Not so long ago, David Cameron declared that he was not some ‘naive neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet’. Just a few weeks after making that speech, Cameron authorised UK forces to join in the bombing of Libya — where the outcome reaffirmed this essential lesson.
Soon Cameron will ask parliament to share his ‘firm conviction’ that bombing Raqqa, the Syrian headquarters of the Islamic State, has become ‘imperative’. At first glance, the case for doing so appears compelling. The atrocities in Paris certainly warrant a response. With François Hollande having declared his intention to ‘lead a war which will be pitiless’, other western nations can hardly sit on their hands; as with 9/11 and 7/7, the moment calls for solidarity. And since the RAF is already targeting Isis in Iraq, why not extend the operation to the other side of the elided border? What could be easier?
But it’s harder to establish what expanding the existing bombing campaign further will actually accomplish. Is Britain engaged in what deserves to be called a war, a term that implies politically purposeful military action? Or is the Cameron government — and the Hollande government as well — merely venting its anger, and thereby concealing the absence of clear-eyed political purpose?
Britain and France each once claimed a place among the world’s great military powers. Whether either nation today retains the will (or the capacity) to undertake a ‘pitiless’ war — presumably suggesting a decisive outcome at the far end — is doubtful. The greater risk is that, by confusing war with punishment, they exacerbate the regional disorder to which previous western military interventions have contributed.
Even without Britain doing its bit, plenty of others are willing to drop bombs on Isis on either side of the Iraq-Syria frontier. With token assistance from Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, US forces have thus far flown some 57,000 sorties while completing 8,300 air strikes. United States Central Command keeps a running scorecard: 129 Isis tanks destroyed, 670 staging areas and 5,000 fighting positions plastered, and (in a newish development) 260 oil infrastructure facilities struck, with the numbers updated from one day to the next. The campaign that the Americans call Operation Inherent Resolve has been under way now for 17 months. It seems unlikely to end anytime soon.
In Westminster or the Elysée, the Pentagon’s carefully tabulated statistics are unlikely to garner much official attention, and for good reason. All these numbers make a rather depressing point: with plenty of sorties flown, munitions expended and targets hit, the results achieved, even when supplemented with commando raids, training missions and the generous distribution of arms to local forces, amount in sum to little more than military piddling. In the United States, the evident ineffectiveness of the air campaign has triggered calls for outright invasion. Pundits of a bellicose stripe, most of whom got the Iraq war of 2003 wrong, insist that a mere 10,000 or 20,000 ground troops — 50,000 tops! — will make short work of the Islamic State as a fighting force. Victory guaranteed. No sweat.
And who knows? Notwithstanding their record of dubious military prognostications, the proponents of invade-and-occupy just might be right — in the short term. The West can evict Isis from Raqqa if it really wants to. But as we have seen in other recent conflicts, the real problems are likely to present themselves the day after victory. What then? Once in, how will we get out? Competition rather than collaboration describes relations between many of the countries opposing Isis. As Barack Obama pointed out this week, there are now two coalitions converging over Syria: a US-led one, and a Russia-led one that includes Iran. Looking for complications? With Turkey this week having shot down a Russian fighter jet — the first time a Nato member has downed a Kremlin military aircraft for half a century — the subsequent war of words between Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin gives the world a glimpse into how all this could spin out of control.
The threat posed by terrorism is merely symptomatic of larger underlying problems. Crush Isis, whether by bombing or employing boots on the ground, and those problems will still persist. A new Isis, under a different name but probably flying the same banner, will appear in its place, much as Isis itself emerged from the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Does the West possess the wherewithal to sustain another long war? Only if the allies wage that war exclusively from the air. The British army is now the smallest it has been since the 19th century, Cameron’s government having reduced it by 20 per cent since coming to power. The French army today numbers just over 100,000. London and Paris inevitably look to the United States as the pre-eminent member of the western alliance to take up the slack (the US still spends almost twice as much on defence as all other Nato members put together). But apart from Obama’s evident reluctance to close out his presidency by embarking upon a new war, advocates of a major ground offensive against Isis should note that the United States army is also shrinking. It’s also considerably worn out by the trials of the past dozen or more years. Those who cheer from the bleachers may be eager for action. Those likely to be sent to fight, not to mention citizens who actually care about the wellbeing of their soldiers, may feel less keen.
The fact is that Britain, France, the United States and the other allies face a perplexing strategic conundrum. Collectively, they find themselves locked in a protracted conflict with Islamic radicalism — of which Isis is but one manifestation. Prospects for negotiating an end to that conflict anytime soon appear to be nil. Alas, so too do prospects of winning it.
In this conflict, the West as a whole appears to enjoy the advantage of clear-cut military superiority. By almost any measure, we are stronger than our adversaries. Our arsenals are bigger, our weapons more sophisticated, our generals better educated in the art of war, our fighters better trained at waging it.
Yet time and again the actual deployment of our ostensibly superior military might has produced results other than those intended or anticipated. Even where armed intervention has achieved a semblance of tactical success — the ousting of some unsavoury dictator, for example — it has yielded neither reconciliation nor willing submission nor even sullen compliance. Instead, intervention typically serves to aggravate, inciting further resistance. Rather than putting out the fires of radicalism, we end up feeding them.
Although the comparison may strike some as historically imprecise, the present moment bears at least passing resemblance to the last occasion when British and French leaders got all worked up about taking on obstreperous Arabs. Back in 1956, the specific circumstances differed, of course. Then, the problem attracting the ire of British and French policymakers was the Arab nationalism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who in seizing the Suez canal had committed a seemingly unpardonable offence. And the issue was preserving imperial privilege, not curbing terrorism. But then, as today, in both London and Paris, an emotional thirst for revenge overrode sober calculation.
The vicious Isis attacks in Paris represent another unpardonable offence. Through war, Cameron and Hollande seek to avenge the innocents who were killed and wounded. But as the humiliating outcome of the Suez war reminds us, there are some problems to which war is an unsuitable response.
Across much of the greater Middle East today, we confront one such problem. For western governments to reflexively visit further violence on that region represents not a policy but an abdication of policy. It’s past time to think differently.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a retired US colonel, and author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, due out in April.