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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