I thank Henry Jones for his response to my recent commentary piece, ‘Britain’s Military Identity Crisis: Questioning our place in a new balance of power’ but here I will continue to press my continued belief in my original argument and point out my disagreements with his opposition.
One of the main undertones of my critique of the future of Britain’s military identity, was the idea that Britain should no longer pursue a military strategy of ‘interventionism’, epitomised in recent years by the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the now largely forgotten Libyan intervention of 2011.
The main moral component of Jones’ opposition to this assertion, was that British interventionism could be used as a force for good in the world, arguing that standing by and allowing evil forces to go unchallenged is a profoundly immoral and insular mind-set.
Jones directly references the British intervention against Da’esh as such an instance where we were right not to stand by, proclaiming:
“I would be ashamed if the UK hadn’t participated in the fight against Da’esh […] Da’esh are evil and it would be wrong for the UK to stand back and watch.”
I completely recognise the moral legitimacy of this stance but here one must be extremely careful of falling into the same dangerous trap that the west has fallen into so many times over the past 15 years.
My main quarrel with the ethos of “moralist interventionism” is that it almost always suffers from the same inherent flaw: short-sighted thought and action induced by moral hysteria.
Initially, all of the recent western military interventions are justified on some kind of moral pretence, just like the one that Jones describes above.
Politicians who embrace a moral cause as a justification for war then begin to speak in arm waving, rhetorical terms about crusading against some kind of evil (especially when public and media hysteria sets in), while paying little or no attention to the often highly complex real world nature of the circumstances of the conflict they wish to enter.
I am pleased Jones referenced the British intervention in the Syria/Iraq civil war, as in fact, this is perhaps the best example in recent memory of the potential dangers of this intoxicating mind-set.
In the early stages of the Syrian Civil war in August 2013, after a chemical weapons attack killed hundreds of Syrian civilians, David Cameron caught the ‘moral interventionist bug’, trigger happily calling for airstrikes against the Assad regime (a motion which was voted down in parliament on August 30th).
Around this time also, when Assad was still considered the primary villain in the conflict, there was also suggestions of US and other western powers arming and aiding the various militant groups fighting his regime.
But in January 2014, just four months after David Cameron had advocated the bombing of the Assad regime and the west was discussing the idea of aiding militant groups fighting Assad, several of the groups synthesised with Islamist groups in Iraq to form ISIS; spreading the conflict into Iraq and becoming perhaps the most barbaric manifestation of Islamist extremism ever known.
Let us pause for a moment and consider the extraordinary things that almost happened in the name of “moralist interventionism” in this particular conflict.
In 2013, when we still considered Assad the primary adversary, the west almost armed militant groups that later merged with or were affiliated to IS. Furthermore, if we had launched strikes against Assad as Cameron intended, we would have only strengthened the position of such groups in the region, an action that would have been catastrophic.
This epitomises the myopic tendency that is endemic to “moralist interventionism”: the scent of the crusade for moral justice, while often legitimate, so often leads to frightfully reductionistic and naive thinking in the midst of hysteria; desperately searching for easy answers when unfortunately, there sometimes simply aren’t any.
I applaud jones for mentioning the intervention in Bosnia as a sound British intervention (Sierra Leone would be another example), but surely he cannot deny that these are red herrings amongst a long line of Middle-Eastern blunders since 2001.
Jones also rejects my assertion that our recent foreign policy has exacerbated the threat of international terrorism, an assertion I will continue to defend.
Before the war on terror began in 2001 with the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, the then leaders of the Islamist terror movement, were an isolated group located in the wilderness of the Afghan/Pakistan border. Since the interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya; this once isolated ideology has splintered, mutated into new forms amongst the chaos of these various conflicts and dispersed to form an international movement.
Casting aside the debate of interventionism, there is the other more pragmatic side of my original argument to consider.
My reference to the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth as a symbol of the “schism between an old Britain we cling on to that no longer exists”, was not merely intended a metaphor about Britain’s imaginary status as a world power; it was intended as a literal reference to a growing crisis in the armed forces.
During the 2000s, while billions were spent on the procurement on extravagant armaments programs - new aircraft carriers, new nuclear submarines, new fighter aircraft - in Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of British troops died needlessly as a result of lacking basic quality equipment: poorly armoured Land Rovers and a chronic lack of helicopters to supply their basic operations.
To this day, while we still continue to spend billions on projects like HMS Queen Elizabeth, clearly intended for global power projection, we have a standing army of less than 100,000 men for the first time in modern history and with Russian Air Force intrusions in British airspace becoming a regular occurrence, the RAF will soon have barely enough fighter aircraft to sufficiently defend our airspace.
My point is that why are we diverting enormous funds to such projects, if we can barely maintain the core and defensive duties of the Armed Forces? When I referenced our global military status as a “status we can no longer maintain”, I meant this more literally than Jones realised.
Unless we drastically increase military spending, which is highly un tenable in the current political climate given the dire state of public services such as the NHS, we can simply no longer afford to simultaneously pursue a defensive and global military capability of the gravitas we once did.