Britain has had a national minute of silence today to remember the victims – including 30 Britons killed – of the beachside massacre in Sousse, Tunisia, last week. Then it will be back to politics as usual, which means discussing when to bomb in Syria. God help us.
The record so far
The Middle East has more wars going on today than at any time since it entered its modern age in the 1940s and ‘50s with independence from the colonial and mandate powers, the foundation of Israel, and the discovery of oil in commercial quantities. The lethality level of today’s wars is matched in that 70-year period only by the 1980s when Iran and Iraq were at war and Lebanon was collapsing. But today, networks capable of causing terror are more developed than they have ever been, and reach further around the world both in recruiting activists and in their capacity to inflict harm.
Whatever it was that President Bush and Prime Minister Blair sought to achieve when they invaded Iraq without UN approval in 2003, ostensibly to find and render safe weapons of mass destruction that by then no longer existed, it was not this. What President Bush called a war on terror has succeeded only in producing both.
Likewise, whatever President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron, supported somewhat tepidly by President Obama, intended when they intervened in Libya to overthrow Qadaffi, it was not a situation in which 1,800 militia forces rampage across the country.
In short, both interventions, both dubbed successes by over-hasty leaders, have failed completely and, whether measured in economic resources or in death and misery, expensively.
And now, it seems, the British government wants to do it again.
Do something – but what?
To state a few things that are obvious:
- ISIS commits atrocities on a massive scale;
- The people in the Middle East and neighbouring regions including ourselves have the right to live in security;
- What happened in Sousse was horrific;
- Something must be done.
But while the impulse to do so something is understandable, that does not mean keeping on doing things that were part of what has created this awful situation.
The frequently used argument that we must fight ISIS “over there” or else we will have to fight them “over here” is laughable. We will have to fight ISIS over here precisely because our government bombs them over there. There will be more massacres of the unprotected and innocent as a result.
Last year, speaking at the UN, David Cameron said, “No to rushing to join a conflict without a clear plan.” Fine, but this year he talks of crushing ISIS. Others say, ‘Smash it.’ The trouble is that experience shows that’s not how it works. Weaken ISIS and another group will emerge to take its place. If in doubt, consider what has happened since US forces killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Few options, no answers
I do not have the answer to put on the table: do this and it’s problem solved. Nobody does. I doubt there is such an answer. The patient search for a political settlement, which in general terms is the obvious alternative to military action, is no miracle cure. The strife now has such deep roots that more pain for the region and its neighbours is inevitable. But that is no reason to keep on doing what has failed before, doing what has, in fact, exacerbated the problem as Middle East regional security has deteriorated to an all-time low.
There are few good options available. It is true for those of us on the side lines and those in the political furnace. If not bombing, then what? – that’s the outsiders’ narrow menu. For Middle Easterners, the issue is sharper. Between what seemed like competing prospects of chaos and stability, many Egyptians, who had taken the risk of demonstrating and standing up for freedom and democracy in 2011, chose two years later to support the overthrow of the democratically elected President and his replacement by the head of the military. And while the choice between ISIS and Sisi in Egypt – and comparable choices elsewhere – is unappetising, the outsiders – the Western powers, the Gulf States, Russia – do little to help.
It is as easy to insist on a political settlement in Syria or in Libya as it is to talk of crushing ISIS. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS gives every indication of denying the legitimacy of compromise, so the concept of settlement would be out of bounds. In Libya, where ISIS is present but far from dominant, there could (and, for their own self-interest, should) be more possibility of arriving at an initial settlement between the Dawn and Dignity rivals.
But while a political approach may not be more successful, there is a difference: it will do less harm.