If, like me, you find it fitfully amusing that every new threat regardless of its potency must always be described as the most deadly and worst since the year dot, you'll find a lot to delight you in UNSC Resolution 2249. Passed unanimously last weekend and drafted principally by the French in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, it's an absolute classic of the genre. It is after all one thing for a idiot politician playing to the gallery to declare Islamic State to be a bigger threat to international peace and security than Hitler/Napoleon/Genghis Khan/Black Death/the discovery of fire, and quite another for the UN Security Council to agree and declare that anyone and everyone if they feel like it can join in the fun of chucking high explosives at "an evil death cult".
As that's what 2249 does. It really does say that Islamic State "constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security". Global? Unprecedented? Islamic State and its fighters might slaughter anyone they feel like and draw recruits from a wide variety of nations, but are they really a major threat to Japan, say, or your pick of any one of the South American nations? Yes, they've executed hostages from China and Japan, but a threat?
When it comes to unprecedented, on what reading of history exactly? Are we talking since the creation of the UN or going further back? Islamic State is a threat, certainly, but far more of one to the Middle East than anywhere else. It was only able to expand as it has thanks to the failures of governance in Iraq and Syria; it calls itself a state and tries to operate as one but no state can last long when it has little real popular support and projects its power through violence. It can send cells of supporters into democracies to launch attacks, and yet such tactics will bring its demise closer. The threat might paradoxically in its death throes increase, as it loses ground and its safe havens, and the threat will likely not be extinguished entirely as another group drawing on the same ideology will rise, but Islamic State itself can be defeated. The threat is only unprecedented if you have no knowledge whatsoever of the past, and crucially, if you want it to be such.
And politicians do want it to be so. It's why the resolution also calls on "Member States that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures", the UN's traditional euphemism for military action. Whether that precisely makes our proposed joining in with the bombing legal or not is up for debate, although for most politicians that would be more than enough. Indeed, Cameron and friends have been declaring that action without a UN resolution would be legal as it would be in self-defence. That's based on an extremely broad reading of what constitutes self-defence, but then state sovereignty has been in retreat for some time, or at least has for states that aren't in the free world. If anyone is worried about the plethora of countries that are involved or have been in bombing Islamic State, which is currently in double figures and might well at some point go beyond the 20 mark, then they aren't yet. Come on down everyone, eastern Syria is so bracing!
Syria is the ultimate conclusion of the insanity of Western foreign policy post 9/11. Taking the worst aspects of 80s foreign policy, which was to pick on a shithole nation and either supply and arm murdering bandits, for which see Nicaragua, or bomb it/invade it, for which see Tripoli/Grenada and combining it with the liberal interventionism of the 90s, not a single country the US/UK has bombed is a better place for it. If you want an example of when intervention does work, you could look at Mali, but as last weekend demonstrated problems remain even there. Syria is the culmination of the initial mistake of invading Iraq, the mistakes made post-invasion, and mistakes made since the uprising against Bashar Assad. This is not to say we are overwhelmingly responsible, as we are not. We might have created the conditions in which a group like Islamic State could flourish, but we didn't force the Iraqi Shia to persecute the Sunnis to the point where a substantial minority if not majority would ally with IS. We did not invent the jihadist way of thinking, even if at times we sponsored groups that subscribed to it and have had a major role in the spreading of the ideology.
Without wanting to speak for those with similar views to mine, what I suspect most of us want is recognition, however slight, that we are here in part because of those mistakes. I don't want an apology, although others might; I want our policy going forward to be informed by those mistakes. To an extent, some lessons have been learned, as was proved in Libya. Rather than try and rebuild a state we smashed, we left as soon as Gaddafi was dead. Enjoy your liberation, we're off now. We went from one extreme to another, with predictable results when Gaddafi was the state, as the Ba'ath in Iraq was the state and Assad in Syria is also the state.
It's also true that Iraq/Afghanistan have rightly made us wary of "putting boots on the ground". That is an undoubted positive, as it's what groups like IS want more than anything else. What we have not learned is that a secular dictator is in some cases preferable to the chaos of what comes after. This doesn't mean we should have supported Mubarak in Egypt for instance, or have acquiesced to the military coup which overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood, but that a feeble and contained Gaddafi is preferable to the civil war that has followed there. In the face of IS and al-Nusra as well as all the other jihadist and Islamist groupings in Syria, demanding Assad leave immediately as we have been for years now has been a madness. Yes, to an extent Assad has enabled those groups through his butchery, and there is an extremely arguable case that if we had intervened early in the uprising much of the carnage could have been avoided. This overlooks however that it was not long before the Islamist rebels dominated the opposition, and that the cash from the Sunni Gulf states which subsequently went to those rebels would have without doubt gone to political parties instead with much the same views. Seeing Syria as purely a civil conflict is too simplistic - it is a regional, proxy conflict.
At the same time we should take a step back and consider what would have happened had we intervened against Assad in 2013. As Flying Rodent tweeted, no one seems to think it odd that a mere two years later we must now urgently target the very force that would have benefited most had we intervened. Discount the idea we were merely going to chuck bombs at a range of targets in retaliation for the Ghouta attacks, as that made no sense then and even less now. It would have been Libya a second time, with likely co-ordination with rebels on the ground. Whether or not IS would have taken complete control is arguable, but a scenario where the jihadists even if fighting each other are in majority control would be the all but certain outcome. Difficult as it is to imagine, the potential for further ethnic cleansing, even genocide and for more refugees fleeing than have already would have been massive.
Are our politicians grateful they were prevented from making that horrific mistake? No, because they care far more about their own prestige and "our standing" in the world than such things. Matthew d'Ancona informed us a few weeks ago of how Cameron and friends would never forgive Miliband for inadvertently stopping their march to war. George Osborne yesterday told Andrew Marr that bombing IS is less about destroying the group and more about ourselves: "whether we want to shape the world or be shaped by the world", the chancellor claiming we had "retreated into ourselves a bit" after Iraq and the economic crash. Buying the most useless and most expensive military aircraft ever created is about "projecting power abroad in order to defend ourselves at home". It's no use whatsoever against non-state actors, the biggest threat we face and will continue to face according to the strategic defence review, but we must project our power in order to defend ourselves.
What the proposed war against IS comes down to in the end is our perceived standing in the world, our relationships with our allies, the vanity of politicians, and the one remaining way in which they can sell themselves to the voters. Not bombing IS when every other major nation is just can't be allowed. We must do something, even if it's completely negligible militarily. We must be seen to be reliable, to not shrink into ourselves, to not be feeble, like the spineless Corbyn. A P5 nation not involved in the struggle against "a global and unprecedented threat", one that has killed British citizens, even if not yet in Britain itself? It's just unthinkable. At the same time, Cameron could not possibly endure the humiliation of being defeated by the Commons for a second time on such a vote, and so it will only go ahead when the government is certain it can win, and by a sizeable majority. It doesn't matter how bogus the arguments and justifications are for our involvement, especially the idea that by bombing IS in Syria we will reduce the threat to the UK when the opposite is more realistic, so long as they are made repeatedly and with force.
Lastly, there's the old Adam Curtis Power of Nightmares thesis. Politicians have abandoned so much else which they used to control to either the markets or regulators. They claim not to be able to buck the market in order to save jobs. They can claim to have restored economic security and credibility until the next crash arrives. What they can still do is pledge to protect us. It doesn't matter if the wars they've fought in order to protect us have demonstrably, objectively made us less safe, as there is always a new threat more serious than the last about to come along. It doesn't matter if they restrict civil liberties or want the ability to see our every interaction online as long as they say it's to stop terrorists in their tracks. So long as we are acting elsewhere in order to stop the war from coming home, it doesn't matter. It worked for over 10 years in Afghanistan. It will undoubtedly work with Syria too.
Labels: David Cameron, foreign policy, George Osborne, Iraq, Islamic State, Labour, Paris attacks, politics, Syria, terrorism, United Nations