First, let me say that it is admirable that you are seeking a broad range of opinion in advance of the expected Commons vote on the issue of whether the UK should extend its military action from Iraq into Syria; while I am of the firm belief that it is nevertheless your Parliamentary Labour Party colleagues – our elected representatives – whose majority view you as Leader should ultimately represent, it is also important that this vital issue be one which receives as wide an airing as possible.
You have asked for Party members such as myself to pass on their views. Mine have been formed both by my experience of living in and writing about the Middle East as a journalist and author, as well as from my more current response as a member of the public, to the immediate challenge presented by ISIS.
Taking the latter – more immediate – issue first, while there are a number of ways of viewing ISIS, two are most significant as part of this current debate: first, as a threat to the security of the UK and, second, as an affront to civilisation.
There is no doubt that just as al-Qaeda used the non-governability of Afghanistan in the 1990s, in order to create for itself a space in which it could meet, discuss, plot and implement its plans, so ISIS has created – though by different means – a similar space for itself in Iraq and Syria; the ungoverned spaces of the world – Somalia among them – are in one way or another all being used for such purposes. They are areas in which society has – in different ways – broken down; they are thus ripe for occupation.
It is no surprise that such regions are both internally dangerous and globally threatening. Repairing and rebuilding them has proved immensely difficult (I was a reporter in Somalia in the mid-1990s, and saw at first hand just how challenging it was). Preventing them from becoming bases for groups with global ambitions is similarly challenging – outsiders can never repair societies which have been internally damaged, while those living within them are often too weak to repair them themselves.
Having closely read the Prime Minister’s statement of last week, I was struck by how unconvincing he was when seeking to frame his wish to expand the UK’s bombing campaign within the wider picture – both historical and current – as regards what might be achieved by bombing. I agree with you that he did not make a convincing argument in favour of extending UK military action to Syria.
But the fact that Mr Cameron failed to convince says far more about his characteristic absence of vision, failure as a man of ideas, and lack of personal experience of how the world works, than it does about whether the immediate response to the current threat posed by ISIS is one that requires a broadening and intensification of military action.
Despite Mr Cameron’s failure to convince, the argument in favour of a larger military campaign is a strong one.
Why is this so?
First, the experience of Afghanistan is instructive. It is usually forgotten that the original intention of invading Afghanistan in 2003 was to destroy the capacity of al-Qaeda. As it is the case that al-Qaeda was indeed forced to leave Afghanistan, it has to be seen as a successful outcome for the military strategists. Of course, al-Qaeda regrouped in Pakistan, continued to recruit globally, and has been slaughtering people ever since; but the end of its Afghan base made a difference.
Why then can this only qualified success in Afghanistan be seen as more positive than not invading Afghanistan at all? The answer – at least in part – comes down to the issue I mentioned above: that of ‘empty spaces’. Until all the unstable parts of the world are well-governed, there will be alternative havens in which terrorist groups can establish themselves; until all the historical, political, religious, tribal, sectarian and other causes of friction, propaganda and rivalry are addressed, resolved and subject to forgiveness, there will be conflict.
Syria is – in terms of the use being made of it by ISIS – an ‘empty space’, in that it is hostage to tyranny, as if it were not governed at all. It must be accepted that in view of the combination of circumstances – ISIS’ avowed aims, Syria’s proximity to Europe, and its track record of savagery – what is taking place there is a direct security threat to the people of the United Kingdom. We have to accept that for whatever reason and in the face of whatever accusations emanate from the UK’s recent history of involvement in the Middle East, confronting that threat in its heartland must be seen as more rather than less likely to diminish it.
Such action will not end the threat – it will disperse and regroup; but no military action is going to be definitive, and we need to accept that. It is a matter of whether – on the balance of probabilities – military action will diminish it or make it worse; the experience of Afghanistan – however unpalatable – is that intervention diminished al-Qaeda’s capacity to threaten us in the UK. Even the fact that Afghanistan is still in turmoil does not mean the West failed to diminish the global terrorist threat emanating from there: Afghanistan’s turmoil is awful – but it is essentially internal, and while instability anywhere in the world can have global consequences, the Taliban have yet to show themselves bent on spreading their activities far beyond their borders.
It is in my view important however to accept that no military intervention brings with it the inevitability of a negotiated settlement. It is on this issue that the Prime Minister’s speech was particularly weak, as he suggested in a variety of ways that the likelihood of negotiation would be increased if the UK were to escalate its military role. It is not that he is necessarily wrong – and certainly not wrong to hope that this might be the case – but it is simply the case that he does not and cannot know whether this is true.
This leads to my second point – the more historical perspective on these issues, I alluded to above – which must inform understanding and strategy.
The current crisis in Syria does not stem from Western involvement in the region. It has two roots. One – the most significant – is the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, the Assad regime’s violent response to which led to the eruption of conflict. The second is the crisis within Islam – the crisis between the ‘political Islam’ of the salafists and the spiritual Islam of the sufis.
The Arab Spring and the region-wide aspiration it revealed was absolutely ‘homegrown’, and remains a key underlying dynamic across the region, despite having been widely stifled; the crisis within Islam meanwhile has many causes, all of which are daily exacerbated by the abuse of the religion by those who pick and choose what they want to believe, and who have hijacked what it suits them to promote; self-styled ‘sheikhs’ and ‘caliphs’ are the result. But what it is essential to recognise – on the eve of the forthcoming Commons vote on military action – is that the West did not design and organise the ‘Arab Spring’ – it came wholly from within the region, while the crisis of belief which is now encouraging some Muslims to even doubt their faith, is fundamental and cannot be explained as resulting from Western intervention.
These points are important, because there is a tendency among critics of Western policy in the Middle East to assume that the entire landscape – the colonial-era borders aside – has been crafted by what the West did, wants and intends; this has in turn on many occasions led Western policymakers to assume that they can indeed shape and reshape the politics of the Middle East, much as they did during the era of colonialism.
Both these critics and policymakers are wrong.
Thus, it is one of David Cameron’s major misconceptions – and he made it again in his speech of last week – that an escalation in UK involvement will create the conditions for a political settlement. His assertion is totally without foundation – it being absolutely beyond the capacity of any nation or group of nations to do more than cajole and prod; the Middle East many years ago went beyond being susceptible to such influence. Those who once listened to the West were the autocrats Ben Ali and Mubarak – both long gone. Today, the Middle East is at the beginning of a long period of agony, a solution to which no outsider should hope or expect to impose.
Thus, accepting – as I do, based on considerable research and first-hand experience – that military action can make an at least temporary difference; and accepting, as I do, that the West should only ever have modest ambitions as regards its influence in the Middle East, it should be further accepted that there is really only one question MPs can realistically consider to be within their remit. That is: is ISIS a threat to the UK and its citizens, and will bombing reduce or increase that threat?
In my view there is no doubt that ISIS is a threat to the UK. But this threat is not only a security threat. It is also a moral threat.
So, on the basis that military action can – as Afghanistan showed – diminish the global capacity of terrorists, coupled with the recognition that such action shouldn’t be expected to bring a political solution even if it does hinder the terrorist leadership in its transnational aims, what should guide you and the Parliamentary Labour Party as you prepare to vote?
Central to your thinking must be the fact that ISIS is an affront to civilization. It is repugnant that such an organisation should have the opportunity to parade its evil via global media. We owe it to ourselves to destroy it, and just as we knew that by declaring war on the Nazis we would incur their wrath, we did, and we defeated them. We must now do the same, because we have to prove to ourselves that we really are what civilization is all about – and that we are prepared to defend it.
In the end it may require more ground troops than the Peshmerga and others, to fully crush these very savage people: but that is what armies are for. ISIS threatens us now, and will threaten us until we confront them. Now is not the time to be blaming ourselves for failed or mistaken interventions in the past. Nor should we ever consider opening dialogue with these people: not because they do not wish to, but because we in the civilised world do not talk to such people. We owe it to ourselves – and we have already felt the consequences, because what France (which played no part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq) feels we feel, what France suffers we suffer.
David Cameron is correct in advocating the expansion of airstrikes. It is a shame that his speech so lacked the substance, wisdom and historical perspective to underpin his assertions. He needed to show true leadership at this dangerous time – and he failed. My hope is that you as Leader of the Labour Party will provide that substance, wisdom and perspective, and will support what has already become the first – and let’s hope the last – civilisational conflict of the 21st century.
Secretary, Cotswolds Labour Party