Sunday 15 April 2018

Theresa May's Theatrical War

War and politics go hand in hand, which is something Theresa May certainly understands even if sundry Labour backbenchers do not. Reminding us of this was a rumour reported on by BBC Washington correspondent, Jon Sopel. He suggests that while the US led the bombing of selected targets in and around Damascus, it was actually the French and the British who were egging on an immediate response. The suggestion being that May wanted it done sooner rather than later to avoid the decision going before Parliament and risking the fate of her predecessor. This is a scandalous state of affairs if true, but one that is entirely plausible given May's unenviable track record of dodging scrutiny and having little time for the democratic niceties of Parliament. Can this be explained solely in terms of her personality quirks and leadership style? No.

Ironically, May probably would have won a vote in the Commons. Unlike the muddled Syria motion Dave brought before Parliament in 2013, the objective of missile strikes were very limited: an ostensible diminution of Assad's capacity to wage chemical warfare in the future and to demonstrate to the world that such atrocities merit a punishment beating. There are people on the government benches who are opposed to military action, but are more than matched by the 30 to 50 Labour MPs convinced strikes are appropriate (some of whom are so gung-ho it's hard to envisage circumstances where they wouldn't back a military action). May therefore didn't want to risk it. Her premiership is characterised by a play-it-safe attitude, whether before the election, during her farcical campaign, and in the shambles after - if your authority is shot only a limited room for manoeuvre remains. Dave was damaged by losing his Syria vote, but thanks to the coalition he lived to fight another day. Had May lost this vote, under the circumstances, the consequences could have proven different: she might have been out of her job.

Second, while in one respect timing isn't crucial, timing is crucial. Eh? Despite some of the idiot musings to have poured forth onto the airwaves and status updates in recent days, the bombings were not about halting a humanitarian emergency, nor was there any suggestion further chemical attacks were imminent. In May's case, it was about avoiding Parliament certainly, but had she delayed and waited for the inspectors to make their assessments, this is time where her control of the narrative could have slipped away. According to Survation, 54% believe there should have been a Parliamentary vote on military action and only a fifth endorse the bombing. That could only go up as more critical voices get more air time, and opponents of war start mobilising the numbers and wresting the conversation away from her and the Tory editorial offices. Once a few dozen CLPs had made their opinions known, some of those Labour MPs she would have had to rely on to get a vote through might not have proven so reliable after all.

Third, a short, sharp, quick intervention is a way of laying to rest the howling phantoms of Afghanistan and Iraq. Allowing Trump to gloat about the success of the strikes, of emphasising the precision character of the attacks (according to regime sources, there were only three injuries resulting from them), of curtailing public debate and speculation, May is rehabilitating the illusion of a costless war, or simulated war. Pressing buttons and causing explosions, of a rain of bombs carrying away military targets and weapons infrastructure but never civilians, this is how war in the 21st century should be - trust us and war can become painless, especially when the Russians are phoned up in advance so their personnel (and those of the regime) can get out of Dodge. It is ultimately a performative, theatrical war that gives off the impression of "doing something" to salve one's conscience and that of an imagined public when, in fact, it might be doing nothing or, worse, touching off a wider conflagration.

Will May succeed in rehabilitating this idea of war? Unlikely. Nevertheless her action alongside Trump and Macron has serious consequences. She has abrogated Parliamentary convention and returned war making to the office of the Prime Minister. She has flouted the UN Charter, and by attacking when she did May circumvented due process - the weapons inspectors hadn't even begun their investigation when the missiles flew. In so doing she has let every big power know they can flout international law with impunity, and as a consequence is helping make the world a more uncertain, if not dangerous place.


Blissex said...

«It is ultimately a performative, theatrical war that gives off the impression of "doing something"»

A "The Guardian" columnist has argued against such theatricalness, and that a much harder response was need to stop the possibility of more russian "attacks" against the UK and Europe:
“Time and time again Putin has shown his contempt not only for international law (witness Crimea and Salisbury) and chemical weapons conventions (witness Syria and Salisbury), but also western power and pretensions – witness his dismemberment of Ukraine. The case that could be made for May is that we in Britain have recently been attacked by the Russians and are threatened by Putin at large. ... It is a vital British and European interest to demonstrate to Putin that Trump is on our side, not his.
Our security and defence services are rightly concerned that Putin may not understand this and might thereby seriously miscalculate, perhaps by invading the vulnerable Baltic states in a widening of his Ukrainian enterprise and quest for nationalistic glory.”

I guess the author is arguing that "bomb bomb bomb Moscow" would have been a much better, less theatrical, response; another columnist had earlier argued that even Likud and B Netanyahu have been too pacifist and surrendered to the endargement of israeli citizens by russian and iranian "aggression" near Israel's borders:
“The reality is that Israel - and Netanyahu in particular - has badly misread the trajectory of Russia's re-engagement in the Middle East, which has created in the very kindest interpretation the context for Iran's projection of its influence ever further west and ever closer to Israel's borders.”

I guess that defending against future attacks means here "bomb bomb bomb Moscow" and "bomb bomb bomb Teheran".
Another columnist at "The Guardian" wrote in much the same vein:
“It’s time for Britain and its allies to take concerted, sustained military action to curb Bashar al-Assad’s ability to murder Syria’s citizens at will.”
“Trump should know better now. One feel-good bomb-fest does not a strategy make.”

At least this is directed only at the murderous Assad, and I guess that many, many “feel-good bomb-fest”s are then recommended by "The Guardian".

That newspaper is the megaphone of the "centrist party", so particularly interesting. The "centrist party" found guilty Putin of the "attack" on Salisbury a month ago:
That this House unequivocally accepts the Russian state's culpability for the poisoning of Yulia and Sergei Skripal in Salisbury using the illegal novichok nerve agent ... supports the Government's call for a special meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss Russia's use of chemical weapons on UK soil; and resolves to consider support for further proportionate actions to deter future acts of aggression by the Russian state.”

I guess that "gung-ho" does not begin to describe the 50 "centrist party" members who signed that "Early Day Motion".

Blissex said...

«more than matched by the 30 to 50 Labour MPs convinced strikes are appropriate (some of whom are so gung-ho it's hard to envisage circumstances where they wouldn't back a military action).»

I think that they are very enthusiastic about the russian-iranian-syrian story because it is being spun into a "hidden stockpiles of WMDs" story (I think I heard that before...), for example here a Conservative leader:
“Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, said: "Striking Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons would degrade their ability to commit further war crimes..."”

which has now become official:
“Western powers are to attempt to inject diplomatic momentum behind the military strikes against Syrian government chemical weapon sites by calling for the UN to launch a broad investigation into Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.”

The russian "attack" with WMDs against Salisbury provides one better than Tony Blair's "45 minutes" argument: the "attack" is not merely 45 minutes away, it has already happened. Tony Blair will feel entirely vindicated :-).

«let every big power know they can flout international law with impunity, and as a consequence is helping make the world a more uncertain, if not dangerous place.»

This was already established in the 1990s, with the 6 month bombing campaign of the capital city of a recognized and sovereign european country, a leader of the "non-aligned" group even, and its invasion and dismemberment. Naturally it is not “every big power” it is only the USA that can do it or give permission (as for Lybia).
The UK political class have not forgotten Suez and that no flouting of international law is possible without permission from the USA government.

I am personally not scandalized by this -- "realpolitik" happens, and of all unilateralist powers that could have happened the USA is one of the least bad ones, and they mostly leave their protectorates to themselves.