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?