Friday, 27 November 2015

Why Corbyn is wrong about Syria

I respect Jeremy Corbyn's principled argument against extending bombing into Syria. I don't agree with him, but I understand his position, and respect the sincerity with which he argues it. I think his stance is misguided, as with many of the other idealist positions he takes on muddy real-world problems.

Yes, Iraq descended into chaos because there was inadequate planning for how to "win the peace" and rebuild after 2003. Intervention using force in another country is regrettable and carries a heavy weight of responsibility. Looking at Syria today, it is many times more difficult than it was for Iraq a decade ago to foresee how to rebuild after the war, or even who will hold most of the territory (and hence the cards in any political settlement), once the Daesh Caliphate has been erased.

But erased it still must be. I do not view inability to foresee what happens next as a justification for doing nothing now. Unlike Iraq then, what is going on in Syria has already torn the country apart and put it in the hands of a great evil; IS makes terror plans from Raqqa that extend beyond the territory it holds to within our own borders; and the more we can do to disrupt its plans, and progress towards retaking its territory, the better. 

Of course it matters whether that is by Assad's Russian-backed government troops, Kurdish Peshmerga, US-armed Free Syria Army forces, or Iranian-backed forces. Nobody has forgotten that Assad used chemical weapons and barrel bombs to try to win his civil war. But every one of those myriad groups, even Assad's men, represents a better option than the IS Caliphate.

If politics is the art of the possible, then the same must be said of international relations. Foreign policy is often about choosing the lesser of many evils. It should always have a core of ideals and values, but its application is also hostage to pragmatism. I don't think Corbyn's idealism provides the necessary flexibility for that.

For example, I'm all for raising a debate on whether we should scale down our alliance and cooperation with Saudi Arabia's oppressive regime, perhaps going as far as sanctions and dropping lucrative defence deals that create jobs and wealth in the UK. To prop up their corrupt monarchy the Saudis have done much to encourage extremism.

But any debate on that issue would again be about pragmatism: do we gain enough from the relationship to tolerate them; and does it outweigh what it costs us in security and hypocrisy. It's an open question, but it isn't enough to answer it with principles alone. Costs and benefits are paramount, particularly when the calculation is about our national security.

And on national security, the other aspect why I disagree with Corbyn is his natural pacifist leaning. I suspect he would hesitate to employ military force even if the case were remarkably clear cut. He is instinctively against the role of defence, deterrence, and the threat and use of force, within a robust international policy, which accepts that Britain has a major role to play and responsibilities in the world beyond our own shores.

Corbyn would end any expeditionary capability in our defence, as well as removing or undermining our nuclear deterrent (the whole point of which is that it is never used). He would rather see our Armed Forces cut down to a narrow vision of defence, restricted to our own shores, while questioning any weapons that could be used more offensively. If the world were a safe place, I might agree with him. But it isn't. Threats abound from those who would harm us. Threats also change rapidly. I can't predict them; he can't; nobody can. It would be breathtakingly naive to disarm today, only to leave ourselves unprotected against new threats tomorrow.

The reality is that for the past two centuries, only two powers have policed the globe effectively: ensuring long periods of relative peace spanning many decades; encouraging the development of the globalised international system we know today; and making sure the right side emerged victorious when major conflicts have punctuated the peace. Those countries are the US and UK.

Self-interest has always been a strong motivation in that policing role, but our moral principles (though often flawed and deployed inconsistently) are also traceable throughout. Stepping back always creates a vacuum that others can fill. I believe in the values Britain stands for, and I would rather we play our role in the world, than outsource it to others, or, worse, allow evil to fill it.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Question for Millennials: How do we get rid of IS?

I’m writing this blog out of exasperation. I’m utterly baffled and frustrated by the attitudes of so many millennials in response to IS: in the aftermath of the tragic Paris attacks; the killing of Jihadi John; the Russian airliner shot down over Sinai; and the ongoing bombing campaign over Iraq and Syria.

Let’s list three things first about which I hope all free minded souls can unite and agree on.

Firstly, we want rid of IS; we want its toxic evil brand wiped out of existence; we want its hateful ideology destroyed; and we want its horrific barbaric acts confined to history.

Secondly, the deliberate, cold-blooded murder of innocents – whether in Paris, Lebanon, or wherever – by these thugs and their affiliates is a tragedy that deserves our shared mourning and thoughts with those people bereaved and communities left shocked by what’s happened. We’re united in that.

Thirdly, we need to make sure that our response to attacks on the fabric of Western society does not play into the hands of terrorists: staying strong as a community, righteous in cherishing liberal values, such as tolerance, pluralism and democracy; uniting against those who would do us harm, rather than being torn apart by our many differences; and loving our neighbour rather than falling into suspicion, xenophobia, bigotry or racism.

Now. Why am I frustrated? The first point: we want IS destroyed: yes. We want to pull together and share our grief: yes. We agree our liberal, pluralist democratic societies point the way forward, away from the abyss represented by the murdering extremists: yes.

Okay, then. So turn those fine feelings into useful, practical, grounded, realistic aims that we expect our leaders to implement as policy. Mourning and sharing grief are vital social behaviours, they provide comforting, easy solidarity, but this is passive and is not going to win the battle. What we do next is the more important question.

If we want rid of IS within the next five or ten years then that by necessity means removing their self-proclaimed Caliphate from the map. It currently controls large chunks of Iraq and Syria. Its territory has shrunk slightly in recent months, but there has been no decisive victory. The situation against IS in Iraq and Syria is something between stalemate and some localised victories.

How can we go about getting rid of their hateful Caliphate? Well, there are certainly sound reasons why we should transition from the relative passivity of grief and shock to actually taking steps to win the struggle, not just in our own countries, but to defeat IS totally.

Firstly, to address the aspect of the problem which millennials seem (thankfully) united behind. We can only stop extremism within our own societies, by making sure that the 0.05% of first, second or third generation young Muslim men living in the West do not fall foul of toxic, intolerant and murderous Islamist Jihad. We need to be inclusive, integrationist, work to prevent ghettos, make sure minorities to not feel like aliens, and that poor young people seeking jobs do not become angry young men under the spell of evil.

If we get all of that right, how soon will it result in real, practical victory against IS and its Caliphate? Not any time soon. It will help. It will slow the flow of foreign fighters reinforcing its ranks, making the task easier for the myriad groups doing the fighting on the ground in Iraq and Syria – whether its Assad’s army; Kurdish fighters, Iraqi soldiers, Iranian-backed Iraqi militia or various Syrian resistance groups.

But in order for IS to be destroyed – let’s not be shy about mincing our words, for once – we or somebody fighting on our behalf, will need to kill them. Those IS fighters (or enough of them) will need to be killed. It's not nice, but it's the truth. It doesn’t matter that they will claim they are being martyred for their hideous cause, that doesn't negate the necessity to eliminate them.

However, we have shown our unwillingness as a society to send large-scale Western armies back in to police chaotic Arab countries such as Iraq, where they were (unsurprisingly) resented as unwanted and illegitimate occupiers.

So that leaves the task to those doing the fighting right now. True, we don’t like some of them very much. Assad’s troops have murdered civilians with chemical weapons. Iran’s backing for Iraqi militias is borne of self-interest by the Islamic Republic in asserting its influence in Iraq – itself representing an intolerance, contrary to western liberal ideals.

As Russia’s Vladimir Putin has (uncomfortably) noted in recent days: the West needs to work out what it wants and make alliances with people it doesn’t like in order to get rid of IS. That means Assad in Syria, Putin in Moscow, just as geopolitics has made uncomfortable bedfellows in previous generations – with Pinochet’s murderous Chilean regime against Communism or with Josef Stalin against Adolf Hitler.

This needs serious debate. People are right to criticise Western ties with Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, which has been an indispensable ally for the US and UK in the Middle East, while actively peddling extremism in its theocratic domestic policies that transparently represents the same enemy that the West has faced in Iraq, Afghanistan and on the streets of Paris, London and New York.

But the reality of the situation is that if we accept that full-scale intervention by our own Armed Forces has not worked to produce the outcomes we wanted for Iraq and Afghanistan, and is off the table as an option now for Syria and Iraq, what are our options for defeating IS?

Combating extremism here will cut off some foreign fighters reaching Syria, but it isn’t going to take the territory, towns and cities currently under the control of IS. Nor can the IS fighters within those areas be rounded up and arrested by our police or soldiers as peacekeepers.

To stop those IS fighters from continuing to behead and murder thousands of innocent Iraqis, Syrians and foreign hostages, somebody is going to have to take back the territory they control, and by necessity, if they resist, deploy the use of force and kill them. It’s unpalatable but it is also the truth, even if my generation would rather not dirty its hands by uttering such sentiments.

Air strikes by Russia are enabling Assad’s forces to advance. Air strikes by the US and its coalition enabled the Kurds to hold out and win battles like Kobani. They are also allowing the Iraqi Army to advance towards Ramadi in the country’s Anbar province.

There is no point in self-righteousness and pure idealism if it results in inaction and inertia. The long decade of bloody flawed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan form the poisonous context for so much debate among millennials today.

When I was a student it was mandatory to fume at George W Bush and the boneheaded decisions taken in the years after 9/11: particularly the reasons for going to war in Iraq, and the utter lack of strategy for how to win the peace afterwards. Anti-Americanism isn't clever; it's the bugbear of my generation.

Citing previous American foreign policy mistakes, or focusing on geopolitical deal-making with "frenemies" like Saudi Arabia, are just convenient tangents and historical side-issues. These things will in themselves not determine whether IS can be defeated in months, years or decades, any more than the issue of whether or not a higher or lower number of Syrian refugees are allowed to settle within our borders in the next year.

Edmund Burke wrote that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” So, I think my generation needs to take a long hard look at itself to answer that challenge. We need to give our leaders the mandate to do more in Iraq and Syria: more planes flying airstrikes; more drones in the air; more special forces operations; and more financial, military, logistical and training support for the groups fighting IS on the ground.