“If a man beats his head against the wall,” the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci once wrote, “it’s his head that breaks and not the wall.”
In the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris, the British political class has been suffering terrible headaches. Britain’s neighbor and intermittent ally, France, has been attacked by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS); once again, the country seeks a clear and defiant response in support of a friend, just as it did after 9/11; once again, all its leaders can come up with is more bombing—this time, against ISIS in Syria. The logic is always the same: We must do something. Bombing is something. We must bomb.
They have done this before, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Not only did it not make anything better, it actually made things a lot worse: The chaos caused in the latter two countries created the space for ISIS to thrive. But they just can’t help themselves. And so they approach the wall once again, and apply their heads to it with somber resolve. It’s a tough and dirty job, but somebody has to do it.
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, there are two main issues to resolve: how to defeat ISIS, and how to minimize the chance of further attacks. The questions are related, and there are no definitive answers to either of them.
It appears likely that no diplomatic or political solution can be achieved with an organization like ISIS, and thus some kind of military intervention might be necessary. But it’s clear that extending and intensifying the bombing will not yield a solution: The United States and France are already bombing ISIS in Syria, to precious little effect; adding British bombs to that will make next to no difference, not least because there are precious few targets left. If bombing hasn’t done the job so far, it’s difficult to see why it would now. If they are serious about defeating ISIS—as opposed to punishing civilians—they would have to commit ground troops. But the truth is, while these countries have the appetite for global domination, they don’t have the stomach for it.
Which brings us neatly to the second point: The West’s desire to intervene in the name of civilization and Enlightenment values betrays a stunning lack of self-awareness. The military and philosophical force with which it makes its case for moral superiority, and then contradicts it, is staggering.
As George Orwell pointed out in “Notes on Nationalism”:
The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them…. Whether such deeds were reprehensible, or even whether they happened, was always decided according to political predilection.
It’s as though Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Camp Breadbasket, and the CIA torture report never happened. The nationalist can’t understand why people look at the West’s record of intervention over the last 15 years and conclude that its humanitarian claims cannot be taken at face value. It does hateful things and then is shocked that people hate it.
So any escalation of the bombings in Syria will inevitably produce blowback in the form of terrorist reprisals. Incredibly, there is considerable denial about this. Apologists for Western foreign policy insist these jihadis are part of a murderous death cult determined to sow fear and terror in the West. This, it seems, miscasts the enemy as simply psychologically deficient and actually diminishes the function of the very policies they endorse. The jihadis’ own accounts, on-the-ground reporting, military intelligence, and just plain intelligence suggest otherwise.
As Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former director-general of MI5 (Britain’s CIA), recently told an inquiry into the Iraq War: “Our involvement in Iraq radicalized, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young people, some British citizens—not a whole generation, a few among a generation—who saw our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as being an attack on Islam…. Arguably we gave Osama bin Laden his Iraqi jihad so that he was able to move into Iraq in a way that he was not before.”
If you declare war on terror, it stands to reason that terror will fight back. This in itself is no reason to discount military intervention. But it is a reason to be smart about how you do it. ISIS isn’t limited to a handful of states in the Middle East, places like Syria, Iraq, and Libya; instead, it’s a multinational phenomenon. Many of those who terrorized Paris came from Belgium and France. The West can’t bomb everywhere. And wherever it does bomb, it kills and injures large numbers of civilians. These civilian casualties, in their turn, stoke resentment and outrage, not least in the Muslim communities from which jihadis draw their recruits. Since 9/11, the West’s military interventions have created far more terrorists than they have killed, and have generally made things worse, not better.
So any military intervention that does take place needs to be truly global—as opposed to Western—in its authorization and execution. If ISIS represents a true threat against humanity, as is claimed, then we should do the heavy lifting of mobilizing humanity to fight it.
But such an effort takes time, and the bombing advocates want to know what we’re going to do now—as though “now” were its own point in time, unrelated to yesterday or tomorrow. The very people within the political and media elite who have got every major foreign-policy question wrong over the past 15 years are once more leading the charge into oblivion. It’s almost as if they’ve been banging their heads against the wall for so long they’ve stopped thinking straight.