As this article is being written, the British House of Commons is debating the matter of whether or not the UK should join with other nations in bombing the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS) in Syria. The debate has been called by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who is of the view that such bombing should be carried out as an extension of the bombing campaign against ISIS in Iraq, and in collusion with the Iraqi armed forces.
Since the beginning of this century, there have been terrorist attacks in New York, London, Madrid, Tunisia, Libya and other countries, and, more recently, in Paris. The latter has exacerbated calls for the fight to be taken to ISIS in their middle-eastern strongholds. Those persons and parties calling for the debate on whether the UK should join in the bombing, at least, in Syria, have done so in the belief that destroying ISIS in the territories it presently occupies in the Middle East will make the UK a safer place in which to live.
The present writer does not share this opinion.
The year 2008 saw the publication of a book by the American political philosopher, Philip Bobbitt. The booked was called Terror and Consent: the Wars for the Twenty-First Century. The basic thesis of this book is that terrorism is now part of the landscape of daily living all over the world. However, we have hardly begun to think properly about it. “Terror and Consent” argues that we are fighting these wars with weapons and concepts which, though useful to us in previous conflicts, have now been superseded.
Philip Bobbitt’s book aims to “provide a fundamental rethinking of the most generally accepted ideas about terror in the modern world – what it is, how it operates and above all how it can be frustrated”.
Those opposed to the extension of bombing in Syria are, amongst other reasons, not convinced that destroying ISIS in Syria and Iraq will destroy their worldwide network. Terrorist outrages will go on, perhaps become more frequent and outrageous, and more widespread. “The evolution of the modern state has always produced terrorists in their own image.” The peculiarly British example is, of course, the IRA.
The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in commenting on Bobbitt’s book, has said that the war against terrorism “is new in every aspect of its nature – how it has come about, the profound threat posed by it, how it has to be fought and the revolution in traditional thinking necessary to achieve victory. It may be written by an academic, but it is actually required reading for political leaders.” Unfortunately, the book was not available in 2003, the year that Mr Blair authorised British participation in the invasion of Iraq and previous to this, in 2001, aligning the UK with the USA in prosecuting a war in Afghanistan.
In confounding the views of politicians, political commentators and military analysts, Philip Bobbitt argues that, in the war against terrorism, the “links between law and strategy” need to be re-forged; “strategies for intervention” in such a war must be “combined with humanitarian interests”. Above all, he considers that we need to rethink what “victory” in such a war might look like “no occupied capitals, no treaties, no victory parades, but the preservation, protection and defence of human rights and of states of consent.” Furthermore, it is central to Bobbitt’s argument that “we are fighting terror and not just terrorists.”
It is quite central to the argument against British involvement in the bombing of Syria that David Cameron has not been able present a substantial case for such involvement. It is questionable in terms of international law. There has been no overview of what humanitarian aid will be operational for the undoubted casualties that such a deepening of the Syrian war will entail. Little has been said about the “end-game” of the extension of the conventional warfare, what sort of victory might be envisaged and how it will be brought about. Different strategies are being adopted by the numerous nations and independence movements that are currently participating in the conflict.
Then, too, if the war against ISIS is in fact a “war on terror” and not just a combat with terrorists, what is the nature and uses of the intelligence that will enable the citizens of the UK to be defended in the event of increased terrorist activity that some believe will be an inevitable outcome of the war against ISIS? What place will the human rights abusing practice of torture have in the ongoing conflict? Will it be permissible for participating states, including the UK, to curtail citizens’ freedoms in order to, ostensibly, protect them?
Are we entering a new era when, in the name of securing an “environment necessary for states of consent and to make it impossible for our enemies to impose or induce states of terror”, we are actually curtailing the freedoms, human rights and the way of life – the states of consent – we insist we are fighting to protect?
It is at least probable that, in the debate currently happening in the British House of Commons, some of the foregoing matters will be argued. It is also very likely that the debate will raise issues relating to economic concerns, national alliances, the departmental interests of government and, of course, the role of ideology in understanding the foundations for much of the conflict that now exists between western and middle-eastern nation-states and movements.
The House of Commons debate is about one of the great challenges of our times. It is about politics, as well as morality; it is about human freedoms, as well as the explicit limits of law. The debate is about understanding a threat that is new in every aspect of its nature, the imminent danger posed by that threat, and the revolution in traditional thinking that will be required to overcome that threat.
The debate is about the state of the modern world and the challenges that it faces.