5 questions every supporter of intervention in the Middle East should ask

A few questions that every interventionist should consider.

A few questions that every interventionist should consider

The UK parliament’s vote in favour of air-strikes against ISIS in Iraq shows a remarkable consensus (534-43) on the need for military action, on the grounds that this is necessary for our own security and to improve the lives of people in the region.

There seems likely to an even greater consensus on the need for military action to be complimented by a longer-term strategy to tackle the causes of ISIS’ rise and the Middle East’s broader problems.

There is, however, no agreement on what exactly should be done, although many answers have been suggested (more intervention, less intervention, a new and improved form of intervention etc).

While making no claims to know what the answers are, here are some questions that every interventionist should nonetheless consider:

What does the UK actually want from the Middle East?

Do we want a stable Middle East? Do we want democratic and/or secular societies in the region (the two are not necessarily synonymous)? Do we want societies that reflect the goals of their people (even if these contradict our own)? Or, do we just want trading partners, markets for our goods and investors in our own economies (qv. Germany and China)?

Or alternatively, do we just want to gain the fleeting applause of the twitterati, give our poll ratings a temporary fillip or create a reason to feel good about ourselves? Likewise, if we want to pursue an ‘ethical’ policy in the region, what does this actually mean (e.g. can we use unethical methods to achieve a more ethical future)?

Moreover, if these above aims are not all compatible, then how we should prioritise these goals and which are we willing to sacrifice?

What are the Middle East’s core problems and which are fixable?

Unlike many interventions over the last twenty years, the authors of the current airstrikes do not propose any grand or utopian solutions.

This should, however, be accompanied by a further assessment of the region’s problems: which are the Middle East’s core problems and what are merely symptoms? Are the root problems economic, political, cultural or religious (or all of these); and which of these should be fixed first as a prerequisite to fixing the others (e.g. is economic growth the prerequisite to political reform, or vice versa)?

Given many Arab countries face declining resources (principally, oil and water) and booming but ever more badly educated populations, is a return to stability or a substantial lowering of sectarian and political tensions even achievable in the short-term?

Once we decide which problems are the root causes, and then which of these are fixable, which may be containable, and which are beyond resolving, we are far better placed to allocate our limited resources wisely.

Realistically, what can we change in the Middle East?

Neo-con hawks, leftist liberal interventionists, conspiracy-mongers and Islamists all share the belief that the West can deliberate shape, control or direct Middle Eastern events.

However, this assumption appears increasingly delusional; events over the last fifty years consistently show the West has little or no control over the long-term direction of the Middle East, as evidenced by the respective rise of nationalism, Baathism, Islamism, jihadism and inter-Muslim sectarianism over the last decades.

What are the limits of our power to direct Middle Eastern affairs in either the short or long-term? And how should an awareness of our limitations guide our short and long-term strategies?

Who are our friends?

The latest airstrikes are supported by a Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; none are democratic, only Jordan and UAE are in any way socially liberal, and Qatar and Saudi are largely responsible for the ongoing sectarianisation of Middle East.

Meanwhile, our nominal ally and NATO member, Turkey has refused to assist airstrikes on ISIS and is credibly accused of turned a blind eye (at best) to jihadis transiting into Syria. Our government meanwhile keeps our closest ideological allies, the Kurds (of both Iraq and Syrian varieties), at arm’s length for fearing of damaging relations with Arab, Iranian and Turkish nationalists.

Our Middle East alliance structure is desperately broken; how can we can fix it? Which ‘allies’ should we jettison, which should we help to reform, and how can we better help our real friends in the region (who may be not actually be governments at all but rather groupings of liberal and democratic individuals)?

How are our answers to the above questions limited by our own knowledge?

All the West’s recent major interventions, from Afghanistan in the 1980s to our removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and then Gaddafi in Libya, have failed largely due to our inability to anticipate the results of our actions. As we intervene now against ISIS, do we have any idea of what events we are setting in train 10 or 20 years hence?

Of course not.

Given the number of variables in the Middle East, some basic intellectual humility (a rare quality in politics) requires us admitting that the future is unknowable. Having recognised this, how can we minimise the risk of negative or unexpected outcomes arising from our actions, and how can we better anticipate our friends and enemies’ reactions to our actions?

In other words, for every Plan A, we should have Plan Bs, Cs, and Ds in case our Plan As fail or produce unexpected outcomes; do we have these, any if not, what should they be.


Voltaire once said to judge a man not by his answers but by his questions. Given the shifting sands of Middle Eastern politics, only a fool would claim to know even half the right questions (I, for one, make no such claims), let alone the right answers.

However given the state of the Middle East, there is no doubt that hard questions are sorely needed; who knows, some of these may even lead to the right answers.

James Brandon is an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR). He was formerly the director of research at Quilliam, the counter-extremism think tank

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20 Responses to “5 questions every supporter of intervention in the Middle East should ask”

  1. robertcp

    The aim of the current intervention is to defeat ISIS, so enemies of ISIS are our friends. Regarding long-term aims, we should allow the states in the area to decide their own form of government and only intervene to prevent extreme human rights abuses. We should encourage states in the Middle East to be more liberal and democratic but dictatorship might be the least bad type of government in parts of the Middle East.

  2. Gary Scott

    We have intervened for centuries and yet our success rate has not improved. We are not concerned with human rights and we have no pre existing problems with terrorism. The government has spent the last year softening public opinion and the major parties had agreed before the debate. Assets have been in place for some months. The real question is why? Why, knowing all this do our leaders still go ahead?

  3. Guest

    You are not concerned with human rights and have no knowledge of the Troubles or the history of Arab nationalism and extremism perhaps, but you don’t speak for me.

    Why, why is following morals so bad for you?

  4. Leon Wolfeson

    “so enemies of ISIS are our friends.”

    Absolutely not. This is the sort of thinking which lead to i.e. Saddam Hussein coming to power. James is quite correct, we need to think about who our strategic allies are, not just in the short term. For example, allying with Assad would be a mistake of monumental proportions.

    And dictatorship is the “least bad type”? Why do you believe that? What characteristic of those states do you believe makes it such?

  5. robertcp

    I was making the point that we should not try to impose democracy at the point of a gun. Democracy is actually a difficult type of government and countries in the Middle East might not be ready for it.

  6. Leon Wolfeson

    Why do you believe that, though? What’s your basis for your view there?

  7. Dave Roberts

    We can’t fix the middle east but we have to stop the spread of ISIS. It’s as simple as that.

  8. swat

    Voltaire also said ‘judge a man by the company he keeps’ So, what does friends with Saudi and the USA say about Britain? And the missing question about what the hell we are going to do with that cuckoo in the nest Israel, the root cause of all the instability in the ME.

  9. AlanGiles

    The politicians favourite cliche’ when things go arse upwards is that “lessons will be learned” sadly they never are, and here we have Cameron egged on by Miliband, just as Blair was egged on by Hague in 2003, getting ourselves into something that will drear on for years that has no winners but many losers, – losers which do not include our effete politicians, who will continue to draw their expenses and toe the party line.
    Do we have an official opposition, by the way, one week we have Miliband trudging up to Scotland to support the Coaltion, last week Westminster. Going to war should be a matter of conscience not a three line whip affair, shame on the “Labour” party

  10. davidbfpo


    You start with, cited in part: ‘the need for military action, on the grounds that this is necessary for our own security and to improve the lives of people in the region’.

    I remain unconvinced the UK’s role to date is necessary for our own security. ISIS currently is waging a campaign in Iraq-Syria, with much success and what risk is that to our security today. Yes for ISIS we are the ‘far enemy’ and they needed us to intervene – for their propaganda. Maybe ISIS want to attack the UK at home, today that is a likely aspiration. There is more to gain by continuing their campaign – after all they are only thirty miles plus from Baghdad.

    The linked objective ‘improve the lives’ is so general as to be worthless. Do we mean better human rights or to stop genocide?

    What we should to is to CONTAIN the actions of ISIS. Say that clearly and be effective in our military action. For example identify and destroy all their heavy weapons, like the tanks and artillery – seized from the Iraqi state forces. Should we support local militias against them? Maybe. The Kurds have quite limited objectives in Syria at the moment. I doubt they will go for Raqqa for example.

  11. Choddo

    Simple? How do we realistically achieve that?

  12. Dave Roberts

    Bomb the fuck out of ISIS and put troops in.

  13. Choddo

    Of course. History has proven how well that works so there’s no further discussion to be had.

  14. robertcp

    The history of Europe for a start. Greece, Spain and Portugal were dictatorships until the mid 1970s. Much of central and eastern Europe were Communist dictatorships until 1989 and democracy seems to be a difficult concept for people in Ukraine and Russia.

  15. Leon Wolfeson

    Sigh. There goes the “the people are inferior” concept. No, autocratic systems are imposed onto people. Democracy can take many forms, and the exact formula found in the UK or the US might not be the right answer, but giving the people a substantial say should be the goal.

    The problem in Iraq, for instance, was a strong central government rather than a strong federal model, not that the people there have any inherent issues with democracy!

  16. Guest

    No. It’s not.

    Containment is not the answer. Extermination of their fighters and leadership is.

  17. Guest

    Keep blaming the Jews for everything, never change!

  18. Guest

    Contain. That is, allow to fester. To rebuild for their next campaign.

  19. robertcp

    I did say that, “We should encourage states in the Middle East to be more liberal and democratic”.

  20. davidbfpo

    ISIS, formerly AQ in Iraq (AQI), have survived for many years now, whether under attack by the US or the Iraqi state, In most accounts they have grown of late, with the taking of Mosul well publicised, although they had already taken other cities. They are constantly rebuilding and adapting.

    We, the UK as an external actor, cannot defeat ISIS politically or militarily, unless we return on the ground – which is politically unacceptable in Iraq and here. We can with care and time contain their military capability. If there is a political settlement in Iraq where the Sunnis share power, perhaps ISIS can be defeated.

    Containment also brings in the ‘Let them rot’ option, as history has shown jihadists once in power end up losing local, popular support. As AQI learnt in Iraq with the Sunni tribal revolt, helped along by copious US payments.

    Not should we overlook that whilst ISIS dominates the headlines it is only part of the coalition against the Iraqi state with former Baathists and local Sunni tribes.

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