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Fruitless, Inconsistent and Misdirected: A Post Mortem of the Syria Debate

17/12/2015 16:32 GMT | Updated 16/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Public discourse on our foreign policy should be rooted in our nation's long term international interests, and the affects those decisions will have domestically. Instead what we saw two weeks ago was a debate full of inconsistencies and carrying distinctly Hobbesian flavours: nastiness, brutishness, and shortness.

Politicians, the commentariat, and social media activists (mea culpa) got so heated up that in the end they were not so much debating as politicking. The result was a debate so polarised that both sides ended up talking at each other, rather than to each other - and that was bad for our country.

Inconsistent Hawks and Doves

"You're going to war to reduce terror in the UK, but bombing Syria will just fuel more extremism in the UK," squawked the doves. "Listen to what those terrorists actually said in their suicide videos. They all pointed to foreign policy."

"But we mustn't let our foreign policy be held ransom by terrorists," screamed the hawks. "We mustn't let a bunch of nutters dictate to us how we engage with the international community. If it was a right-wing nutter who blew himself up and said he did that because the UK engages with Muslim countries, we wouldn't give in to him. Neither should we to Daesh terrorists."

But the contradiction inherent in this hawkish response is that when we go to war stung into action from the Paris shootings, then we are doing precisely what they say we mustn't: we are letting terrorists dictate our actions.

When hawks go to war for the expressly stated purpose of making our country safer, they inadvertently end up using as a marker of their success the very thing they argue doves mustn't point towards: increasing or decreasing numbers of extremist nutters in the UK.

The contradictory conclusion is that hawks want it both ways. Either we mustn't let our foreign policy be influenced by the actions of terrorists - and therefore go to war, or we do let it be influenced by terrorists - and therefore go to war.

And the doves are no better. They say that terrorist cell numbers and foiled terror attacks are statistically negligible and we're blowing the threat out of all proportions. They also say that terrorists can't really be prevented as they're such a tiny number that it would be like picking a needle from a haystack. And yet these same doves confidently assert that a strong causal chain can be traced back from this statistically negligible number of terrorists to show they were all caused by foreign policy.

Causation is not so simple. And even if it was, someone blowing themselves up because they disagree is not a good reason for now agreeing with them. Yes it is prima facie true that to reduce extremism in the UK we could just change our foreign policy, but similar simplistic logic would also suggest that to reduce right-wing extremism we lock up all of the right-wing. It's trivially true, but it's not a useful contribution to the debate.

So why was the quality of the debate so low?

Well, because it was politically expedient to make it so. Cameron tried once previously in 2013 to take us to war in Syria, but failed to secure approval. This time however the timing was much better. The simple (and false) logic of "Paris could happen to London, therefore we need to cut off the head of the beast" sold well. Unfortunately, the more complex (and accurate) logic of "the UK is a small nation coming to terms with a post-colonial role in a world led by the USA, and as part of our continuing efforts to punch above our weight, we must throw our lot in with our American allies - even if what we throw in is a largely symbolic act - because that maintains our precarious position at the top table of nations" is a much harder sell.

In other words, Cameron framed the case in a way that meant he could win - even if it was inaccurate.

So what would a proper international relations debate on the issue look like?

In a proper debate we would have explored if tokenistic foreign policy involvement is sensible generally, and sensible in Syria particularly. We would have interrogated our current and historic engagement with the Middle East and assessed whether we should continue as we are, or if it was time to do something drastically different. We should have asked ourselves: do we continue to see it as land of resources to be exploited, where we consequently prop up certain regimes who help us carry out that exploitation and bring down others who don't? Where we are selective about our respect for democracy, lauding it when it suits us, and ignoring it when it doesn't? Where we see political Islam as an enemy rather than a democratic choice? And where do we stand vis-à-vis our relationship with America given the rise of China?

These are serious questions that go to the heart of the debate and we could have addressed them.

Instead what happened was one side accused the other of killing babies, and the other responded by calling them "terrorist sympathisers."

Our foreign policy is weaker because of it.