Sunday, September 08, 2013

Against pro-war moralism

I had a number of possible titles for this post but this one will do because it gets to the crux.  Another had to do with 'the shadow of Iraq', which is an essential prelude.  Did the participation of Her Majesty's Armed Forces in the invasion of Iraq 'raise the bar', as someone put it, to subsequent British military engagement overseas?  Yes, of course.  Is it right that this should be the case?  I would say so.  The late Christopher Hitchens, on being asked whether he still stood by his fulsome support for the US-UK led invasion of Iraq in 2003 said that it would be 'abnormally unreflective' not to have considered the possibility that this had been a terrible mistake.  He went on to say that despite everything, he hadn't changed his mind but acknowledged in subsequent articles - found in Slate and elsewhere - that the 'near criminal lack of post-war planning' was among the factors that had led to the outcome of regime-change in Iraq not being quite as benign as predicted.

I'd probably go further than that myself but I don't want this to turn into some tiresome mea culpa.  Instead, let's go with the 'right idea, poorly-planned' theme, which I think would probably be the bare minimum of self-criticism that any reasonable person would expect.  It's another way of saying those of us who supported the invasion of Iraq just weren't practical enough.  Long on moral outrage and zeal to overthrow tyranny but short on the practicalities of what would happen after the regime had been 'decapitated'.  The laissez-faire 'shit happens' attitude looked murderously incompetent when, for example, the occupying forces took the lunatic step of dissolving the army.  Lots of angry unemployed youths with guns; what could possibly go wrong?

Ten years on with the situation in Syria you shouldn't ask: what has been learned?  Because the melancholy truth is, absolutely nothing.  What do Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch, John Pilger and George Galloway have in common?  At least two things: all of them identify themselves as being the true standard bearers of the left and none of them are the least bit interested in questions of military capability or strategy.  With Pilger and Galloway, their disinterest has its origins in the conviction that it doesn't matter because it shouldn't be done under any circumstances.  Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch have no such excuse.  Both of them have an obligation to spell out what practical steps they would support that would effect the sort of change they want to see in Syria that would avoid the bloodshed we've witnessed in postwar Iraq.  I haven't read what Aarononvitch has to say but I did see this from Nick Cohen.  I have to say that I'm more than a little shocked at the ahistorical vitriol on display here; so much so, I don't care to engage with the detail.  Denouncing those who decline to support an ill-defined and inchoate militarily action as morally disgraceful is in itself morally disgraceful.  It's a good line but it isn't what I really think.  I just think it's stupid.

Instead, they would do better to try and persuade people why they think Western military intervention would do any good.  Waving pictures of dead Syrian babies is all very well but why does anyone think the exemplary displays of military violence being suggested will offer any help to the Syrian people?  If you want to make war, do it properly.  'No boots on the ground' indeed!  You need proper air-cover and the real threat of foot-soldiers.  I read somewhere that Iran has 50,000 proxy fighters either in Syria already or ready to go.  If you're prepared to match this with overwhelming force - perhaps a quarter of a million would do - then put it to your legislatures.  If not, prepare to repeat the mistakes of Iraq.  And spare us your moralising.


Phil said...

God, that Cohen piece is awful.

I think the point about planning is really, really important. This post reminded me of my position on the Kosovo intervention - I started out in favour and ended up in favour of some kind of intervention against Serbia, just not one carried out by these people, with with these war aims, using these weapons against these targets. By the time Iraq II came round it was simpler just to be against it from the start.

kellie said...

In Syria it's already too late to "avoid the bloodshed we've seen in postwar Iraq". Syria has been worse than post-invasion Iraq ever was for some time now.

In Iraq, it was also too late to avoid seeing violence on that scale. Iraq had already witnessed it as the US and UK stood by during the suppression of the Shia uprising at the end of the first Gulf War. And even before that it was too late.

What we can never know for sure is what worse horror Iraq might have suffered were it not for the invasion, though today's Syria perhaps gives some hint.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

I think you are going too far with the talk about planning. At the moment no one is talking about boots on the ground.

The "dilemma" is choosing between a half-arsed bombing of a few installations to punish Baby Assad and doing nothing, with a strong tendency to the latter.

While you are absolutely right about the total lack of planning for aftermath of invasion of Iraq (and I was between those who were against the whole thing for precisely that reason), the difference between Syria today and Iraq back then is that practically nobody cares too much about the hundred thousand+ dead. Not enough to do anything meaningful.

This is why I don't think that stressing the differences between the very few people who think that there is something to be done is timely. Or of any import whatsoever.

Shuggy said...

Snoops - I wouldn't claim what I've written is either timely or of any import. It was just a product of annoyance at what I thought was empty moralistic posturing from the commentariat. I'd argue the dilemma isn't what you suggest but one between waging war properly or making peace properly. There obviously isn't any appetite for the former and exemplary strikes didn't seem to me to belong in either category. If I'm wrong about this, I could do with persuading - but instead we get Aaronovitch rending his garments, telling us he's ashamed to be British and Nick Cohen making what seemed to me to be rather facile WWII comparisons.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

" There obviously isn't any appetite for the former and exemplary strikes didn't seem to me to belong in either category."

That for sure.

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