Elite irrationality and #BombSyriaBingo

This weekend, I took the time to read the Prime Minister’s statement outlining the Government’s case for the United Kingdom joining the US-led campaign of airstrikes against Daesh in Syria. I also read the summary of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s report (PDF) on the same issue, published at the end of October.

Today, I sent a lengthy, carefully-crafted email to my Member of Parliament, the Conservative Caroline Nokes. This is an edited extract of my message.

I am writing to urge you not to support a proposal to extend British involvement in airstrikes against ISIL to Syria. While I know that you have voted consistently in favour of British military deployments in the past, I would like to point out reasons why the case that the Prime Minister presented in his statement last week is insufficient, and why the proposed deployment is unlikely to achieve the desired aims and, indeed, make such an outcome less likely.

I have taken the time to read the Prime Minister’s statement in full, as well as last month’s Foreign Affairs Committee report. I am concerned by the fact that the statement not only fails to make a convincing case on its own terms, but also fails to address important points raised by the Select Committee.

The statement rests heavily on the optimistic and unsubstantiated claim that there are up to 70,000 reliable counterparts on the ground in Syria. Without coherent, effective capability on the ground — that shares the aims of Britain and its other allies — the extension of airstrikes to Syria would be doomed to failure at best. Yet the evidence for this is virtually non-existent. As Patrick Cockburn, the distinguished Middle East correspondent, put it recently in a detailed analysis of Russia’s intervention:

“…the Russian air campaign has an advantage over that of the Americans in that it has been launched in support of an effective regular army. The US never dared to attack IS when it was fighting the Syrian army because Washington didn’t want to be accused of keeping Assad in power. The US approach has left it without real allies on the ground, aside from the Kurds, whose effectiveness is limited outside Kurdish majority areas. The crippling weakness of US strategy in both Iraq and Syria has been to pretend that a ‘moderate Sunni opposition’ either exists or can be created. For all America’s fierce denunciations of Russian intervention, some in Washington can see the advantage of Russia doing what the US can’t do itself. Meanwhile, Britain is wrestling with the prospect of joining the US-led air campaign, without noticing that it has already failed in its main purpose.”

There are many valid points raised by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in its recent report. One concerns the risk that British airstrikes in Syria could compromise our ability to drive the diplomatic process towards a political solution — something about which the Prime Minister’s statement has much to say. I share the view that Britain can and should be doing all it can on the diplomatic front — not least with regard to the actions of Turkey and Saudi Arabia. To put this diplomatic imperative at risk in favour of the unproven merits of even more bombing seems perverse.

Equally, the FAC report asks pointed questions which the Prime Minister’s statement fails to address. The key question is “What the overall objective is of the military campaign; whether it expects that it will be a “war-winning” campaign; if so, who would provide war-winning capabilities for the forces; and what the Government expects will be the result of extending airstrikes to Syria.”. The Prime Minister’s account fails to spell out how the addition of British ordnance will help degrade ISIL’s capabilities; nor how the inevitable civilian deaths, injuries and displacement caused by British airstrikes will square with the commitment to humanitarian support. The passage that goes on to explain how the campaign would be “war-winning”, and what the results might be, strings together optimistic references to a “moderate opposition”, a ceasefire between the Assad regime and the opposition, and an anti-ISIL communications centre. I would expect a convincing response to such a central question to restrict itself to evidence, and I am alarmed that the Prime Minister’s statement is so weak in this respect.

I have a particular interest in this debate. My doctoral research deals with British public opinion towards the conflict in Afghanistan from 2001–14. In the course of my research, I have read many submissions to, and reports by, successive inquiries by the Defence and Foreign Affairs Select Committees. The documents present a sad litany of confused mission aims, inconsistent messaging and mission creep. One which has cost this country so dear, and which has served the long suffering Afghans so very badly. My research has made me highly attuned to what politicians say, and, crucially, what they don’t say, when discussing matters of war and peace.

Within two hours, Ms Nokes had sent me a holding reply. All credit to her for her customary responsiveness to letters from her constituents, but the content was sadly lacking:

Dear Mr Brissenden
Thank you for your email of today’s date, and I firstly wanted to reassure you I had received and read your email.
I strongly suspect there will be a vote held this week, probably on Tuesday, to authorise any British involvement in air strikes against ISIS. I think we all know there are no easy answers, but I am no longer convinced we can sit by and do nothing, whilst suicide bombers attack in mainland Europe, whilst homosexuals are thrown off buildings, women are raped and men are beheaded on youtube, or burned alive in cages. This is depravity such as we have never seen.
I will be writing in full response to all those who have contacted me after I have come to a decision as to which way I will vote.
Yours sincerely
Caroline Nokes

You would think, from her reply and from media and elite discussion of British airstrikes, that the argument for British deployment had been overwhelmingly won. Yet her reply relies on the same magical thinking that underlies all Western discourse on matters of war and peace (while simultaneously claiming to be “living in the real world”). It is a rehearsal of the old tropes (“I am no longer convinced we can sit by and do nothing”; “homosexuals are thrown off buildings”; “men are beheaded on youtube”; etc.), with no more evidence than the threadbare argument put forward last week by the Prime Minister. I am tempted to ask her how many homosexuals will be reprieved from being thrown to their death per tonne of British high explosive.

The Burkean model of representative democracy presupposes the risk that the majority, the irrational herd, will dominate, left to its own devices. By contrast, especially over the past twenty years, governing and managerial elites wear their commitment to “evidence-based” decisions as a badge of pride. Yet, when it comes to dropping bombs on people far away, these claims to rationality turn to dust.

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