Last week David Cameron, British PM, put the case for bombing ISIS. It was interesting not for what he didn’t say but for the extent of what he did say. In stark contrast to the last time a British PM tried to ginny up a war, this time he was unstinting in his efforts to present facts and legal material in support of his bloodthirst. I watched it live (by coincidence!) and was interested to see that he released the legal evidence for war – something Blair never did – and spoke in detail to a list of reasons why bombing ISIS would be a war of self-defense, justified by not just international law but common decency. I can’t find the speech online, but you can read highlights here. In my opinion this was one of Cameron’s finer moments, reminiscent of the Cameron I saw on TV in 2009 before I left the UK, making strong speeches upbraiding the Labour Party for abandoning equality and promising that the Conservatives would be a party of greater equality and opportunity.
He does a good act, does the pig-fucker general. He let it all down today when he called the opposition leader a “terrorist sympathizer,” a cheap and pathetic shot that he really didn’t need to deliver after making a strong and passionate speech in favour of a war that, I think, many people would be happy to support. Why smear shit on that gilded lily? This particular insult is particularly stupid because while many people might suspect Corbyn of being a bit too close with Assad, it’s really obvious to everyone that a) this wouldn’t be happening if Assad had a few more friends and b) Corbyn is obviously a pacifist, which means he is not a terrorist sympathizer and everyone knows this. Saying something like “Corbyn can’t be trusted with the nuclear arsenal” is a perfectly reasonable slur; there is, however, no logic to claiming a pacifist is a terrorist sympathizer, and coming from someone in a position of such strength as Cameron this is just pathetic.
It’s also redolent of the worst rhetorical excesses of the period leading up to the Iraq war, when anyone who didn’t agree with a plan to kill a million Iraqis, displace 4 million more, and ignite a powder keg in the middle East was derided as a coward and a friend of Saddam Hussein. After those heady days of bloodthirsty stupidity it’s a very, very bad plan to show any hint of the same arrogance. This was on display in both Cameron’s speech and Corbyn’s reply, both of which were heavy with caution about the idea of sending British soldiers to the middle East. Cameron was at pains to point out that this was not a war of choice, and Corbyn was at pains to point out that the Labour Party is no longer the party of indiscriminately murdering foreigners.
Progress! And how did this progress come about? Because everyone in British politics is now desperate to avoid being compared to that most sinister of Vampiric figures, Tony Blair, the muppet who sucked Britain into a devastating war with a country it had no reason to invade, against all reason and popular will. Excepting the Scottish National Party, who are a kind of post-Blairite success, the rest of the parliament were engaged in a ten-hour long debate this week with not each other, but the ghost of Vampires past – Tony Blair. They could as well have burnt his effigy and all gone home, because until a couple of generations have passed and that evil grinning demon is dispelled from the British conscience there is no possibility of having an honest debate about war. How can you debate something when the shame, stigma and sin are so deeply ingrained as this? Little knowing, Shakespeare prepared a scene for just this moment in British political history: “Out, damned spot!”
But like the play, it won’t wash out, and as a result Corbyn’s response to Cameron’s speech was, in my opinion, crabby and limited. He could have set a higher tone by commending Cameron for his thoroughness, reminding everyone from the start of what a heinous mistake the last British effort was, and engaging the points that Cameron made rather than reading off a list of questions that Cameron had basically already answered. Corbyn’s speech was aimed at an absent Tony Blair, and those of his ghouls who remain connected to the parliamentary Labour Party, rather than the ostensible warmonger standing in front of him. Was ever a political party more hamstrung by its recent history than this? They elected a near-pacifist, who has completely reasonable grounds for his beliefs, and is strong in them, but the first time a war comes along he actually has a really good opportunity to engage with the British public by renouncing those beliefs “for a greater good”: only he can’t, because he and his whole party couldn’t go to war against Darth Vader himself if he was murdering puppies by the bucketload, because even the suggestion of a warlike impulse and the entire country will yell “FUCK! Blair!” and head to the bomb shelters.
He doesn’t have a reflection, but surely Blair’s shadow stretches far.
Later in the week Corbyn recovered some poise, and wrote a much more solid opinion piece for the Guardian, explaining in more detail why war won’t work. He seems to be largely supported by his party, though reports say he is allowing a conscience vote, which is good. War should be a matter of conscience, though that wouldn’t have stopped the Blairite clique, who are as completely lacking in conscience as they are in souls. Corbyn’s piece points out that without boots on the ground we can’t win, and the only boots on the ground that can win are local, but the local forces are either useless or very very dubious. He also points out that British planes won’t add much to all the other powers there so why bother? I have the same feeling about Trident: just let it all go boys, you’re no longer a world power! But the deeper point I think is more important: without ground troops bombing campaigns are a waste of time, and there is no army ready to deal with ISIS.
ISIS are the Khmer Rouge of the Middle East. Just like the Khmer Rouge, they sprung out of destruction and waste, sowed now as it was then by the US air force and triggered by a local insurrection. In the end the Khmer Rouge were brought down by a Vietnamese invasion, which it appears many scholars think met all the conditions for a “just war”: they invaded Cambodia to protect themselves, stop massive refugee flows, and end a despotic and genocidal regime. Cameron was at pains to make the same points in his speech, though he didn’t compare the UK to Vietnam, and I think he’s on solid ground. The difference, of course, is in the source of ground troops: Vietnam is a neighbour of Cambodia, and sent in 150000 Vietnamese troops, defeating the Khmer Rouge in two weeks (ha!), but there is no similar ground force available to beat ISIS. If the western powers are going to depose ISIS they’re going to need a local force, and the only local forces available are either unacceptable (Iran, Hezbollah, Assad) or uninterested (Turkey).
When I read the debates about what to do about ISIS I find myself trapped by the same demons as Corbyn. On first blush it appears like the perfect humanitarian intervention – no clearer case has presented itself in 30 years. But our recent history of interventions and the recent history in the area make me think that no intervention is going to work. Which leaves ISIS rampaging across the region, destroying everything they touch, even though there’s the possibility of a coalition of global powers acting together for the first time since world war 2 to destroy an unqualified evil, uncompromised by concerns of local politics or history. Since the Khmer Rouge no one has been so obviously cruising for a bruising as ISIS, and no coalition more clearly ready to form since world war 2.
And yet over it all hangs the shadow of Blair and Bush. Vox recently published a great article featuring a debate between Christopher Hitchens and a few other randoms, in which Hitchens was 100% convinced that no harm could come from invading Iraq, while someone else in the debate was predicting, essentially, ISIS. Reach back in history and view that, and weep at how stupid our political masters can be. If they hadn’t invaded Iraq, a million people would still be alive and ISIS probably wouldn’t exist; and if they did, the political will to destroy them would be intense and unstoppable.
There is no place in hell hot enough for the people who made those decisions in 2003.