS be prevented from accumulating and storing funds key to its success, but (unspecified) trade barriers would be erected in order to starve them of fuel and other such military necessities. This is all entirely sensible. Opening the lethal cargo hold of bombers at 40,000 feet cannot be the only game at the party, and so an effective and sustainable military effort requires the targeting of financial and commercial assets, which poison the roots as well as prune the branches. Cogent and practical though this is, it is wrong to regard it as an alternative to rather than a substitute for military force. Indeed, the success of airstrikes attests to the contrary. Coalition bombing in Northern Iraq was integral to the Kurdish pesh merga’s retaking of Kobani. Its importance need only be ascertained by reading the comments of those very forces. If any further proof of effectiveness was needed, just today Iraqi forces- aided by coalition airstrikes- have fought their way back into parts of central Ramadi. Another welcome advance for civilisation. Not only were these gains only immediately achievable by force, but nothing prevents their coexistence with financial or other sanctions. Limiting the movement of ISIS associates across the Turkish border and deregistering banks willing to accept tainted funds are perfectly possible to implement while the RAF and others usher in an end to medieval barbarity over the skies of Syria.
There was far too strong a stench, however, that no matter how bereft of logic or untainted by realism the arguments against airstrikes were, their propounders were simply averse to the sound of a Tornado’s engine and unacquainted with the occasional necessity of death. For while borne of noble motives, the pleas for a political solution to ISIS’s continued expansion fell so remarkably foul of the naked reality of their ideology. While members opposed to the Commons motion so carefully stressed their repugnance of ISIS’s operations and the need to effect an end to that group’s terror, the correct apprehension of ISIS’s nature gradually evaporated as those 223 members trudged into the opposition lobby. Assuming their sincerity, these MPs presumably thought that the habitual stoning of gays, total rejection of the independence and value of women and the torture and mass murder of thousands, were all matters that the jihadists could be persuaded to discontinue after a good long chat around a table in Switzerland. Would the same have been said about the Hutus? Or Milosevic? The famously skilled Foreign Office negotiators would indeed earn their keep if Mohammed’s men could be induced to behave more like the Beaconsfield Women’s Institute. All the fanatical proclamations of the restoration of a Caliphate and the subjugation of all those who disagreed, seem simply to have been construed by opponents of the intervention as temporary preferences, or contorted expressions of underlying socio-economic grievances. These sentiments were rarely articulated, but the disjuncture in logic between a recognition of ISIS’s barbarity and a vote against airstrikes seems otherwise inexplicable.
That ISIS is capable of changing from wolf to Bambi seems, therefore, to be the great unarticulated premise of the isolationists; the self-dubbed ‘humanitarians’. It is the third concocted confusion of the current debate. While this is not the place to launch any sustained campaign against pacifism, appeasement or isolationism, I hope to have made their continued influence clear. Since so much of the reported opposition to the current Operation Shader issues from Mr Corbyn and his comrades at ‘Stop the War’, I end with a passing shot. When Michael Foot- regarded by some as St John the Baptist to the Messiah, Mr Corbyn- was asked what he would have done had Halifax surrendered to Hitler, he gave the following reply. “I would”, he said, “have killed him”. Blessed with far more realism that he is credited for, Mr Foot understood the harsh realities of politics. We must allow Death to pay a speedy visit to some. Mr Corbyn, and many, many others must take note, lest they are to become the Guilty Men of our age.