At the time of writing, the House of Commons is being pressed for decisions on many major issues, such as the renegotiation of our position within the EU, the migration crisis in the EU, how to respond to President Putin’s aggressive policies, the decision to renew the UK’s four Trident submarines, the impact of tax credit reforms on low-income households, the new de-radicalisation strategy announced by the Prime Minister, and questions about the consequences of such a pro-China policy. However, the looming question of whether the House will mandate military action in Syria is the most immediately vexing.
Last month’s European Council focused on the refugee crisis. The summit delivered exactly what it promised: a European solution, or in other words, a great deal of muddling and disagreement. Psychologists talk about ‘displacement activity’ when a person becomes absorbed with an activity that is not related to the real problem he or she is facing. The EU finds it easier to focus on the symptom of the crisis, rather than its cause: the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere, fuelled as they are by Isis, Al Qaeda and Russia. Back in July, the Prime Minister, responding to another vile beheading, promised a ‘full spectrum response’ to Isis. In September, I suggested to him in a Parliamentary Question that this should be set out in a government ‘white paper,’ which we could take around our allies as a comprehensive proposal. It would have to acknowledge the role that Putin has seized for himself, extremely limited Nato military capacity without the utterly absent President Obama, and the moral dilemmas presented by supporting the army rule in Egypt and the present Saudi regime. His response about the forthcoming defence review did not suggest he has any hunger for adopting a strategic approach to Isis, Assad, Russia and the Middle East.
The Prime Minister has reasons to be cautious. In one of the most confusing, deflating and depressing days the House of Commons has had in recent years, in August 2013 the UK government lost its motion that would have sanctioned air strikes in Syria, following President Assad’s use of chemical weapons. This was followed by the climb-down from Obama’s famous ‘red line’ on Syria and no military action from the US took place. This was all the more depressing, because the Labour motion, which the government voted against, said almost the same thing as the government motion. The result was that the House of Commons simply took no view at all on the conflict, and this was taken to be a blank refusal to contemplate any action in Syria whatsoever. The Prime Minister immediately just accepted it. Not long ago, such a defeat in the Commons would have resulted in resignations.
I voted for the government’s motion in 2013, but much on the basis that the Prime Minister must have known what he was doing, but the weakness of his position was his lack of a comprehensive strategy. Much of the argument was about punishing Assad, or protecting civilians, without accepting that airstrikes would mean we were unavoidably entering the conflict between Assad and his rebels, and Isis. Writing in The Financial Times, the historian Niall Ferguson recently remarked that the west had blown its post-Cold War peace dividend and that “dealing with [the present conflict] will mean relearning the arts of grand strategy and war.” I could not agree more with this sentiment. With Isis now claiming to control an area roughly the size of the UK, it is time for the western powers to devise something resembling a grand strategy. The next time the House of Commons votes, it should be on whether to endorse a political and diplomatic strategy in which military force – or the threat of it – might have to play a part. We should not be voting on the purely tactical question of whether we should start bombing or not. When Clauzewitz said that “War Is Merely the Continuation of Policy by Other Means,” the implication was clear: there is no point in war if it is not part of a coherent policy. Our Prime Minister has talked of a “generational struggle” against terrorism. If that is what we are facing, then we need a grand strategy formulated alongside our partners in Nato, that looks ahead of election cycles (as it did during the Cold War) and which provides for specific objectives, an anticipated timetable, involving concerted diplomatic, intelligence, development and if necessary military activity. Our allies and supporters in the region, be they governments or their people, need confidence that they can rely on consistent support from the West or Russia will continue to seize the initiative. Our habit of cutting and running when things get tough is not helping our position.
How often do we need to learn this lesson? Following American support for the mujahidin in the late 70s, American Congressman Charlie Wilson implored his colleagues to sponsor aid and development in Afghanistan. Failure to do so was at least part of the reason why radicalised Islamists in the mountains of Afghanistan turned against the US and her allies in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Recently we have repeated the error, leaving Iraq vulnerable to Isis and Afghanistan to the Taliban extremists. October’s EU Council meeting was further evidence that the EU is simply not equipped to formulate such a strategy. The US, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are the leading powers which should be able to formulate strategy. If the House of Commons is again presented with the binary decision of air strikes or no air strikes, without a comprehensive strategy behind it, I will not give him the benefit of any doubt again.