Protesters at the Don't Bomb Syria protest on Saturday. Photo by Chris Bethell
There's something strangely futile about trying to put forward the rational, pragmatic case against British airstrikes in Syria. Yes, the airstrikes would serve no actual purpose, and yes, carrying them out would probably be the stupidest decision made by any government since about 2003—but when the political consensus is that we should go and do the stupidest possible thing at once, pointing out how stupid it is doesn't really have the desired effect.
It's like trying to persuade someone not to drink a cool, refreshing glass of bleach. "If you drink that," you explain, "it will kill you." But someone who wants to drink bleach is generally immune to that kind of reasoning. "Don't drive a motorcycle off a cliff at high speed," you say, "because it is foolish and will not end well for anyone involved." To which the response is: "At least I'm doing something. Failing to drive my motorbike off this cliff is not an option. What's your plan? Would you really rather I did nothing at all?"
The rational and pragmatic case against airstrikes in Syria doesn't work because these airstrikes are not being proposed for rational and pragmatic reasons. They're being proposed because the ruling strata of this country have a set of priorities that don't give much weight to sanity. Britain is reckless and bloodthirsty; it wants war, at any cost; it needs to kill again. The ship creaks into the centre of the storm, the captain laughs from the rigging, and when it sinks, the lifeboats will have limited space available.
In fact, some of the sensible critique of British military interventionism has even made its way into the case for war. There are, it's true, a few people who really do stand to gain from a British war in Syria—chiefly, weapons manufacturers and Isis itself. Those pushing for more bombs don't mind looking like they're fighting a losing battle. Many politicians and journalists will happily admit that any British contribution to the air campaign in Syria will achieve precisely nothing on the ground—the United States and Russia have already spent months barraging Isis positions to little effect; the addition of a few shiny jets from the relatively puny RAF is unlikely to suddenly alter the situation. In fact, many coalition planes flying sorties over Raqqa end up returning with their payload intact: there simply aren't any targets left to hit, as lack of intelligence means they're flying "half-blind."
In the aftermath of the massacre in Paris, the French military claimed to have hit a command post and a training camp in Syria; this was, in all likelihood, nonsense. It's not as if French intelligence was aware of the location of major Isis infrastructure but waiting for an atrocity to take place in the homeland so they could respond: the strikes were, as the former Marine colonel Michel Goya admitted, "only symbolic." The attackers killed hundreds in Paris not to materially alter the course of events, but to send a message too furious and incoherent to be put into words. And Western militaries, dropping bombs half-randomly on a city of 200,000 people, do the exact same thing.
Airstrikes are unlikely to make us safer at home—after all, if the UK does suffer a Paris-style attack, it'll almost certainly be carried out by British citizens (as were the 7/7 bombings). Bombing Syria will not protect Britain from its own citizens; the amount of territory held by a self-declared caliphate thousands of miles away does not massively influence the anger and desperation of young people in Yorkshire suburbs. Whatever impact the strikes do have can only be negative.
Even Tony Blair has admitted that Isis only exists because Western countries systematically dismantled the Iraqi state; a similar air campaign in Libya cast what was Africa's most prosperous society into unending bloodshed and terror. Every attempt to fix the evil we created only ends up creating something worse; it's almost as if we're not really the heroes that we think ourselves to be. But we keep doing it: in five years time, as Syria sinks further into a thousand-year death-spiral, they'll be insisting that the lessons have been learned, and the new air war in Algeria or Somalia or Sudan will be entirely different. But it won't be. And they won't mind. And it won't ever end.
But it's hardly worth even saying this, because everyone already knows that attempting to solve a humanitarian crisis by throwing explosives at it from 30,000 feet is not going to achieve the stated goal. Nobody, not even the Prime Minister, really thinks that all Syria needs to turn into a happy liberal democracy is a few guided missiles with the British flag printed on them. This puts the traditionally servile news media in a strange position: they have to support the war, but unlike in 2003, they can't even pretend to be gullible enough to believe that it would be a good thing.
The result is sheer wide-eyed insanity, as newspapers trip over themselves to insist that even though attacking Syria would absolutely be a disaster, we should do it anyway: bring the bombs, bring the missiles, fuck the future, kill every living thing. Take the Daily Telegraph's editorial. The leader writer admits that the plan is entirely incoherent, that "the West has caused massive disruption in the region," that beyond the Syrian government there are no "regional troops able to take on and defeat Isil"—and then concludes that "Britain should play a full part with its allies in a clearly defined campaign to destroy this menace." Why? How? Who cares? Just do it.
In the same paper, Simon Heffer writes extensively on why Cameron's case for action is full of holes and inconsistencies, warns against a blindsidedly emotional response to attacks in Europe, and then sums up by saying that "I think we should take part in this offensive" anyway. In the Guardian, Owen Jones—the appointed voice of the sensible left—prefaces his minor quibbles with Cameron's plans by writing that "the case for bombing Syria seems rather compelling," even though it quite clearly doesn't. The Express, hoping to capture some of the spirit of 1914, screamed from its front page that Britain could defeat Isis in 14 days.
And in a crowning moment of stupidity, the London Evening Standard's uniquely witless home affairs editor, Martin Bentham, argues that we should put away fears of increased chaos after airstrikes on Syria because "it is hard to see how the situation could become much worse."
Meanwhile, across the leaky border between punditry and professional politics, Labour's MP for Warley told the BBC that Jeremy Corbyn and "his small group of tiny Trots in the bunker" were acting like "the Fuhrer" for refusing to start a war. It's not that any of the Labour MPs preparing to heroically rebel in the cause of big explosions actually think anything good will come of British airstrikes in Syria. But the party needs to look credible, and that means making a clear commitment to the absolute worst possible plan of action.
This is what the leading figures in British political life are like: proudly, insistently stupid; fanatically devoted to doing the wrong thing at all times; stir-crazy and desperate for death. It's sometimes charged that those who oppose the strikes in Syria don't have any credible alternative. This isn't true, but even if it were, then so what? You don't need an itemized list of other options to know that bleach is not a delicious thirst-quenching drink. You don't need a road atlas to know that "off the cliff, at high speed" is not a sensible biking path.
Not that it matters; sensible opposition to the general program of madness, effortlessly absorbed into the case for Armageddon, is not as sensible as it thinks. It might be better to give up on trying to be pragmatic entirely, to stop droningly insisting that this or that action will backfire or have unintended consequences, or that Europe and America just need to be more rational and more cautious in their dealings with the Middle East. The only honest response is that what's being done is wrong—enough airstrikes will eventually batter down the walls between stupidity and malice. There's probably nothing that can stop this war, but when the next one looms over us (and it will, and it won't take long) we should remember that being the voice of reason never got us anywhere.
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