The UK Decision on Syria: The (F)utility of History


It’s genuinely interesting, as an historian, to contemplate the current furore over whether Britain should physically commit itself to taking action against Islamic State forces in Syria. Not because we have greater insight or intellectual authority with respect to the debate at hand, or that we are uniquely qualified to predict what will or will not happen were we to intervene in whatever form the Government chooses. Rather, it is interesting to watch the way in which history is being crafted and instrumentalised by opponents of military action, particularly although not exclusively by those on the left of the political spectrum in this country. To be more precise there appear to be two strands of thought, frequently intertwined, emanating from the ‘no’ camp. The first concerns the ‘here and now’, and the arguments put forward are legitimate and clear minded, although arguably misguided on occasion. The second concerns the past, and its proponents are advancing a version of history that is potentially dishonest and also potentially rather damaging.

The first strand of thought centres upon a combination of humanitarian concerns, the implications of intervention upon our national security, and the broader consequences in political terms on the region as a whole. Of these it could be argued that the humanitarian and security concerns are overplayed. The notion that coalition airstrikes pose a greater threat to innocent civilian lives than ISIS itself, (which appears to be engaging in genocidal activities in Sinjar province in Iraq), or the forces of the Assad regime, which already have the blood of some 250,000 Syrians on their hands, appears faintly laughable. As does the claim that our military actions against ISIS would cause it to become an even greater terrorist threat than it is already, bearing in mind that we have been bombing it in Iraq for some time. But it is fair to say that those other apprehensions do resonate, and if the objection is that military action should not be taken against ISIS in Syria because we cannot predict what will happen, that it will lead to mission creep, and that we may ultimately engineer an even worse state of affairs than at present, then those concerns are entirely legitimate. As the American academic Andrew Bacevich has said, (and something I’ve already quoted in previous posts), ‘Once a statesmen chooses war, they are in effect simply rolling the dice. Their ability to predict, control and constrain the course of events is extremely precarious’. And it would be only right to acknowledge that nowhere are events more difficult to predict, control or constrain than in the Middle East, particularly when one adds a toxic mix of NATO, a revanchist Russia, and the inscrutable ambitions of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and a myriad of local actors within Syria itself.

But these arguments, i.e. those looking at the present and to the future, are not where my real objections lie. Instead these centre upon the second strand of thought, the adherence to an interpretation of past events which is designed, above all else, to establish a narrative of failure on the part of previous Western interventions in the Middle East. A narrative, moreover, that dictates that any such acts in the future, i.e. Syria, are doomed to the same inevitable failure. So the left, and other sceptics, argue that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is the root cause of our present troubles in the region. That without President Bush and Prime Minister Blair’s attempt to hoodwink the American and British people into supporting regime change and simultaneously avail themselves of Iraq’s natural resources, not only would hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians still be alive, but ISIS and the ongoing civil war in Syria would not exist, and Britain would not be facing a serious terrorist threat from radicalised Muslims from within its own population. Ultimately, as the argument goes, these events are a creation of the West’s own making. The lesson, therefore, is that interventions in the Middle East will lead to even more destructive wars, or at the very least a far worse state of peace.

The problem is twofold. Firstly of course opponents of intervention are not blessed with unique foresight. They cannot claim to know the future, and their ability to predict events is as flawed as that of the rest of us. Therefore any predictions as to the likely effects of coalition military action in Syria are mere conjecture. Secondly, it can be justifiably argued that the real issue at hand is not western intervention per se, but the ideological underpinnings of those interventions. In the case of both Iraq 2003 and Libya 2011 the obsession with ‘liberal’ interventionism allied to an obsession with ‘light footprints’ was a lesson not in why interventions don’t work, but why interventions based upon weak ideological foundations, underwritten by a tiny proportion of the military force required to complete the task to a satisfactory standard, and compounded by idiotic decisions at the very outset that set an inevitable chain of events in motion, don’t work. The belief, contrary to established academic theory, that regimes can simply be removed or swapped at will without reference to the societal bedrock from which they stem; the belief that democracy is the best choice of political systems for countries that have never experienced the concept; the decision in the case of Iraq to invade and administer a country of 23 million people with only 150, 000 ground troops and then compound the problem by disbanding that country’s Army and unleashing 400,000 freshly unemployed men onto the streets; the belief that dissolving the Ba’ath party and thus disenfranchising the most significant powerbrokers in the country was a wise and sensible move. And ultimately of course, believing that the situation could be resolved by withdrawing Western forces from Iraq, handing power to a sectarian Iraqi Government under Nouri al-Maliki, and thus sowing the seeds of ISIS’s emergence and subsequent explosive growth. All of these decisions were symptomatic of a particular philosophical standpoint, a particular ideological approach to intervention and a predilection to abandon, or in the case of Libya to not even attempt, the most important battle, i.e. the crafting of a durable political future.

These are not, however, pre-ordained techniques that must inevitably characterise the way in which Western interventions play out. They were choices made by political elites, elites that had they not been hidebound by the promotion of liberal values, and were instead open to pursue more pragmatic policies designed to work with rather than against the grain of indigenous political systems, would have been free to make other decisions and thus cause other futures to play out. And those futures may have been far less damaging than our present. Adherents to the narrative of failure will never acknowledge those alternative futures, however. They will never accept that they are not in command of history, and they will offer their ‘lessons’ to all and sundry. But one can never claim ownership of the ‘lessons of history’ because, in the final analysis, there’s no such thing. Or, to be more accurate, those lessons are whatever you want them to be depending upon your own ideological standpoint, which in turn renders them meaningless as an example of objective truth. In that respect, the critics of military action in Syria can never claim that their particular understanding of the past is the only worthwhile prediction of the future.

Image: US President George W. Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair shake hands after receiving notification that the Coalition Provisional Authority had returned full sovereignty to Iraq and transferred control of the nation to the Iraqi interim government while the two were at a NATO summit in Istanbul, Turkey on Monday, June 28, 2004, via wikimedia commons.

5 thoughts on “The UK Decision on Syria: The (F)utility of History

  1. Excellent article Chris, overmatch or undercut? The dilemma faced by the current Government, who are by virtue focused upon the domestic issues that any form of intervention will exacerbate. So what to do – air strikes will not deliver decisive effect. What is the appetite for more focused and precise targeting at the ideological root of the problem. Can we learn a lesson from the crusades? If so what would it be? Do you have an historical pearl of wisdom that could unlock the thinking surrounding the type and level of response that is required to address this issue. Rushed and from my iPad, apologies for any typos.


  2. Chris, I understand what you are saying and your synopsis of why intervention failed in 2003 (and 2011?) is spot on. But if the political elite that caused that failure has not changed (less a micro-fractional turn of the tiller) then surely citing those historical examples as a warning of potential future failure then has some validity? Whilst removing an arbitrary limit of exploitation not recognised by the enemy makes perfect sense militarily, I am sure there is enough hardware in the skies of Syria to cope without throwing our couple of converted air-to-air combat aircraft in to the mix. The vote was clearly about ensuring that we stayed as ‘key players’ on a world stage and, when the Chilcot Report is finally published, we might just find that – historically – that hasn’t always worked out too well for us.


    1. Mike

      This is the problem with only being given about 1200 words to express one’s ideas. Of course you are right, those examples provide real food for thought going forward. But only if people are willing to acknowledge that the past is still a contested space in terms of how we read it, and that there is room for alternative explanations about why certain things happened. And that’s not what we get from many critics of intervention. But if a naysayer came up to me and it was clear they were hot on the detail of what happened after we went into Iraq and they still didn’t agree with me then that’s fine. I just get narked by people blithely quoting historical events as a predictor of the future without seeking to understand exactly what it was that actually happened. It’s that selective understanding that irritates me.




      1. Chris, understood and fully concur – you’ll not find me marching in London anytime soon. But I think that a significant lesson from our recent interventions is rather timeless, and that is that military activity can only ever provide the desired effect if backed and accompanied by political nouse and will. I’m not entirely convinced we are currently seeing either.


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