The Politics of Air Strikes

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To bomb or not to bomb?  As I write, that is the question being debated in the Palace of Westminster.  The Conservative government, predictably enough, is itching to join the attacks on ISIS in Syria.  Prime Minister David Cameron says we cannot leave it to France and America to obliterate terrorists in the Middle East on our behalf.  He has started posing for photographs alongside Typhoon fighter jets.  In speeches, he tries to channel his inner Churchill.  “Throughout Britain’s history we have been called on time and again to make the hardest of decisions in defence of our citizens and our country,” he says.

The longer Isil is allowed to grow in Syria, the greater the threat it will pose.  It is wrong for the United Kingdom to subcontract its security to other countries, and to expect the aircrews of other nations to carry the burdens and the risks of striking Isil in Syria.

The Royal Air Force will bring its “qualitative” edge to the conflict in Syria, adds Defence Secretary Michael Fallon.

He uses the word “qualitative” because everybody knows our armed forces are vanishingly small these days, and we’re insecure about that.  Fallon and Cameron know they have shrunk the British military by about 20 percent.  We need Uncle Sam to fight wars for us more than ever.

The government further insists it has a clear strategy, but has struggled to say exactly what that strategy is.  The Prime Minister’s office claims that there are 70,000 “moderate” Syrian fighters with whom Western air forces can coordinate their assaults on the evil Islamists—though no serious analyst appears to back that figure up.  The United States has spent $600 million trying to create a democracy-loving force in the region.  Yet, as Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, admitted to the Senate Armed Cervices Committee in September, that effort had succeeded only in training up “four or five” freedom fighters.  That’s what happens when you let the fantasy of global democratic revolution dictate policy.

Most reasonable people see that the British government’s Syria plan is more an emotional spasm caused by fear following the terror attacks in Paris on November 13 than anything else.  The idea that bombing targets in Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold in Syria, will make British citizens safer is debatable, to put it mildly; if anything, it is more likely to inspire terror acts in the United Kingdom.  The government says our security services have stopped at least seven such attacks this year, though the extent to which those plots are the work of the new caliphate in the Middle East remains unknown.  The truth is our politicians don’t know how to keep us safe from the small but not insignificant number of death-cult Islamists in and outside our country.  So our politicians are reduced to throwing bombs in the direction of the problem in order to make the public and themselves feel better.  Bob Stewart, a former colonel and now a Tory MP, said more bombing was a good move because it was time for Britain to give the world a “potent gesture”—which is tantamount to admitting that any RAF action over Syria will be for show.  In a rather windy statement to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, setting out the case for action, the Prime Minister stressed that he understood the seriousness of the matter at hand.  “Whether or not to use military force is one of the most significant decisions that any government takes,” he wrote.  “Decisions to use force are not to be taken lightly.”  It felt like he was protesting too much.

Everybody knows that Cameron and his circle—the Cameroons, we call them—have a tendency to make up foreign policy on the hoof.  Everybody knows that two years ago David Cameron tried to persuade Parliament to bomb the forces of ISIS’s main enemy in Syria, President Assad, which would have been a boon to the very Muslims he now so passionately wants to destroy.  Parliament wisely rejected the proposal.  Everybody knows that Cameron and Presidents Sarkozy and Obama made a mess of Libya.  The Cameroons, amazingly, have the nerve to pat themselves on the back for the Libya intervention and their role in removing Qaddafi.  As one Cabinet minister put it to the journalist Matthew D’Ancona, “whenever things get bad, and the press are saying what a rubbish government we are, I remind myself that there are people alive in Benghazi tonight because we decided to take a risk.”  To which a reasonable reply would be, Yes, but plenty of other people are dead because you could not be bothered to think through the consequences of taking that risk.  Post-Qaddafi Libya has become known as “Scumbag Woodstock” in security circles.  It is a breeding ground for terror, a fulcrum for the refugee crisis now overwhelming Europe, and a launchpad of ISIS terrorists wanting to target our capitals.

Cameron seemed to relish the praise he received following the Libya adventure.  There is an embarrassing video of him and Sarkozy addressing a rally in the newly liberated Benghazi in 2011.  “Colonel Gaddafi said he would hunt you down like rats,” he says, deliberately, like a headmaster talking to the school assembly at the end of a successful academic year, “but you showed the courage of lions.”

Having established himself in his mind if not in reality as a leader of successful interventions, Cameron’s pride was badly stung by Parliament’s blocking of his move against Assad in 2013.  Westminster insiders say that he was deeply hurt when, at a G20 summit the week after the Syria vote, President Putin’s spokesman said Britain was “just a small island—no one pays any attention to them.”

This time Cameron is determined to prove that he has the moral authority to push the case for action in Syria—despite the absurdity that he is now proposing to attack his former enemy’s enemy.  He now hopes to win the vote with a substantial majority to show that he has the country behind him.  His window of opportunity may be closing.  The public loathe ISIS, as much as you’d expect, but as the panic following the Paris attacks subsides and the flimsiness of Cameron’s proposal becomes obvious, the mood is shifting.  The latest poll suggested that a majority either oppose or don’t know if Britain should start an aerial bombardment of Syria.

A hastily assembled 4,000-strong Stop the War Coalition rally gathered in central London, and pro-intervention MPs have been disturbed by the sheer number of constituents emailing them urging restraint.

Yet, thanks to the shambolic state of his parliamentary opposition, Cameron should get what he wants.  Jeremy Corbyn, the oddball new Labour leader, is making a stand against the air strikes.  But Corbyn’s authority is undermined by the fact that a substantial number of his parliamentary party think he is an embarrassment and want to vote against him.  A handful of Conservative MPs will go against the Prime Minister, as will all or almost all the 57 Scottish National Party MPs, but at time of writing—two days before the vote—it looks as if Cameron will win around 115 Labour votes, more than enough to ensure a clear majority.

It is a shame, then, that it had to fall to Corbyn to lead the antiwar side against a bellicose government that doesn’t know what it is doing.  And it would be a sad irony if, as some pundits expect, Corbyn’s unhappy party finally split over this—possibly the one major issue on which Corbyn has substantial public support, and certainly the only one on which he has made a compelling argument.  The media spin is that hawkish Labour MPs want to show “national unity” in the face of terrorism.  But it’s clear also that their decisions are informed as much by a desire to humiliate and possibly oust their disastrous leader.

Corbyn’s resolve to stick to his peacenik guns has been impressive in the last few weeks.  He may not be right, and he may be motivated more by a deep dislike of America than by any Christian love of peace, but at least he doesn’t just say anything to sound tough.  On November 12, for instance, the day before that terrible night in Paris, the media reported that drones had taken out Mohammed Emwazi, aka Jihadi John, a British-born Muslim lunatic who is thought to have beheaded seven hostages.  Most people cheered, and David Cameron wasted no time in delivering a statement taking credit for the kill, even though it was a U.S. military operation that put an end to Emwazi.  Then Corbyn said it would have been “far better” if Emwazi had been brought to trial in a court.  This reminded people that, in the days before he was opposition leader, he had described the death of Osama bin Laden as “yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy”—not exactly a mainstream point of view.

Moreover, in the days after the Paris attacks, David Cameron assured the public that he had ordered British policemen to “shoot-to-kill” terrorists on our streets.  Yet again Corbyn demurred, saying he was “not happy” with the policy.  Shoot-to-kill was “counter-productive” and “dangerous,” he said.  This was politically naive, perhaps, and he has been widely ridiculed for these dovish positions.  One Conservative MP chortled that the Labour leader would not deploy British troops even if terrorists had occupied the Isle of Wight.

Yet the problem with Corbyn is not so much his pacifism as his incompetence.  While making clear he disagreed with the strikes, Corbyn danced between allowing his MPs to make up their own minds and trying to compel them to follow his lead.  He reportedly told his shadow cabinet to take the weekend of the 28th and 29th of November to think over the issue so that the party could come to a “collective decision”—only to write a letter to all Labour MPs underlining his firm opposition to military action.  He then went on television to insist that “it is the leader who decides” on such matters.  Senior Labour figures felt betrayed, and have been venting their anger in public.  Corbyn’s shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn went on BBC radio and backed the air strikes, saying that while his leader was “perfectly entitled to his view,” he did not share it.  Corbyn eventually agreed to allow a free vote, but by then his credibility had been compromised.

With the left in such disarray, and Cameron so determined to act, Britain looks almost certain to escalate yet another ill-conceived military intervention in the Middle East.  After Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, what could possibly go wrong?       

Editors’ note: On Wednesday, December 2, Parliament voted 397 to 223 in favor of authorizing the air strikes.

 

[Image Credit: By Maj. Jefferson Heiland (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1564941) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

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