Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Politicians indulging in an act of faith. To launch more war

I believe it because it is absurd. Credo quia absurdum.

Not many people of faith would accept that as summing up their approach. But it strikes me as the most powerful statement of what faith really is. After all, it takes no faith to accept things that we know, or can deduce from observation. We don’t believe that the sun rises in the East, we know it, if only because we know that’s how the East is defined.

Faith is for what isn’t explicable in natural terms. A virgin birth. The execution of son of the God. His resurrection three days later. These are, in naturalistic terms, impossible, so those who accept them, accept them on faith.

That strikes me as a legitimate way to behave – on matters of faith. But when it comes to politics, we should demand something else. Political decisions should be based on firm evidence, and only on evidence. Which is why it’s so sad that faith plays such a role in determining policy.

Nowhere is that clearer than in decisions concerning war. In particular, that’s the case of the British government’s demand for airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. David Cameron constantly tells us how hard it is to make a decision for war; in reality, nothing is easier. Taking on Al Qaida after 9/11 was an immensely difficult task; invading Afghanistan and Iraq a couple of years later was simple. The easy action, satisfying the demand to do something, and do it now.

But did those missions achieve anything? There was no sensible exit strategy from either country.

We’re gradually pulling out Afghanistan. But it now looks as though the Taliban, our foes there, are poised to sweep back into power. It will leave the country in much the same position as when we invaded – but after having been suffered another decade and a half of vicious fighting.

The West has withdrawn, more or less, from Iraq, but what did we leave behind? A nation run by a dysfunctional, sectarian government heavily manipulated by Iran, with its Kurdish region autonomous to the point of near-independence, and large tracts now occupied and run by the very terrorist organisation that we’re now having to fight – ISIS. So our intervention has left Iraq, which previously hosted no terrorist threat against us, is now the base for the worst we face.

So here we are again, planning further military action in the Middle East. And again we have no exit strategy. We have no picture of where the action will take us. We have no idea of what the consequences are. But Cameron calls on us to back him. On faith.

Worse still, there’s no evidence whatever that the action will even be effective. The Americans have been bombing ISIS in Syria for a year, but that didn’t stop the organisation running its attacks in Paris. It doesn’t look as though the bombing has really been able to degrade ISIS, its declared aim, significantly. Indeed, we even know that many missions – three-quarters of the strikes being run by Britain in Iraq, for instance – are returning without even having fired their weapons. The obvious targets have already been taken out, and ISIS has become considerably smarter at not offering new ones – for instance, they don’t travel around the country in large masses that can be easily hit.

It’s hard to see how adding ten British planes to this campaign will make any useful difference.

Indeed, the only real gains there have been, have occurred when Kurdish ground forces in Iraq followed up on airstrikes and took back territory from ISIS. Most notably that was achieved in Sinjar, where the Yazidi people were persecuted by the terrorist organisation.

Again, Cameron has asked us to have confidence in his statement that there are ground forces in Syria which can follow up our air campaign. 70,000 of them, he argues. But but there are not 70,000 such fighters in a single coherent group. Far from it. Split among 110 factions, most of them are scattered all round the edges of Syria with very few of them even in contact with ISIS.
Russia's already taking part in the airstrikes
Not in a particularly helpful way...

Curiously, it is those so-called moderate fighters that have been taking the brunt of the bombing of one of the nations in action over Syria – Russia. So we’re bombing ISIS and our Russian partners are busily bombing the people we’re counting on to follow up our strikes.

In any case, it’s hard for Cameron to ask for our confidence. Two years ago he was calling for our support to bomb not ISIS, but its enemy President Assad of Syria. And yet he spoke with exactly the same conviction then as he is today. Within just two years he’s had to change his mind about which side to bomb? It leaves me short of confidence in his judgement.

Conclusion? There’s nothing but confusion on all these matters in government. There is no evidence to support what parliament is being called on to support. The position is, quite simply, absurd.

Which is why it takes faith to support it. Not, of course, anything like a Christian faith founded on a desire for peace, but something much bloodier. For which, God help us all.

PS The brilliant wit HL Mencken once wrote “Tertullian is credited with the motto ‘Credo quia absurdum’ – ‘I believe because it is impossible’. Needless to say, he began life as a lawyer.” Well, a lot of politicians started as lawyers. I’m not sure whether that’s significant, but it feels as though it ought to be.


Faith A. Colburn said...

You can't say those missions accomplished nothing, David. Don't discount the jobs created in the arms manufacturing sector. Sorry for the cynicism. the daily mass killings here in the U.S. are getting to me.

David Beeson said...

i entirely cynicism. It's deeply disturbing. Another case of faith over evidence: the belief that the best answer to excessive violence is to have more weapons.

You understand, of course, that my despair over faith doesn't reflect my admiration for Faith.