Isis, we are told, is a ‘clear and dangerous threat to our way of life’. I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it
It’s absurd to suggest that we are fighting them ‘over there’ so that we won’t have to fight them ‘over here’
Of all the arguments advanced in favour of British military intervention abroad, the one that has always seemed to me most treacherous and least convincing is the one about “over there” and “over here”. It was much-used by Gordon Brown, when he was trying to persuade a sceptical public of the need for beleaguered UK troops to remain in Afghanistan, though it was current in the United States well before that. Now it is back, in nice time for today’s recall of Parliament.
The battleground is no longer Afghanistan, and the enemy is no longer al-Qaeda or the Taliban. The conflict has moved westwards to northern Syria and Iraq, and the new adversary is the self-styled Islamic State and its rampaging Caliphate. But the argument and the wording are practically identical.
As David Cameron told the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, in tones that strongly suggested a rehearsal for today’s unanimity-fest in the Commons, Isis constitutes “a clear and present danger to the United Kingdom”. He had earlier described the behavior of Isis to reporters as “psychopathic, murderous and brutal”.
Our new Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, started preparing the ground last weekend. In an interview in The Spectator he said: “We’ve had attacks on the streets of London, on our transport system, at Glasgow Airport, the murder of Lee Rigby – how much more evidence do you need that this is a very clear and dangerous threat to our way of life and to all the democracies of the West? This is a new Battle of Britain.”
Now you are welcome to accuse me of a lapse in patriotism unworthy of my British passport, but I simply don’t buy this – any of it – even though, right on cue, there was a well-publicised round-up of terror suspects in London yesterday. And I regret, to say the least, that so many of our elected representatives seem to swallow the notion of a direct threat to Britain, the moment a Westerner (over there, mostly, and not over here) meets death by the particularly brutal means of beheading.
In cold, hard, logical terms, the rationale for fighting “there” rather than “here” simply does not stand up to scrutiny. First, all those responsible for the atrocities enumerated by Fallon were either born or educated in Britain. Any trigger for their actions should thus be sought “here” rather than “there”.
Second, they all gave testimony or left statements leaving no doubt as to their motive. Their world-view might embrace the idea of a caliphate, but the London and Glasgow bombers, and those who slaughtered Lee Rigby, had something more immediate in mind: to avenge the killing of Muslims by British troops. In his interview, Michael Fallon rejected “with a wave of the hand” the notion that attacks in Britain might reflect “blow back” from Iraq. But that is essentially what these killers said.
Third. Given the nature of the UK’s recent wars and its high international profile – such attacks remain very, very rare. Neither the UK, still less Western civilisation, is realistically threatened with serious destabilisation, still less extinction, by an extremist brand of Islam, raping, pillaging and beheading as it sweeps in from the east.
And fourth, if the threat is indeed to the relatively small area that is within our shores, why are we not concentrating our security efforts here, rather than sending troops and firepower to inflict tiny pinpricks on a vast swathe of territory that is not ours to defend? If the purpose is to show we are loyal allies to the United States, we should say so, not hide behind an exaggerated, even trumped-up, threat to the British way of life.
Now, it can and will be said that the relatively small number of attacks here is a result of assiduous work by our security services. And to the extent this is true, three cheers for them, and gongs all round. In defence of our politicians, it is also fair to say that you only need one malefactor to get through and you could be looking at destruction on the scale of 9/11. No Prime Minister wants Parliament – or, indeed, the Grand Hotel in Brighton – to be blown up on his watch. The security of the realm is a prime responsibility of any government.
But it is worth bearing in mind that there has been no repeat of 9/11; that lax airport security and intelligence overload were as much to blame as the lethal ingenuity of a small band of zealots, and that so-called asymmetric warfare is the natural product of a world in which vastly different levels of development exist almost side by side, and are visible to each other as never before.
One of the UK’s great assets is the resilience of its population. That, plus a modern level of security, is as much as can reasonably be done. Talk of fighting over there in order not to fight over here gets things precisely the wrong way round. Each of our recent interventions has unleashed forces of chaos, and alienated a small section of our own Muslim population.
It is too late to do much about the first. In Iraq, for instance, our disbanding of the Baathist power structures had the effect, 10 years on, of driving Western-trained soldiers into the ranks of Isis. But we can do something about the second: by not inflating the threat from militant Islam and not fuelling talk of a clash of civilisations. The malign forces “over there” should be left to play themselves out.