Yesterday I was out-and-about and only caught snatches of David Cameron’s statement on the subject of extending the UK’s current bombing of ISIS targets in Iraq to Syria, either ‘live’ or subsequently on news/current affairs programmes.
I’m neither a hawk nor a peacenik by inclination but – without any general or specific desire to sit on every available fence – I’m bound to say I’m in two minds on this topic. Or, to put it another way, to an extent I can see both sides of the argument.
As I drove home last night listening to various politicians being interviewed on the radio, I was struck by the uniformly thoughtful logic of each of them, whether they were firmly ‘pro’ bombing ISIS targets in Syria, firmly ‘agin’ doing so, or simply at the moment either waiting to hear more about the details – or wishing to spend more time thinking the issues over – before making a final decision.
I don’t mind admitting that, from this distance beyond, the process by which the British first got involved in Afghanistan kind of passes me by. I don’t remember the circumstances in which the decision got taken, well save that it was a quest to take out Al Qaeda – who were either in league with the Taliban or they weren’t – in the wake of the 9/11 Twin Towers’ attack.
Iraq I am rather clearer about. I was resoundingly in favour of the invasion but only because Tony Blair gave one of his best Commons performances in setting out the case for war and I found the ‘evidence’ he presented compelling. I didn’t know then – how could any of us have known – what we all know now about the ‘dodgy dossier’ and/or the fact that Saddam Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction that could hit British targets (whether these were in the UK or Cyprus is now something upon which I’m a bit hazy these days) within ’45 minutes’. But I can remember being pretty impressed with this assertion at the time and certainly felt that getting rid of the psychopathic Iraqi president would be a genuinely ‘good thing’. If I had given any thought at all to the vexed question of ‘what should come next’ – and that is probably debateable – I guess I was sufficiently naïve to imagine that, with the tyrant gone, Iraq would automatically morph into some sort of modern (Westernised democracy-style) version of its ancient and much venerated civilisation.
What did I know then? (What do I know now?). I’m much wiser in 2015, having listened to innumerable military grandees and fluent pundits working in the field over the past decade stress how ‘winning a war’ is one thing (and that’s before one addresses what exactly constitutes a war won) but securing a lasting worthwhile peace is quite another.
I doubt whether anyone these days would ever seriously challenge the proposition that the Western allies made a Grade A hash of dealing with the ‘aftermath’ in Iraq. You only have to look at the mess it’s currently in to recognise that.
I watched the 2013 Commons debate over going into Syria via a bombing campaign to support the anti-Government forces with great interest but little personally invested in what the outcome might be. The biggest thing I took away from the fact the Coalition government lost the vote was nothing to do with the result, but what I thought was the rather impressive manner in which David Cameron took it. He presumably had to bite his lip hard to disguise what must have been his annoyance/frustration/embarrassment at the outcome, but he publicly and humbly ‘bent the knee’ to the concept of the sovereignty of Parliament and indicated that in the short/medium term he would respect the decision and act accordingly.
However, after yesterday, as indicated I’m undecided about joining the ‘coalition of the willing’ which is currently bombing the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa.
The issue of whether the UK should do so isn’t black and white and I guess there are few wars or military actions in history that have been. The way things generally happen is that circumstances conspire, or somehow build up, then someone in ultimate authority takes the decision and – as they say – ‘once the first shot is fired, everything thereafter is chaos’. And, of course, in the field of war the winners write the histories.
Inevitably the dangers of joining the bombing coalition against ISIS are that ultimately nobody wins anything by bombing, by which I mean in the sense that the war definitely ends. You need boots on the ground for that. But whose boots? Wars are seldom won via a points decision awarded by judges. As often as not they either peter out when both sides have exhausted their military effort and/or populations have become fed up with being at war.
By the same token you cannot go to war half-heartedly. The only goal when you go to war is to win. So to take a view ‘We’ll bomb, but we won’t fight on the ground – someone else has got to do that’ is a huge hostage to fortune. The only way you can prosecute a war properly (in the sense of being in control of your destiny) is to do everything yourself.
In this instance, even assuming the bombing is tied in with boots on the ground (let’s leave whose boots we’re talking about for the sake of this example), what happens next? Well, getting rid of current Syrian president Bashar al-Assad might be the next desired ambition, but then Russia for one is actually supporting him, not least in his fight against the rebels that the West is supporting.
Can you, should you, go to war with the aim of obliterating ISIS when you don’t yet have a clear idea, still less one you can bring forward as certain and agreed by all parties, of what happens next?
Cameron seems to be arguing that it’s a case of ‘one thing at a time’ – let’s stamp out ISIS and then turn our minds to everything else.
Against that, those still harbouring doubts have all-too-vivid and intractable examples of Afghanistan and Iraq to cite.
But if you’re going to wait until every last detail, every ‘I’ has been dotted, every ‘t’ crossed, before you can take military action, you might be consigning the UK to twenty years of fraught negotiations … by which time it might be fair to assume that somehow, via some route, the Syrian problem will probably have disappeared anyway.
To get involved, or not – that is the question.
Or maybe not – maybe it’s rather a case of ‘to be, or not to be’ …