I just do not know whether the UK dropping bombs on – or even firing incredibly well targeted missiles at – Syria will help to defeat Daesh, as we are now told we should call the vicious bandits who masquerade there as religious. I do not know whether it will bring peace to that exhausted part of the world. It seems intrinsically unlikely, since three major powers are already blasting away and it seems that their efforts are insufficient, or why else would they be eager for us to have a go? But the intelligence reports and the military knowledge are not something I have at my disposal so how can I make an informed judgement about such a very complex situation? In that I am, ironically, in the same position as most MP’s who voted on the matter, but that happens.
But as I read the reports of this week’s debate in the House of Commons, the principal argument seemed to be the same very bad argument which underpinned our participation in the invasion of Iraq. “Our friends are doing it, we don’t want to be left out or they may think the worse of us.” Killing people to defend others is certainly ethically acceptable in the right circumstances, but killing people to enhance one’s reputation or be part of the in-crowd? I doubt it.
I was left with other serious misgivings, of which two will suffice. First, most people seem to accept that air strikes are only of real use in support of a ground offensive, which makes a sort of sense to a military layman. You can destroy things from the air and you can make life very difficult for those on the ground, but you cannot retake territory. But none of the Western powers is interested in a ground offensive, so a mythical army of 70,000 local “moderate” fighters was conjured up. There is clearly no such army, there is at best a multitude of small rival groups. Even the total number of ground fighters who could be described as “moderate” in their level of fanaticism is probably much smaller than suggested. Many people have pointed this out and it seems now to be commonly accepted but it must have been well known when the case was set out. It was, in fact, a brazen lie.
The second serious objection was to the use of the term “terrorist sympathisers” by the Prime Minister to describe anyone who disagreed with the government case. It is impossible, then, to disagree with the government without sympathising with terrorists? There is no possibility that the government may be mistaken, even on points of detail? This is just nasty, it is bullying of the sort we associate with totalitarian regimes. Logically, it is the weakest sort of argument, nearly always used to bolster a suspect case, the argumentum ad hominem, which translates from Latin to soccer as playing the man rather than the ball. But politically, it suggests a willingness to smear and discredit rather than discuss, a desire not to bother with the real substance of the issue at all. It is the sort of tactic which distorts democracy because it will not concede the essential prerequisite of democracy, that there can be honest opposition. It is one step away from arresting dissenters, and only a few steps away from fascism.
I do not know whether the UK dropping bombs on Syria will bring peace. But I know that the way we came to that decision has made me ashamed of my government and fearful for my country.