Bernard Jenkin is Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee and MP for Harwich and North Essex.
Today’s debate has been hyped up, but it is nothing akin to the vote that preceded the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The question of whether to extend airstrikes against ISIS from Iraq into parts of occupied Syria is no more than a minor tactical adjustment. It is not a decision of much strategic significance in the conflict itself. France, the U.S and Russia are already mounting airstrikes. Anyone who opposes this change is effectively disowning any policy of retaliation against, or disruption of, ISIS capability whether in Syria or Iraq. ISIS claims to be a state. Why take part in attacks on one part and not the other? ISIS denies the Syria-Iraq frontier. Why should we consider that we are bound to respect it?
However, our decision is of course of strategic significance for the UK, far beyond its immediate and limited direct effects. It determines whether we stand alongside our closest and most important military allies, France and the United States, or not. It is a vital indication of British resolve, or not. It demonstrates whether we have the political will to confront unacceptable terrorist aggression, or not. We will not be “bombing Syria”, but attacking carefully identified terrorist targets in the worst example of an “ungoverned space” that the modern world has seen.
It should be noted how timid we have become. After 9-11, the very notion that Al Qaeda should not be expelled from Afghanistan would have seemed unconscionable. The first rule of counter-insurgency warfare is “Protect your home base.” The second is, “Deny the enemy a home base.” ISIS is the equivalent of AQ with its own state, its own towns, its own oil, and its own sources of wealth. The idea that this doesn’t matter is absurd.
Some argue that we are encouraging terrorism by attacking the terrorists in Syria or Iraq. There may be weaknesses in the Prime Minister’s strategic plans, but a decision to signal that we are paralysed by the threat, rather than galvanised by the monstrous attack on Paris, would be disastrous for our security. It would be like saying, “please attack London: there will be no consequences”.
Such timidity is also based on a false notion that somehow Islamist terrorism in the UK and in other Western countries is “our own fault”: attributable to Western policy in Iraq, or American support for Israel. It is true that much of Western policy in the Middle East has been clumsy and counter-productive, tending to reinforce a negative narrative of the West amongst young and dispossessed Islamist recruits. It took the UK at least ten years in Northern Ireland to discover the effective means of countering that insurgency. The Islamist insurgency is far more complicated than was Irish nationalism. It is transnational. It is far removed from our everyday understanding. It is multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian, and fuelled by competing powers in the region and beyond. We may have learned much since 9-11, but we are still learning and still have much to learn. But that is not an argument for giving up.
Most absurd is the notion that we could opt out of the Islamist threat, by just keeping out. This ignores the truth about the nature of Islamist extremism. Remember: 9-11 came out of the blue. It demonstrates how Islamic terrorists will attack soft Western targets for the sake of it. Islamist extremism is not retaliation against Western military intervention. It is an emanation of the feuds and wars within the Islamic world, which arise from the collapse of the credibility of traditional Islamic power structures within Islamic countries. They are collapsing not because we have deliberately attacked them, but because the West offers such a superior life to those who are trapped in traditional Islamic social structures, and who want to break out of them.
Most young Muslims want to be educated in the West. Most Muslim women long to enjoy the freedoms which Western women enjoy. Most Muslim families yearn for a more liberal society, for better schools and medicine, and a say in how their country is run. They long for these things because they can see on their satellite TV and from the BBC World Service that we have a freedom and quality of life which their religious authorities forbid them. The West is omni-present in their countries, not because we are bombing or invading, but simply because we exist. So the extremists are reacting to reinforce the old orders, and must simply attack us because of who we are, not for anything we have done, are doing or might do in the future. Western social, economic and political success is transforming their societies, and there is nothing we or they can do to stop it. And they hate us for it.
Certainly the West has made mistakes. Much of the campaign in Afghanistan was futile, because we failed to understand the nature of Afghan society. The precipitate withdrawal from Iraq left a power vacuum only half-filled by a sectarian Shia-led government in Bagdad, in a largely Sunni nation that was bound to oppose it by whatever means it could employ. The overthrow of Gaddaffi in Libya was pursued without regard to how Libya would be governed afterwards. Western governments were wrong to see the so-called “Arab Spring” as the breaking of some kind of democratic dawn in those countries. Many would like that, but we need to learn that strong secular dictators, however unpleasant, are more likely to provide stability and security than Islamist factions such as the Muslim Brotherhood voted into office without the first understanding of the self-discipline which democracy requires. No Western nation yet knows who or what would take the place of the Assad regime in Syria, let alone how the country could be peacefully re-united, least of all while there remains such disagreement between the West and Russia, within whose sphere of influence Syria still lies.
But none of this could justify leaving ISIS alone. It’s just too bad that the West lacks the resolve to support a more credible ground offensive to demonstrate that whatever happens, the civilised world will never tolerate the existence of an Islamo-fascist pseudo-state.