Building the case for military action against ISIS in Syria solely on the proposition that it will make us safer at home is over-optimistic, unprovable and damaging to the other, less alarmist (but stronger) arguments in favour of intervention
In his Telegraph piece today, Fraser Nelson understands that airstrikes and other military action against ISIS in Syria are nothing like a magic bullet method of keeping us safe from terrorist attacks, but that they are nonetheless the right thing to do.
Nelson goes on to echo this blog’s concern that building a case for military intervention in Syria based solely (or even primarily) on the overly-optimistic proposition that it will make the streets of London safer will only undermine the other, better reasons for attacking ISIS:
This is a political mission more than a military one. For years, Britain has been haemorrhaging influence in Washington – diplomats there have been shocked to hear France being mentioned as America’s most reliable European partner. Our absence from the Syria campaign stands out – and sends worrying signals about our reliability as a partner. With our troop numbers being cut back, we need partnerships. And this means stepping up to join alliances when the time comes.
This is harder for the Prime Minister to explain. It’s fairly easy to talk in terms of Britain bombing Isil into submission before sending in a 70,000-strong army. It’s harder to admit that bombing hasn’t really worked, and that that army doesn’t really exist and that a better strategy is needed. But if we want a chance of influencing that strategy, we need to join the US-led coalition.
The best case for intervention in Syria yesterday was made not by any minister but by Bob Stewart, a former colonel and now a Tory MP. He had been talking to senior officers in France, he said, and they told him that the country feels attacked and would very much appreciate the support of its closest ally. So it’s time, he said, for a “highly potent gesture” to let our allies see that we’re fully behind them. It’s a less dramatic case for war, but it’s more credible. And far more likely to give the Prime Minister the parliamentary vote that he so badly needs.
Obviously Britain cannot base the decision of whether or not to intervene militarily in another country solely on the affect our participation (or non-participation) will have on the esteem of our friends and allies. There must also be both a legitimate and compelling reason for intervention and a reasonable chance of a satisfactory outcome in order to justify such a grave decision. And though it is very hazy, on balance Britain probably can make a positive contribution if we work with our allies toward a clearly agreed strategy.
But Fraser Nelson is right – equally important in this debate is the way that Britain views its own role on the world stage, and (I would add) the degree to which we continue to live in the fearful shadow of the second Iraq war.
Britain has indeed become an “unreliable ally” over the past few years, not just because of the previous vote against military action in Syria but because of the degradation of our armed forces by a nominally conservative government with messed up priorities. We pared back the army by a magnitude of thousands of experienced, veteran soldiers. We greatly weakened the RAF with cutbacks. And we decommissioned our existing aircraft carriers years before the new ships come on stream, seriously weakening our ability to project force in distant places.
Those brutal cutbacks sent a message. They reeked of a country which had lost faith in its values, its power, its effectiveness and its ability to robustly defend both our allies and our own vital national interest. They spoke to a country which has lost its way, led by politicians more interested in being seen as competent technocrats administering decent public services than fighting evil or changing the world for the better.
Hopefully that shameful time is now finally coming to an end.
The time has come for the British government to show as much commitment to fighting evil and supporting our allies as it does to ramping up the autocratic surveillance state in the dubious name of national security. The time has come to wield the stick abroad where necessary once again, and ease up on the draconian policies which have come to typify our national security response at home.
But first and foremost – as this blog argued yesterday – the time has come for Britain to get up off the mat post-Iraq, and reassert our place in the world. The conflicts of the first decade of this century – with their weak justification and unclear objectives – must not colour our present day judgement to the extend that we freeze in indecision when decisive action and engagement with our allies is needed.
And while nobody can truthfully promise that striking ISIS in Syria will significantly reduce the terrorist threat in Britain, we can say with reasonable certainty that dithering and failing to act against the murderous death cult responsible for attacking our good ally France – slaughtering scores of innocent people in Paris – will help consign Britain to the ranks of middling, introspective and insignificant nations at the mercy of world events rather than shaping them.
This nuanced argument is much harder to make than simplistic pledges about keeping us safe from terror, especially when trying to build support for military action in a cynical and war-weary country. But it is the right argument.
As Fraser Nelson argues – and this blog concurs – it is far better to be upfront about the real motivations for intervention, and trust the British people to understand that it is in all of our interests to ensure that Britain continues to be taken seriously as a major player on the world stage.
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