Whatever happens, it probably won’t happen to Robin Lustig

This essay on war with Syria by Robin Lustig annoys me intensely, primarily because of point five:

Can IS be defeated militarily? My answer: No. As experience in Afghanistan has amply demonstrated, defeating a terrorist group by military means is an impossibility

OK so. You’ve just conceded in advance that intervention will be ineffective. In other words, you think we’re going to fail. To lose. War is a fundamentally agonistic activity. It has friends, and enemies, winners, and losers. Yet you want war. Why do you want war if you think we’re going to lose?

The answer is, I think, because Lustig and the rest of the political class have got used to military failure. We’ve been pretty much continuously at it since 2001, and it is very hard to point to anything we have achieved that lasted. There has been a lot of arguing back and forward about the rights and wrongs, but remarkably little about the utterly pathetic results.

Lustig & Co have been able to get used to strategic failure because it has had absolutely no consequences for them. Robin Lustig is very, very unlikely to lose a leg as a result of being a “reluctant bomber” or even a gleeful one. He is not even likely to lose material amounts of money. Going by precedent, his reputation and career are not even going to suffer in any measureable way. His reputation with me certainly will and is in fact already doing so, but who on earth cares about that?

The result of this is the weird, Austro-Hungarian sense of apocalyptic complacency that runs through his essay. Everything is already so bad it can’t possibly get worse (point two), action is required right now (the conclusion), even though it will probably be ineffective anyway (points three, five, six, and nine). However, nothing really terrible will happen and it will all somehow turn out OK, like last time. Conrad von Hötzendorf, we will remember, managed to achieve his personal war aim of marrying his mistress, and made a fortune from his memoirs.

Lustig’s main argument that it will turn out OK is frankly odd. It is, in essence, that the UK is kind of quaint and silly and pathetic, and nothing we do could therefore have any bad consequences. Point seven reads as follows:

Isn’t there a real risk that the UK would do more harm than good by joining the military campaign? My answer: I doubt it. UK involvement is unlikely to be a game-changer, despite the prime minister’s claim that the UK has “world-leading military capabilities to contribute, which many other countries do not possess.”

That’s it. That’s the only argument he makes against the possibility that something might go wrong: we are apparently so puny nobody will notice. So…why bother?

This doctrine of national ridiculousness is a British speciality. You hear plenty of people who argue that Trident is somehow pathetic or silly, usually about thirty seconds after they assert that its very existence is tantamount to genocide, and that its acquisition explains literally every feature of society they don’t like, from the special relationship with the United States, to the fact more British cities don’t have a metro, to the failure of post-war British industry to deliver a real global hit product (except the ones it did). You never, ever hear this in France. There are French people who believe in unilateral disarmament, but they take the issue with the seriousness it demands. They don’t think it’s silly.

The idea that national power is a bit silly is an excuse. In the case of Trident, it is an excuse for not having convinced the public with the rest of your case even though it is a pretty good one. In the case of Lustig, it is an excuse for the dreadful, dreadful lightness with which he proposes we go to war, yet again, although he actually expects to lose.

It is traditional to talk at this juncture about cruise missiles, drones, and the dangers of a war without casualties. This, however, is bullshit in the full Harry Frankfurter sense of the term: speech that, unlike lies, has no logical relationship with the truth. There have been plenty of casualties, just nobody the people who trot this stuff out knew. And they, at least, are lastingly, successfully dead. A stable and enduring condition of death has been achieved.

And the message on the gravestones ought apparently to be “It was a limited contribution to an alliance commitment. And you know, we’re only Britain, it’s not like it matters or anything.”

As for the alliance commitment, which is the only positive good Lustig puts forward as a reason for war, the problem here is that we are currently part of an alliance whose membership is changing day by day and which we do not control. Earlier today, the French foreign minister suddenly added Bashir al-Assad and whatever is left of the Syrian Arab Army to the alliance. By extension, therefore, we are suddenly on the side of Russia against Turkey, while also being on Turkey’s side against Russia. Were we consulted?

20 comments

  1. Metatone

    Well written.
    It reminds me a lot of calls for “reform” in economies or public services. Doesn’t matter if the reforms on the table have failed in the past, it’s “the thing right minded people do” and “right minded people don’t just sit on the sidelines.” And that seems to be as far as the debate generally goes.

  2. dsquared

    Great stuff. I totally agree with you on the Lustig essay, which wound me up like hell too (not least because of the implicit exchange rate argument involved in dropping missiles on Raqqa to prevent another Paris). But I do actually think that the silliness aspect is intrinsic to any discussion of Trident. It’s different from French debates about nuclear disarmament, because France does actually have an independent nuclear deterrent. We basically don’t, but any discussion of Trident seems to have to be based on the premis that there is any meaningful sense in which we have control of it independent from the Americans. It might not literally be true that (as I think Richard put it) the only thing the keys do is to make sure that a red light and buzzer goes on at NORAD, but that’s not so far from the truth as to render the whole debate anything other than powerfully and intrinsically silly.

  3. Dan

    Ironically I think the not-a-game-changer argument is the only one he gets right and makes meaningless most of his other points. Adding our handful of jets to the existing US & pals operation is not going to change the outcome one way or the other – so it’s not a military question at all, it’s a diplomatic one. Do we want to be part of the gang or not? (and as you say, what gang exactly?).

    • dsquared

      I suppose it’s some sort of game theoretic idea – that just joining in with the sensible and ethical things that our allies do wouldn’t demonstrate anything – we’d just be doing things because they were a good idea. So we have to specifically sign up to stand with our allies when they might be doing the wrong thing, to generate a costly signal.

  4. Igor Belanov

    Failure for the political/foreign policy/military establishment and their lackeys isn’t if IS isn’t defeated or if the Syrian Civil War lasts 30 years or costs millions more lives. Failure would be not intervening and therefore not being treated as a credible ‘Great Power’ in the future. How can the UK possibly risk losing its security council membership by sitting out of world conflicts?

    And I disagree. There is something profoundly farcical as well as tragic about UK foreign policy, including Trident.

  5. Guano

    “Lustig What is the strongest reason for UK joining the military action? My answer: It would demonstrate that we remain part of a global community that has come together in a way not seen since the international action against Saddam Hussein following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.”

    It demonstrates that the UK is one of a group of countries carrying out a displacement activity.

  6. Tom Allen

    I suppose one of the more useful skills for a successful journalist is shamelessly changing one’s opinions depending on the political winds. For example, here’s Lustig just last month arguing against bombing Syria, using many of the same points.

    • Phil

      Good heavens.

      Robin Lustig, October 2015:

      It comes down to this: should the UK use what little international influence it still has to encourage the resumption of international peace talks — and could David Cameron and Philip Hammond bring themselves to champion the cause of the EU as an essential part of the mix?

      Or would they rather ask the House of Commons to approve RAF bombing raids in Syria, even though they must know full well that a few more bombs — even if they carry “Made in Britain” markings — are unlikely to make a blind bit of difference?

      • Guano

        Setting out the framework for diplomacy and conflict-resolution that are required in order to make bombing relevant means looking a bit too much like Jeremy Corbyn; and that would never be acceptable.

  7. Blissex

    «By extension, therefore, we are suddenly on the side of Russia against Turkey, while also being on Turkey’s side against Russia. Were we consulted?»

    There is also the case of the (not-so-nice) person who was prosecuted for aiding terrorism in the form of supporting a Syrian group, which turned out to be also supported by MI6 with money and weapons according to several press reports never denied. Looks like a case of “bastards, but *our* bastards”.

    More generally Syria is a mess because of a fundamental issue: the USA and Saudi Arabia have different strategic aims in Syria, yet the USA can’t do without Saudi Arabia and viceversa, so they both go whichever way; plus Israel effectively control USA middle east policy, and their strategic aim is to create a mess.

    As to France, the UK and the USA, plus and weathervane journalists or politicians, it all comes down to Suez: a very perceptive argument that I read somewhere is that both the UK establishment and the French elites drew the same lesson from Suez, that the USA would do whatever they wanted without regard to the interests of anybody else, and two diametrically opposed policies: the UK that therefore one has to align to USA policy whatever they do, and France that therefore it is as futile to oppose as to align to USA policy.

    The UK choice seems to have bought the UK something but not much: some people say “big help during the Falklands war”, but famously that was only thanks to the DOD, the Department of State was for helping Argentina or staying out of it, and Reagan was tilting for the State side.

  8. Blissex

    «one of the more useful skills for a successful journalist is shamelessly changing one’s opinions depending on the political winds»

    I wonder how many of them are “consultants” for various security services or their fronts and sponsors. There have been amazing similarities of timing and content across the Atlantic in the campaign against Russia in the past few years. Some of the pieces part of that campaign seemed to me to be written in the style that skilful journalists who have been told to write something can use if they want to make that apparent without actually saying it (to save both conscience and career). Most recently the ferocious campaign by the BBC against J Corbyn seems amazing to me.

    I now use “The Economist” magazine to figure out the “talking points” that are going to dominate: they usually are the first to come out with them, and they are often easy to distinguish from the actual journalistic content of the rest of the magazine.

  9. Blissex

    «There have been amazing similarities of timing and content across the Atlantic in the campaign against Russia in the past few years.»

    And the huge campaign (now a bit over) in anglo-american culture countries against the eurozone and against Germany in particular as the weak link in the eurozone.

  10. Guano

    Blissex:- “More generally Syria is a mess because of a fundamental issue: the USA and Saudi Arabia have different strategic aims in Syria, yet the USA can’t do without Saudi Arabia and viceversa, so they both go whichever way;”

    This is the crux of the matter. Bombing is a displacement activity while the UK/US/France wonder what to do about the Saudis. It’s a tough question that’s been left hanging in the air since Afghanistan descended into chaos after the Red Army pulled out (or maybe you could argue that it has been left hanging since the Saudis forced up the price of oil in 1973).

    • Blissex

      «Bombing is a displacement activity»

      That can be read as dark humour 🙂

      I was reading yesterday that so far 12 countries have committed to bombing some bit of Syrią or another. It would be funny if it weren’t tragic.

  11. Guano

    YR “Were we consulted?”

    Were we consulted about anything? Were we consulted about support to the Syrian opposition, for instance? Did parliament vote for it? Has parliament ever discussed a strategy for dealing with the Syrian civil war?

    Sometimes when there is discussion of the issue of bombing in August 2013, it is assumed that this was a discussion about how to deal with the Syria issue, but it wasn’t: it was a motion on a very narrow issue, which was rejected because it could very well have made the situation worse.

    The situation is as it is because our government were doing things behind the scenes, and not because of any reluctance by the public to get involved.

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  13. Blissex

    «Whatever happens, it probably won’t happen to»

    BTW more generally speaking, that phrase is one of of my favourites, because it explains *a lot* of politics, both in the big picture and in our circumstances.

    There are serious academic papers and books that show that in general a country’s destiny and that of its lower classes depends in large part on whether its elites feel that they share the destiny of those lower classes and of the country, or they can just move on if things get tough. The example given commonly is the Netherlands up to some time ago, where if the sea broke the dykes poor and rich alike would drown, and this generated a definite psychological feeling. Or to some extent the USA in the period where they had the nightmare of a surprise mass nuclear attack.

    The best opposite examples are maybe the USA and the UK and Brazil where the elites believe that in practice they can wall themselves off (literally too) from whatever happens to the lower classes. A little known aspect of UK society is that the upper classes have almost no contact with the middle and lower classes, as they don’t even share the same physical spaces; the upper classes move from upper class area to upper class area (the upper classes own most of the surface of the UK) and they see the middle and lower classes mostly from the windows of their cars when they pass through the smaller urban areas infested by them. The UK and USA upper classes share about as much of the social life and physical space of the USA and UK middle and lower classes as a farm owner shares those of the goats or sheep or cows in the barns (and the similitude goes deeper than it seems to). To some extent the upper classes get some social contact and physical mingling with the middle classes at Oxford and Cambridge nowadays, as perhaps a kind of learning experience, but after all that’s still Oxford and Cambridge.

    So whatever happens, it probably won’t happen to people like Cameron and his cabinet, or their whig friends of the past coalition, or some of the more refined parts of the Labour elite, not just R Lustig. Some threats like in WWI and WW2 are however great equalizers, and the upper classes learn that there are no lords of the manor in foxholes. But that passes too eventually, even if a large part of the “socialism” post WWII was due to the upper classes discovering by sharing those foxholes that the middle and lower classes are human being too.

    More specifically, a lot of the strong tendency towards authoritarianism and fascism in recent decades has happened because of the dominant political power of the group of middle aged and older southern property owning ladies: whatever it is, ASBOs, benefit cuts, bombing brown skinned people, giving more power to the security services, ever rising rents, unemployment, wedding party drone massacres, they know it won’t happen to darling middle english ladies either, not just R Lustig, and if it is allowed to happen, they will fire any government that dares. As a group they are untouchable, like financial traders and executives. It is very easy to score most vote grabbing policies by New Labour, Conservatives or Liberals as to how they affect the feelings and interests of darling old ladies in middle England, from triple-locked pensions onwards.

  14. Blissex

    «Whatever happens, it probably won’t happen to Robin Lustig»

    Also as to the specific angle of “elite” journalists, a quote/confession from one of them:

    http://www.eschatonblog.com/2015/04/why-didnt-i-get-rich.html
    «journalists/columnists of a certain age (meaning ones not much older than me and younger) are coming around to the realization that the economy is screwing them, too. There was a moment when a lot of them (we’re talking ones at elite outlets, not your random small town paper) thought they’d done everything right, would become celebrities, and get Tom Friedman’s speaking fees. The economy sure was working for them, and screw everybody else.»

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