The vote on whether to begin a bombing campaign in Syria was won by the government last night, by a decisive majority.
The vote had been preceded by a near 11-hour debate, with 15 minutes time-slots allocated to MPs. Very near the end of the debate spoke Hillary Benn, Shadow Foreign Secretary, giving a speech that drew unconventional applause in the chamber of the House of Commons. It was a speech given with sufficient power and emotion to have persuaded some wavering MPs to change their voting intentions.
Lots has been said and written about the internal machinations of the Labour Party, of how Hillary Benn’s own father was idolised by the man who now leads the party, the very same man with whom he now so publicly disagrees. Or how the speech by Benn was the epitome of parliamentary spectacle, confirmation that the mother of parliaments is not an anachronism, but an institution whose members are still capable of gravitas when the occasion demands it.
These are diverting enough topics for the commentariat, but a much more serious matter is the subject of Benn’s speech, not its Westminster ramifications. That, of course, was the decision of whether to take military action or not.
Benn made his case in a convincing manner. The emotional, heart-rending way in which he recounted the horrific and deplorable crimes of IS reminded all those listening of the seriousness of the situation.
The central contention of his speech was clear: to not ‘do our bit’ was to be passive in the face of a threat, it was to become modern-day appeasers, well-meaning but ultimately not willing to take the necessary action.
It is the notion of action itself – as defined by Benn – with which I take exception.
Very liberal interventionalism
Over the last 100 years, British military involvement in the middle east is the rule, rather than the exception. The post-WW2 period of decolonialisation coincided exactly with the Cold War, which determined the nature of international relations for the period 1947-1991.
With the collapse of Communism in the eastern bloc came the possibility of a new international politics, of a new foreign policy. This how the Labour Party could be elected in 1997 with the stated aim of implementing a new ethical foreign policy. The new world order meant new possibilities, and dreams of a civilised community of sovereign nations.
Instead history stubbornly refused to end, and those intra- and inter-national conflicts that had been subdued by Cold War power politics re-emerged suddenly and unexpectedly. The bewildering and brutal conflict in the former Yugoslavia typified this failure of the Liberal-Capitalist vision of a new international harmony. Newly liberated Europeans did not behave as they were expected, or desired, to.
How to deal with the new and discomforting realities of internecine civil wars, ethnic genocides and failed states? The doctrine of liberal interventionalism was born. The antidote to political confusion, apparently, was the precision targeting of ‘smart’ bombs. The bomber and his bombs became the answer to the question: ‘what to do’? This was the action required to bust bunkers, or ‘degrade and destroy’ one’s enemies. The enemy is stong? Bomb their strongholds. Want to ‘kill the bastards’? Bomb their heartlands.
This is the point at which we find ourselves now. There are terror threats against the UK, and our neighbours in France have suffered the visitation of death on their capital’s streets. The question has been posed. And so comes the response: bomb, bomb, bomb.
Bombs / away
But these bombing sorties are not action at all, they are a political inaction. The decision to send aeroplanes over middle eastern skies is presented as a ‘tough’ one by successive Prime Ministers, when instead it is symptomatic of failure, of a weakness for the military solution. Cameron projects an image of strength, whilst standing on feet of clay.
The middle east has become the ‘other’ against which violent retribution can be meted out. This might sound like a denial of reality, of the fact that IS have conquered territory in Iraq and Syria, and that they are responsible for terror plots, those realised and those that been foiled.
Yet it is common knowledge that among those who carried out recent attacks are European nationals. Moreover, that France’s neighbour Belgium – indeed a suburb of de-facto European capital Brussels – is a significant source of Islamic extremist recruits. It might seem churlish to ask, but when will bombs be raining down on Molenbeek?
Does anyone seriously think that bombing a limited number of targets will make the ‘streets of Britain’ any safer from the radicalised? Max Hastings certainly doesn’t think so. Will the population of IS-held Syrian areas be made more safe for being under British bombardment? Isn’t it instead likely to fragment IS into ever-more splintered factions, free to re-group and continue terrorising the populace of Syria? Won’t some of these be hailed eventually as potential ‘moderate’ allies, if only because they are marginally less extreme than another group, or willing to band together against a different erstwhile enemy?
David Cameron invoked the image of Raqqa as the “head of the snake”, which required removal. Instead isn’t he more likely to be facing a different kind of serpent, a multi-headed hydra?
So why, then, bomb? Not because this is a military solution. That much is obvious if you simply consider the following. The identified problem is the brutal treatment of and attacks on civilians in Syria, as well as in the west. The proposed solution – bombing – won’t do anything to alleviate either problem, and may exacerbate both.
So why, then, bomb? Because the vote, parliament’s approval for the planes to fly, is a political and diplomatic signal. Many times parliamentarians said that France, a NATO ally, had asked for help and it was our duty to provide it. It is a signal of our solidarity with the existing military coalition. But what value solidarity when the ‘action’ taken will have a negligible impact on the matter in hand?
Bombing your way out of a problem has been tried before, and it always fails. A decision to let fly the missiles is not a clear-sighted and decisive action, but a re-treading of a tired and failing status quo.
The road to hell, it’s said, is paved with good intentions. So too, perhaps, is this new road to Damascus.