It seems to me that there are two questions which the MPs recalled to Parliament to vote tomorrow on the proposed renewed bombing of Iraq need to ask themselves: “Is it right?” and “Will it work?” It is quite possible to answer the first with ‘yes’ and the second with ‘no’ or indeed vice-versa. The media consensus, so definite that the early evening BBC news used the simple future rather than the conditional in talking about the air strikes; “we will” rather than “we would”, is that the answer to both is an unassailable affirmative.
In considering both questions, I would like to hope that the MPs will strip from the discourse the extraordinary epithets which have been used to describe the members of what I think today we are calling ISIL (otherwise ISIS, the Islamic State etc.) “Barbaric”, “beyond evil” and “worse than demons” are just a few that have lodged in my mind from mainstream political speeches; what the tabloids are saying I can’t even imagine. But the language of witchfinders and Gothic horror is scarcely useful in making far-reaching geopolitical decisions, especially when defining your opponents as religious fanatics. Yes, we react with understandable revulsion to the beheading of hostages, but is it objectively worse than a slow death from shrapnel wounds? Not all that long ago, in our proud Western democracies, beheading was considered as a humane and high-status form of execution, reserved for the aristocracy who were too important to be hung. Saddam Hussein wasn’t so fortunate.
The moral case for military action this time, in the absence of a clearly defined group of ethnic victims, seems to rest primarily on vengeance. Indeed, the justification for air strikes on the city of Ar-Raqqah is that ISIL (or whatever) have established “soft power” in the region. (Soft power, by the way, means acts such as the provision of water and electricity, taxation and welfare services; the kinds of things that governments do, or used to, before their functions were privatised.) When we first heard about ISIS, as it was known then, the news stories concentrated on intra-Muslim sectarian violence; now it’s all about white men, and we’re really angry. Again, that’s understandable, but decisions of this kind, which will inevitably lead to the suffering and death of the innocent, including children, need to be made on firmer foundations than fury and revulsion.
As for the second question, none of the hawks seem prepared to consider it properly. As they must be aware, ISIL is not a discrete organisation with a defined number of members who can neatly be removed from the “battlefield” (Obama’s particularly inappropriate term) until they are all gone. This is not a game of Risk. ISIL, like Al Quaeda, and all the similar groupings that have gone before, (and will come after if we don’t start learning some lessons) thrives on feelings of injustice, victimhood and persecution. The more widespread such emotions are among the young and not-so-young Muslims of the world, the more recruits will arise. So what is the best way of producing these feelings? The movement’s leaders know perfectly well; those beheadings didn’t get onto YouTube by accident.
I’m not going to say anything about oil; it is a given that no prospective war is ever about resources, and only cynical conspiracy theorists ever think that it is. Somehow most past wars turn out to have been, but that’s a different matter. I won’t say anything, either, about the cost of these politely termed “air strikes”. (They sound so harmless that way; a sort of invisible Swingball.) Public spending, of the kind that is so sadly unaffordable when it comes to children, disabled people or even libraries, is miraculously abundant for drones and missiles.
In fact I’m not going to write any more at all. I’ve got Peter Lee’s Blair’s Just War out of the library, and it’s due back in a week. Maybe someone else will want to read it by then.