I am averse to knee-jerk pacifism as much as I dislike knee-jerk war-mongering. This is perhaps a bold admission for a Green Party member, but I supported the invasion of Iraq back when Tony Blair was primeminister, because I agreed that Saddam Hussein was worth getting rid of and thought that it could be done reasonably effectively, with a combination of ground troops supported by aircraft.
That part of it turned out to be more or less right. But I made the foolish mistake of assuming that the world’s western powers – which in effect meant the US – would have a coherent plan to create a democratic state once Saddam was driven from power. It turned out they didn’t. Like Captain Kirk blasting the baddies on a foreign planet, they thought they could install their own puppets and then walk away. They (we) ended up creating chaos, an incompetent, undemocratic Shia controlled government and massive disaffection amongst the Sunni minority. That disaffection is now stoking the growth of Isis.
So if there was a credible plan – using both diplomacy, sanctions, trade blockades, pressure on Turkey, carrots and sticks – to create a reasonably democratic state or states out of the mess that is Syria, and properly conceived military action was part of that plan, then I might just back it.
But there patently isn’t. This bombing is not part of a long-term strategic plan, it is apparently a political “message” to the US and France that Britain will back their “war on terror”. Yet there is no evidence that the Paris terrorist attacks were funded or organised by Isis, rather than individual disaffected Belgians and French who have been inspired by the idea of Jihad. And even if it turns out they were, the way to tackle terrorism is to address the underlying discontent among the populations of Syria, Iraq and Turkey that allows terrorists to thrive.
The evidence we do have points towards the futility of bombing Syria. America and France have been bombing the country for some time. All it has done is increase support for Isis by constantly killing civilians. Would sending in ground troops – which may well be Obama and Cameron’s next step – be more effective? Not if we don’t have a plan to support the diverse citizens of the land currently known as Syria once Assad is removed. It would simply stoke anti-western feeling even further.
I have been reading all I can about this over the last few days because up until recently I was undecided. What finally swayed me against bombing were not the routine peacenik noises of Jeremy Corbyn, which are entirely to be expected. It was the opinions of people from the other end of the left-right spectrum, who do not have an ideological aversion to any foreign military intervention.
People like David Davis, Conservative MP, who believes that bombing will be ineffective. Or Maj-Gen Patrick Cordingley, involved in the first Iraq invasion, who, writing in The Times, said that bombing, by killing large numbers of people, would simply fuel further problems with terror groups down the road. Or Peter Hitchens, writing in the Daily Mail, who said “We are rushing towards yet another swamp, from which we will struggle to extract ourselves and where we can do no conceivable good.”
Green MP Caroline Lucas gave perhaps the most reasoned, least emotional, arguments, pointing out that the Foreign Affairs Committee had said that because Britain has so far avoided joining the bombing, unlike the US, Russia and France, we have a credibility in the eyes of Muslim, Middle Eastern nations which would allow us to take a leading role in diplomatic negotiations.
By the way, what a farce our newspapers and broadcast journalists have made of reporting and analysing this important question. If you want to try to tease out the truth about whether we should join the bombing, you have to fight your way through a raft of lurid headlines about “Labour’s war on Syria” and commentary and overly-hostile questions about Corbyn’s “lack of leadership”. As if the main opposition political party having a heated debate on the question was somehow more surprising or interesting or important than the decision as to whether we should send our people into a battle zone in a foreign land.
For what it is worth, I’m glad that Jeremy Corbyn has allowed his MPs a free vote on the matter. If MPs are unable to exercise their consciences and intellects on this, they shouldn’t be MPs. Unlike all the other parties, the Green Party does not believe in “whipping” its elected representatives as if they are so much voting fodder. Every vote should be down to the conscience of the individual elected representative, not set by a party leader who has some tactical political reason, usually based around pleasing powerful backers, for fixing the vote. People want their representatives to make decisions for them based on their individual conscience, not on their instructions from a party leader.
Ah yes, people will say, but you’ve only got one MP so it’s not yet an issue for you. Well all over the country we have Green groups of councillors none of whom use the “whip” to instruct their colleagues how to vote. All of them try to build consensus amonst their ranks by persuasion and debate. Greens ran Brighton and Hove council as a minority administration for four years, without using a whip. Yes that led to headlines about internal ructions and “splits”. But Greens were prepared to put up with that for the sake of treating their elected representatives – and their constituents who expect them to make decisions for themselves – as adults. A true leader leads by persuasion and example, not by the bullying and bribing that constitutes the whip system.