Taking on ISIS: doing something is a high risk strategy. Doing nothing is disastrous

We have a responsibility to protect where feasible.

Iraq ncrj

We have a responsibility to protect where feasible

‘Do something’ is such a weak argument. To enter a war without a crystal clear strategy and a definitive exit strategy is incautious. And to enter a war in the complex patchwork of Syria and Iraq is doubly so.

There are so many examples of mission creep and inconclusive outcomes following an invasion that ‘do something’ should surely be shown for the historical failure it is?

To enter into this war will draw in new fighters to the ISIS cause. It will create new refugees, as indeed it may have already done so as 140,000 Syrian Kurds have been displaced.

The loss of life will be considerable. All sorts of unforeseen consequences abound. There will be blowback- in our country potentially as some British men now fighting in Iraq and Syria return radicalised.

These are consequences of the ‘do something’ mindset. Instead, the Middle East should be left to fight its sectarian wars until they are exhausted. There is no way to unravel history nor should we try. Instead we should stand aside and let history and ethnic conflict take its course. Look at the damage we’ve done already in recent decades.

And all this sounds vaguely plausible. It might all come to pass. It’s a highly fraught strategic course that Barack Obama has chosen and our leaders will probably also do so today (at least with regard to Iraq). The critique of ‘do something’ is so routine.

And let’s be honest, these attacks on ISIS are in the ‘do something’ mould. There is no particularly clear strategy, no clear exit. It’s not a neat war (what war is?) It could be over in months but is more likely to take years.

It would be foolish to pursue a ‘do something’ strategy but for one simple thing. That simple thing is that the alternative – do nothing – is far worse. How do we know? Well, because we have seen the consequences of ‘do nothing’ for some time now.

A year ago, there was the opportunity to deplete the war machine of Bashar al-Assad. Almost 200,000 deaths and 3 million refugees (and 6 million internally displaced) are the result of Assad’s refusal to relinquish power. ISIS has slithered into the vacuum created by Assad’s war. But wait, aren’t ISIS and Assad in opposition?

Far from it, Assad has stood aside and let them flourish. They are two sides of the same coin. His mistreatment of the Syrian people has been a recruitment sergeant for the group. Assad has found a convenient deflective tactic. Assad, in desperation, needs ISIS.

So we have had chemical attacks, beheadings, massacres, ethnic slaughter, conquest and suppression and we have done nothing for the fear of ‘do something’. Our Parliament even patted itself on the back for its do nothing vote.

But it’s not our battle, right? When there is genocide and human displacement on this scale then there is no hiding place from the aftershocks. War on this scale is global in the modern age. Humanity is globally connected. There is no hiding place.

Do something is a high risk strategy. Do nothing is disastrous. We don’t get to choose our choices and sometimes they are all bad. Yet some are worse than others. For all the historical examples of ‘do something’ leading to long and bloody conflict and even defeat, the ghosts of Bosnia, Rwanda, and now Syria are far more haunting.

This won’t be simple and there will be disasters. The alternative is worse: turning a blind eye to genocide and human catastrophe.

We have a responsibility to protect where feasible. We had that responsibility a year ago, we chose to shirk it, and we still have it now. We can now put right our wrong. I’d rather be on the side of something rather than nothing.

Anthony Painter is a contributing editor to Progress and was previously director of the Independent Review of the Police Federation

Also on Left Foot Forward: Why the West keeps getting it wrong on Iraq

10 Responses to “Taking on ISIS: doing something is a high risk strategy. Doing nothing is disastrous”

  1. Harry

    ‘Do something is a high risk strategy. Do nothing is disastrous.’ – How about a bit of analysis of the other ‘somethings’ that we could do? Like, for instance, arming the Kurds? Why present it as a binary choice when it is much more complex (as you note, in fact).

  2. Edmund in Tokyo

    “A year ago, there was the opportunity to deplete the war machine of Bashar al-Assad. Almost 200,000 deaths and 3 million refugees (and 6 million internally displaced) are the result of Assad’s refusal to relinquish power.”

    Hang on, a year ago it was supposed to be about stopping Assad using chemical weapons. Are you telling us that we were being lied to and it was really about creating regime change?

    Also, if it’s related to what didn’t happen a year ago, saying “ISIS has slithered into the vacuum created by Assad’s war” requires time travel, since they were already in the vacuum a year ago. If somebody in the region has time travel ability, the solution would be a limited raid to seize the time travel equipment, followed by using it do go back in time and undo several decades of Western policy in the middle-east. Alternatively it’s not a related point, and you suck at paragraphs.

  3. anthonypainter

    Ha! Probably so- perils of iphone composition. But your reading comprehension and logic are not so hot so I guess we all have our crosses to bear.

  4. anthonypainter

    OK sure. There are lots of options and they are not either-ors. Arming the Kurds and air cover are compatible actions. As is persuading the Iraqi Government to behave more generously to all its people. Syria is mightily more difficult. But it would take more than a quick ‘arguments for’ blog to do that.

  5. Leon Wolfeson

    One year ago. Not when Assad started the civil war.

    Instead, you go off on a rant about myths.

  6. 137point036

    Has anyone counted the number of countries (or capital cities) that are closer to Baghdad than Westminster. You would need both hands and feet to count them.
    The argument that somebody has to do something for the innocents is a good one. But why us?

  7. treborc1

    Myths are what ended up sending us into Blair’s Iraq war, so if people want to use Myths who are we to stop them.

  8. Leon Wolfeson

    Have you read his post?

  9. Chrisso

    “When there is genocide and human displacement on this scale then
    there is no hiding place from the aftershocks.”
    “War on this scale is global in the modern age.”
    “Humanity is globally connected.”
    “There is no hiding place.”
    “Do something is a high risk strategy. Do nothing is disastrous.”
    “We don’t get to choose our choices and sometimes they are all bad. Yet some
    are worse than others.”
    “This won’t be simple and there will be disasters. The alternative is worse: turning a blind eye to genocide and human catastrophe.”
    Come off it, this is sheer utter nonsense. These are homilies and soundbites worthy of some church billboard. Humanitarian aid from Britain is one thing, going to war yet again is another. Britain is obsessed with waving a big stick around. We must stop it. We have UN forces to deal with genocide and human displacement. Only as part of that agency should we be involved.

    As for ‘Progress’ – it’s the party within the party that captured and destroyed Labour. Labour is now dying. It’s been outflanked in England and it’s being dismantled in Scotland. Check:
    https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/adam-ramsay/referendum-has-transformed-scotland-labour-should-be-afraid
    and
    http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2014/09/beware-scottish-labour-is-a-zombie-party-and-the-undead-still-walk/

    Those that refused to back Labour after the 2003 attack on Iraq and had returned to the
    fold now look with disbelief at the shadow of this once great party that went for bombing the Middle East yet again. There will be tens of thousands that will not now vote for Labour’s warmongers in 2015.

  10. Chrisso

    Exactly. The claim of a direct threat to the UK is simply Orwellian and bogus.

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