The Reluctant Case for War Against ISIL

On Saturday 15th February 2003 I marched against the Iraq War. With my flatmate and friends I walked in protest through central London with thousands of others, both political and non-political. We believed, maybe incorrectly, that we represented the majority who were against misguided military intent. My own reasons were formed in a belief that a post-conflict political settlement would be hard to achieve and an idealistic belief in the authority of United Nations. However I cannot deny a feeling that this was the wrong people - Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld - going to war.

That evening, having made a stand against a self-evident wrong, as we met to tell stories of our day, there was a feeling of moral validation: Not In Our Name. But I had a lurking sense of disquiet that my opposition had been appropriated by those with whom I disagreed, that I had marched to defend a sadistic regime. While I can find practical reasons to defend liberal democracies (better education, economic prosperity, civil peace), I cannot deny that I also believe in its moral superiority to naked and foul dictatorship. Our relativism exists within an absolute.

Last month ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) executed four men for being gay by binding them and throwing them off a building; its treatment of women includes rape, slavery and torture; in December 2014 there were reports that more than 150 women in Falluja had been killed for refusing to participate in jihad-al-nikah (sexual jihad); children have been beaten into converting to Islam and forced to become soldiers; news channels have shown brutal beheadings, most recently in the ruins of once cosmopolitan Palmyra an ancient axis between East and West. In March the United Nations human rights office reported that ISIL’s attacks against ethnic and religious groups may have amounted to genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Human Rights Commission of Iraq has estimated a total dead of 50,000, with 80,000 needing humanitarian assistance and 3 million refugees.

just because we cannot do the right thing everywhere it does not mean we should not try when we canOne can deny their existential threat to Western security but not their brutality. If we choose to ignore it we are saying that a foreign life is worth less than a British one. Of course, realpolitik dictates that, yes, a foreign life is worth less than a domestic one. Theories exist within a hard-boiled framework and are never pure in practice. The world, though inter-connected, is still based on the concept of the nation state. Yet when order breaks down the policy priorities change: just because we cannot do the right thing everywhere it does not mean we should not try when we can.

Despite the fact is that ISIL has redrawn the political map of the Middle East: the UK is currently engaged in air strikes against ISIL over Iraq but not Syria, a distinction without a difference. The precedent Blair set by allowing a vote on military intervention in Iraq means that Parliament will have a vote on extending strikes to Syria. After Syria’s use of chemical weapons in 2013, Parliament rejected airstrikes on Assad’s forces. This is different. However, the government, with its slender majority, will need support from the main opposition party, a party currently in thrall to its left flank.

My enemy’s enemy is not necessarily my friend. ISIL is not ‘Iraq’

Reluctance to get involved is understandable. Too often intervention has appeared to make matters worse; there are fears that involvement will only inflame tensions, lead to greater domestic terrorism and greater alienation of Muslim youth. These are valid concerns but they are practical not moral counters. Tensions are already inflamed. Humanitarian intervention is not the same as liberal intervention: we are not creating chaos out of order. There is no order. There is only violence. We should never deny that Western foreign policy is a grievance exploited by Islamist extremist recruiters but there are other factors too - alienation, lack of identity, individual injustices. StWC proclaims bad intent, wild conspiracy theories and neo-colonisation; they feed that narrative.

The cost of action cannot be denied but those who opposed a humanitarian intervention neglect to admit there is an every day cost of inaction. This left has a problem. The faulty logic, which sees in the obvious wrong that is GTMO an ally in Mozeem Begg, leads some to say that because the Iraq War was wrong, then all military action is also wrong. My enemy’s enemy is not necessarily my friend. ISIL is not ‘Iraq’.

There are no counterfactuals in foreign policy. It is not always possible to state with certainty whether we made a situation better or not. A foreign policy based of responding to violence and atrocity is by nature reactive: the question then becomes whether that reaction can evolve into a long-term strategy. Reasoned scepticism is different from unconditional opposition that sees war in any circumstance as a moral wrong.

When asked to explain the origins of the first world war, Captain Blackadder replied that it was too much effort not to have a war: dialogue had given way to massive loss of human life. It is that senselessness which leads many to oppose all wars: that war is a failure of politics, not an extension of it. States, in theory, have an innate rationalism to them. Bloody murderers and apologists for violence do not. What other choice do we have? 

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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