Unwinnable War Two

Glen Newey

It’s war time again. Earlier this month the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FAC) noted that legal opinion is at best divided on the legality of whacking Islamic State without Chapter VII support, but last Friday the UN passed resolution 2249 enjoining member states to take ‘all necessary measures’ – UN-speak for military action – against IS. David Cameron will probably seek and get Commons approval for war next week, a move that’s already had the spin-off benefit of splitting Labour’s Corbynites and hawks.

As Obama said the other day, France is the United States’ oldest ally. Meanwhile we British, too, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our oldest enemy, hailed this week by Cameron as ‘friends and allies’. In the Orwellian perma-war, memory is slavery and amnesia emancipation. Signifier-flotation rules. Yesterday’s cheese-eating surrender monkeys
emerge as a bastion of civilisation against the ragheads du jour. Notoriously, back in 2003 when Chirac was sensibly blocking Bush and Blair’s pursuit of a Security Council mandate for the idiocy in Iraq, the US Congress diner rebranded French fries and toast as ‘freedom fries’ and ‘freedom toast’, which others copied (regrettably I haven’t traced a use of ‘freedom letters’). But now a higher trump has blown, as it did a hundred years ago when Gaul and Saxon, with the tsar, united to carve up Ottoman domains including Syria and Iraq. Now these two dog-eared ex-imperia, both pawing at the top table with their nukes and permanent UN Security Council membership, are again burying their old contention.

For Britain, that means extending the bombing of IS from Iraq to targets in Syria. But, since the war’s aim is to annihilate IS, and nobody thinks that that can be achieved by air strikes alone, the prospective means falls short of its end: just war doctrine says, for what it’s worth, that wars should be started only with reasonable prospects of success. The RAF has enough bomb-power to kill a lot of civilians but not enough to ‘eradicate’ IS. Cameron’s point-by-point response to the FAC proposes to plug the means-end gap with boots on the ground – filled not by British troops but local irregulars, whose main asset is their dispensability to Western public opinion.

This ragged corps, wished into cohesion as al-Jaysh as-Suri al-Hurr or the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA), and boosted to 70,000 by the Joint Intelligence Committee, seems to be thought of as a white-hatted cadre of bien pensant cannon fodder to be deployed at will against the bad guys – principally IS, but presumably also al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which has won a steady stream of recruits from the FSA. A US training initiative aimed at turning 5000 local fighters (‘moderates’) into hipster stormtroopers produced fewer than 100 graduates, many of the rest being tainted with ‘radicalism’. How these auxiliaries will be deployed in the field under a unified command and intelligence structure, so as to work in tactical concert with allied forces, is left blank.

Still, the political strategy almost makes the military one look as if it lacks stupidity. It calls for making allies of regional unfriends like Assad, Putin and maybe Iran, to whom the reassertion of Sunni power in Mesopotamia is anathema. It also calls for the reconciliation of unfriends of unfriends such as Erdoğan with Putin, a quixotic project even before the Turks shot down a Russian jet; Erdoğan has winked at IS activity on and within his borders, both to pander to Islamists in Turkey and as a counterweight to Kurdish separatism. Local stakeholders include Islamic Front, which seeks a non-democratic Islamic theocracy with the backing of our Saudi friends. Jaysh al-Mujahideen, insofar as it still exists, opposes not only IS but the Turks’ counter-insurgency against the Kurds.

Out of this it’s expected that a political solution will crystallise, in which Assad will play a key role while also standing down for a post-incumbency career in The Hague. The International Syria Support Group, lauded by Cameron in his answer to the FAC, foresees political negotiations before the end of this year, leading to free elections in eighteen months. Somehow this will hobble homegrown Western jihadism, too, and notwithstanding IS affiliate activity in Yemen, Nigeria, Egypt and elsewhere. Costs, human and other, can balloon ad libitum.

This is not realism, but surrealism. It can be made sense of only expressively. After Paris, civilisation demands futile acts of symbolic violence. Raqqa contains upwards of 300,000 civilians. Doubtless some of them back IS, or would do if allowed to grow up, and anyway are guilty by proximity if not association. The odd ‘precision’ missile may go astray, and splatter a school or hospital together with its inhabitants as in Kunduz. Quibbling that the project of bombing Syria back to civilisation – so successful in Iraq and Libya – rests on no coherent political or military strategy, is as welcome in Washington, Whitehall and the Quai d’Orsay as a cactus in a condom. As Talleyrand said of the Bourbons, western policy-makers have learned nothing; unlike the Bourbons, though, they’ve also remembered nothing.


  • 27 November 2015 at 9:26pm
    streetsj says:
    Yes. So what's your solution? A negotiated settlement of peace for everyone. And who would disagree - but realistically what is the answer?
    One thing that the anti-war brigade seem to forget is that the 2003 Iraq war came after 9/11.
    I don't pretend to know the answer but I do believe that our way of life (Western, liberal, democracy) is worth fighting for. And that fighting is unavoidably brutal. I would love everyone to get along happily ever after. I really don't mind which God you worship or how but don't impose it on me. I think we should all be able to chose our sexual partners in any way we want. i would prefer it if our justice system was more enlightened (and here I have hope that we can improve massively on the mess we have) but I don't want to see corporal/capital summary justice.
    I want the LRB to survive and flourish.
    Nothing that I have read or heard about IS/ISIL suggests that they agree with any of this. Thus they need to be stopped. Would it were not so.

    • 28 November 2015 at 5:11pm
      pinkycubin says: @ streetsj

      It is obvious there is no clear 'solution'. That doesn't therefore mean that the use of ordnance dropped from height is part of the answer, or even justified. Just as the invasion of Iraq, which you are right to say followed 9/11, was not therefore justified by it. Quite the contrary in fact.
      We really must not allow ISIS to change our way of life. Having said this we then do the opposite, stumbling into aggressive action without any idea of what a clear outcome might be. Can we in fact 'eradicate' ISIS ? Did we 'eradicate' the Taliban? Do the vast sums spent on bombing therefore limit what we can spend on defending ourselves within our own borders - because we are going to need to defend ourselves, as by bombing we will clearly identify ourselves as targets.
      Unlike the American experience in 60s indo-china, we won't get to bomb with impunity at home. ISIS's particular form of terror is to some extent already here, among us. The fact that the west will not send in ground troops is indicative of their commitment to the recapture of ISIS territory, and what it will really cost. So whether it is 'war' or not, any bombing campaign, any eradication plan, will require someone else to do the dirty groundwork.
      As exasperated as streetsj seems, it is just as exasperating for those of us skeptical about bombing, to see the establishment groundswell forming towards another ill-advised excursion in the middle east. Remember Falluja,and Kobané. Will Raqqa too have to be flattened in order for it to be liberated?

    • 29 November 2015 at 11:32pm
      jiro harumi says: @ streetsj
      No, streetsj, I do not forget the Iraq war came after the 9.11. I do not remember, though, who sent Osama bin Laden to New York for that terror? Was it Saddam Hussain? Was Saddam murdered by Blair and Bush because he had something to do with the New York tragedy? Don't tell me that he was killed by Blair and Bush because he was brutal to his own people. It is the business of the Iraqis how to do things with their leaders. Nothing to do with you. You had no right to invade their land to do what you call "justice". Was it Saddam who did the 9.11 terror? If not, how do you justify what your leader did? I have no idea...

    • 3 December 2015 at 12:30pm
      John Cowan says: @ streetsj
      And yet there will be no calls from the international community to bomb the U.S. if a Republican takes office next January but one, though he will have (for public consumption, at least) the same general ideas.

    • 3 December 2015 at 10:02pm
      Kevin Moore says: @ streetsj
      Hi streetscape,

      Your position seems to be 'I don't know what the solution is but in the interim we should bomb parts of the Middle East because our way of life is worth fighting for.'

      If you are interested in defending our way of life shouldn't you have some reasons for the belief that this bombing will, indeed, lead to an increased likelihood that our way of life will prevail and be sustained rather than be eroded or undermined?

      Is there some evidence - from past use of this strategy, for example - or robust reasoning to support the implicit claim that 'fighting' in this way will in fact defend our way of life?

      Or is this bombing simply an 'expressive' act to express our outrage, etc.? (As the author argues).

    • 3 December 2015 at 10:03pm
      Kevin Moore says: @ Kevin Moore
      Sorry, I meant 'streetsj' - autocorrect issue.

  • 28 November 2015 at 3:17am
    Sal Scilicet says:
    “Yes.” So. That’s your solution? “They need to be stopped”? Jumping with agile contempt to the perceived, rather than available, moral high ground merely facilitates the usual messy divorce. With the value-added luxury of repenting at leisure?

    Interesting that there is no mention by Newey or his detractor of the stakes held by “The Military-Industrial Complex”. We’ve seen it all before. Not in history class, but in the street, as we speak. To decry, with the requisite self-righteous eloquence, the ancient, tried and proven bloodlust refrain as mere political lunacy is to admit to wilful ignorance. Not of the blood loss. But of the money at stake.

    I hasten to add that hypocrisy, more than any other ethos, is what unites us all. For better and for worse. Par for the course. Whose nadir is surely to accuse another of the beam in my own eye. But to seriously suggest that, “I do believe that our way of life (Western, liberal, democracy) is worth fighting for” does take a certain strain of chutzpah. And, as a magnanimous concession, that yes, indeed, “fighting is unavoidably brutal.“ Mais oui, bien sûr! Mais … cui bono, m’sieur?

    This “liberal democracy” of yours. Does that include delivering Cameron a landslide that nobody expected, because nobody actually wanted it? Does that include Trump as the only viable alternative to Hillary? Or permitting children, whose brains are still gestating, to drive a ton of steel at speed on public thoroughfares? How does “freedom of religion” not include raucous, infantile evangelism? Or “freedom of speech” not include Charlie Hebdo? [“Pas peur”?] Why does “marriage equality” not apply to minors, or siblings? Or the mentally ill? Does incest really mean anything anymore? What about that “justice system”? if, by your own abstruse admission, it publicly denies fairness and common decency to the underprivileged? “Until proven guilty”?

    Not a hint of sarcasm here? Or cant, maybe? Breathtaking optimism? “We hold these truths to be self-evident …” a blatant lie? “Liberté, egalité, fraternité” never meant to apply to the good people of Algeria? Or the utterly hopeless, socio-culturally disoriented heirs of the recent colonial past, denizens of the Paris banlieues rouges? What is a luxury, 200-room Radisson Blu Hotel doing in Mali? “For God’s sake?”

    Caution: Due to the rarified atmospherics, the moral high ground may induce severe cognitive dissonance and total loss of perspective.

    • 28 November 2015 at 3:48pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Sal Scilicet
      As the rarified air of the moral high ground confuses, so the foul vapours of cynicism poison. If humanity is to drag itself out of the savage barbarity, greed and vanity that has fuelled power for the last few millennia, it’s not going to happen in a moment of sudden enlightenment but bit by messy bit. Our prosperity is based on a history of blood and exploitation, our electoral system is corrupted by money and full of absurdities; but despite all that, we have the freedom and education to expose some of our past and present wrongs and try to make things better, and 99% of us would much rather live here under Cameron, Corbyn, or even Nigel bloody Farage than in any territory controlled by Daesh.

      Daesh do indeed need to be stopped and fighting would be worth it if it worked. None of us know for certain what any course of action will lead to, but this Guardian article by Jürgen Todenhöfer ( ) explaining not only why he thinks war counterproductive but also giving positive suggestions struck me as wise but sobering as it involves the monumental task of reconciling both Iraq and Syria, and their respective Sunni and Shia populations.

    • 29 November 2015 at 8:23pm
      streetsj says: @ Sal Scilicet
      I'm not sure what you're on or whether it would be wise to try it but I'd give it a go. once anyway.

    • 29 November 2015 at 8:24pm
      streetsj says: @ streetsj
      that's to sal scilicet

  • 28 November 2015 at 8:50am
    cufflink says:
    As expected Glen provides a useful Sat-Nav through the quicksands on the oligopoly board. I have switched the navigation to project my own voice-sound so here goes.
    La France appears on the board in the dark blue corner alongside Mayfair and in consequence has never been our oldest enemy but our closest one. We have no oldest enemy for it is impossible ever to locate a consistency (by definition) in Albion's recurrent perfidy; alas that is the nature of the diplomatic game.
    Did I not purchase my wife's first-meeting gift in the Galeries La Fayette in Regent Street? If I remeber it was a fine pair of chamois kid-gloves that clinched our betrothal; I have so much to thank for French exquisite couture, and they as a people are to me inviolable.
    What is this to do with the ISIS crisis? It is an expression of escape from empathic fatigue.
    I do not have Glen's ebullient penetrating stamina.

  • 28 November 2015 at 6:26pm
    Neil Kitson says:
    There is no Chapter VII support for military action in Resolution 2249.

    • 29 November 2015 at 4:44pm
      SpinningHugo says: @ Neil Kitson
      True, there is not.

      But to claim, as you seem to want to do, that the war is unlawful would now involve arguing that the UNSC has just called for member states to behave illegally.

      Which is ridiculous.


      Do you think the west (and the UK) should be providing military assistance against Da'esh in Iraq?

      If no, what do you think the consequences of that would be (would have been) for the Kurds,Yazidis and Iraqi government?

      If yes, why is acting agaisnt Da'esh in Syria different?

    • 30 November 2015 at 9:29am
      Joe Morison says: @ SpinningHugo
      My answer to all your questions is, I don’t know. But I do know that it’s easy to look at some group being fucked over by an oppressive regime, assume that they are the goodies and help them, only to find that when they’re in power they are just as bad as their former oppressors - today’s Daily Beast, for example, gives compelling evidence that Kurdish forces in Iraq are torturing Daesh prisoners captured with the aid of US forces who then turn a blind eye. Mistakes are impossible to avoid in war, and every innocent killed by our forces leaves loved ones well motivated to hate us.

      I trust those who know the region and its history, who mix with the people and experience their lives at first hand. Journalist like Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, and Jürgen Todenhöfer; or our former ambassador in Damascus, Peter Ford: these people seem almost unanimous in their belief that the West’s military action against Daesh is counter-productive.

    • 30 November 2015 at 9:36am
      Joe Morison says: @ Joe Morison
      I think the following is an example of a weapon more effective against them than bombs:

  • 2 December 2015 at 11:08pm
    dsueii says:
    My God, too many here have it wrong except Streetsj. Hatred for the West did not begin in 2003 nor did the chants of "death to America" begin because of Bush, either one. Odious demagoguery? Maybe a bit of that accompanying the invasion of Iraq, but nothing to compare with the insanity being peddled and delivered in the name of Allah. How many years of that before Osama or Bush or George Washington for that matter? Get real. Grant them their wish for total annihilation and we'll chance them coming back stronger somehow.

  • 3 December 2015 at 2:25pm
    Graucho says:
    If you tread on the tail of a snake it will simply turn around and bite you, as it has so horribly bitten Paris. These characters are the Islamic equivalent of the SS. Ideologically driven psychopaths, the manner in which they cold bloodly walked around their victims executing them had chilling echos of the einsatzgruppen at work. They have no more regard for we infidels than the Nazis did for the Jews. When faced with an enemy like this there are only two viable options. Do nothing or do everything. Either get out of the middle east and hope that the Sunnis and the Shiites become too occupied with murdering each other to bother with us, or invoke the NATO principle that an attack on one is an attack on all, send in half a million troops, winkle these people out of their strongholds one by one and execute them until none are left. What HMG have done is a fatally flawed compromise. Gesture politics at its worst. One thing one can say for certain is that if they had been wandering around Washington with assault rifles and murdered over a hundred people, the NATO troops would be there already,


  • 3 December 2015 at 5:30pm
    lucianotanto says:
    Too simple. There are so many type of violence like the complexity of human being. And violence is our nature.

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