Well we sure as hell have got to bomb something- A guest post from the British commentariat

It may have failed in Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 and Lybia in 2011 and we may be proposing to attack the opposite side in Syria than we were in 2013, but this time, military intervention is morally necessary, strategically sound and guaranteed to succeed

Syria is not Iraq, ISIS is not a river in Egypt

As a commentator in a right-wing broadsheet, I was full-throated in my support of the Iraq War as a just and necessary intervention against a brutal dictator who was murdering his own people by the thousands while posing an imminent threat to our country, our values and our way of life.

And although that intervention was an unmitigated disaster, I believe I made the correct decision based on the government line at the time. After all, it isn’t my job to  examine the claims made by politicians or use my  critical faculties to help my readers gain a balanced and informed view of the situation, and anyway, nobody could have known back then that an invasion fuelled by the messianic zeal of Bush and Blair, underpinned by doctored intelligence and reliant on the optimistic belief that people we had spent over a decade bombing would welcome us as liberators would end so badly.

Statistically, the more sides to a conflict, the less likely you are to be on the losing one

“Statistically, the more sides to a conflict, the less likely you are to be on the losing one” Image from http://www.caglecartoons.com

The strategic situation in Syria today is very different. This time we are not proposing to use boots on the ground to take out a tyrannical strongman. Instead we are proposing to join an existing bombing campaign with the aim of taking out the most brutal of the groups that we helped to create to fight a tyrannical strongman and so clear the way for his more moderate opponents to sufficiently weaken his position so that he is forced to negotiate a transition from power.

Moreover, our involvement will be marginal compared to the thousands of sorties already flown. But if anything this makes our intervention even more necessary.  Although small, our forces will weigh the balance, just as 70 years ago the brave Spitfire pilots of the Battle of Britain weighed the balance in our fight against an enemy almost as powerful and ruthless as ISIS is today.

Not only that, but where Iraq was an ill-conceived imperial adventure with no overarching plan, David Cameron has promised us that this time any intervention will be part of a comprehensive strategy. This firm commitment to a comprehensive strategy should reassure even the most sceptical that there is a strategy in place and that it is comprehensive.

It is certainly having an effect on Labour MPs who are clamouring for the free vote that will allow them to support an intervention and put the ghost of the Iraq war to bed once and for all. In so doing, they have once again exposed Jeremy Corbyn’s extreme ideological commitment to unworkable and idealistic solutions. Of course we’d all like to settle wars by peaceful means, but anyone who has studied history knows this is never achievable: the Congress of Vienna created the conditions that led to the outbreak of the Great War, The Treaty of  Versailles led directly to the outbreak of World War Two and the Yalta Conference created the Cold War.

Ready to deploy in 45 minutes

The comprehensive strategy is underpinned by the fact that there is a highly trained, well-equipped and battle proven anti-Assad faction on the ground.  The Free Syrian Army is a cohesive, disciplined force that displays an impressive combination of ethics and military effectiveness. The government’s latest intelligence, which we have no reason to doubt, indicates that there are 70,000 fighters ready to deploy within 45 minutes of the UK  joining the conflict.

This is why those who compare the situation to Libya in 2011 are just as misguided as those who compare it to Iraq. Libya was a classic example of how airpower can  be an effective and low-risk way to remove a dictator and sow the seeds of democracy and freedom. The fact that the Libyan people could not take advantage of the opportunity given to them by the brave fighter pilots of the West is a sad indictment of their backwardness and tribalism, not a critique of either the principle of intervention or its execution.

Unlike the Libyans, the Free Syrians are educated, liberal and secular with an open and sophisticated culture that has been struggling to break free of the chains of oppression for decades. We need to support them just as we supported the democratically elected government of Abdel Al-Fatah Sisi in its struggle against the longstanding military dictatorship of Mohammed Morsi; just as we supported the tolerant and freedom loving Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen against Iranian backed Islamic State fighters; just as we supported our staunch friend and ally the former president of Iraq in his 7 year war of liberation against the fanatical Ayatollahs.

Moreover, with our staunch allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and gulf states like the UAE and Qatar funnelling support to anti-Assad factions in the region, we can be sure that we will be part of a coordinated response on behalf of the entire international community.

Remember the Twin Towers Charlie Hebdo the Alamo the black hole of  Calcutta The Paris Attacks

By rehashing all these old anti-war arguments, we are playing into the terrorists’ hands. We must never forget that less than two weeks ago, Paris, the City of Light, was targeted by ISIS in a brutal series of attacks that left 139 people dead.

The terrorists may claim that Paris was targeted partly because it is “a capital of prostitution  and vice” and partly because France has been at the forefront of fighting ISIS,  not just in Syria but also in North Africa and Mali, but we should know better by now than to fall into this trap.

There is always an excuse to justify the latest atrocity. Muhammed Siddiqe Khan, the leader of the 7/7 bombers claimed that it was Britain’s re-election of the Labour government that invaded Iraq that prompted those attacks and in 2003, Osama Bin Laden wrote a letter to the American people in which he itemised hundreds of years of purely imagined grievances to justify his campaign of violence and fear. Radical Islamists may talk of Baghram and Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition and Abu Graib, but it is worth remembering that all of these came into being after 9/11, so how could they possibly have caused or fuelled the violence in the first place?

And before that, there was always an invasion here, a repression there  and a line in the sand over there to give fuel to the Islamist narrative of a perfidious West always seeking to humiliate and subjugate Muslims or to outsource that humiliation and subjugation to brutal client regimes that suppress freedom but prop themselves up by supporting reductionist, violent and ahistoric versions of Islam while the West turns a blind eye for the sake of oil revenue.

Let us be absolutely clear. There is no way in which any Western nation has done anything to inflame the situation in the Middle East and even if they had, there is no link between such actions and the violent hatred of the Jihadis. They hate us simply because we exist, because we are free. Any attempt to attribute causality to the situation not only plays into the terrorists’ hands, it disrespects the victims of the Paris attacks, not to mention the hundreds of thousands who have been killed across the Muslim world in our long and selfless fight to bring the lights of reason and freedom to those benighted lands.

The Cycle

By viewing this image you are giving succour to the terrorists

The West’s Burden

There are two clear sides to the debate – should we bomb ISIS now or should we have been bombing Assad for the last two years – but in the end, it boils down to this: We have a moral duty to act and failure to do so is an abdication of our responsibilities as an enlightened liberal democracy. As a free people, it is our burden to defend the freedom of others to their last breath.

There is a chance that intervention will make the UK a higher priority target for ISIS, but that higher risk is the price we must pay to keep our citizens safe, just as increased surveillance and police powers are the price we pay to protect our liberty. Our past interventions have not in any way fuelled radicalisation, extremism or terrorism but they have been co-opted by Jihadists into a narrative that does.

In order to break that narrative we need to show that we have the strength and commitment to see through to the end the job started in Iraq in 2003 and to show that we stand by our humanitarian values. Throughout a thousand years of history, we have never failed to be there when the French were on the field of battle and we will not start now. Nor can we  abandon the people of Syria who are even now crossing the Meditarranean desperately trying to escape war, brutality and aerial bombardment only to find that the gates of Europe are closed.

ISIS has grown because we did not have the courage to halt its advance. It has preyed on the fear of intervention that we have had since Iraq. But this is the Island of Henry V, of Nelson and Wellington, Churchill and Boy George, it will not be cowed by terrorists or forever shackled to past mistakes. If we are to deserve our seat at the top table, if we are to be able to still look ourselves in the eye and call Britain “Great” then we need to act.

It doesn’t even matter who we end up bombing in the end, Assad and his death squads; ISIS;  the Al-Qaeda affiliated brigades of the so-called Free Syrian Army, they are all as bad as each other. The critical thing is, we sure as hell have got to bomb something, otherwise how will they know we’re right?

(This article was first published about once every three months over the last 15 years)












The Doctor is Out

As the BMA ballots its members on strike action, the workings of the government’s spin machine need to come in for an examination

When you think of selfish, over-privileged scumbags being paid far too much for a job that adds no value whatsoever to society, what springs to mind? Is it bankers, corporate lawyers, politicians; or is it NHS doctors?

Doctor, My head is spinning 

As the Tory government squares up for a confrontation with the BMA over changes to the contracts of all doctors below consultant grade, the spin machine is in overdrive trying to persuade us that the NHS is staffed with grasping, entitled and overpaid good-for-nothings milking the public purse.

The row has been rumbling now for the better part of a year, with the government shifting its position on a regular basis as each of its arguments have been knocked down or shown to have little traction with the public. The claims made to win headlines and then dropped as soon as they’ve been proven false or otherwise lost their utility include:

  • That this is not a pay cut. It is merely a change that requires NHS doctors to work more hours on the same salaries.
  • That this is a pay cut, but only for a minority of doctors.
  • That they have no idea whether or not this is a pay cut.
  • That 10pm on a Saturday does not constitute anti-social hours, to which Private Eye responded with this gem

NHS Number Crunching

In addition, the government has been running a parallel campaign that claims to be pushing for a “truly 7 day NHS” and conflating the issue with that of doctors’ pay. This has lead to people putting their lives at risk by not in to hospital for emergency treatment on weekends because the government’s line has made them think there will be no staff there. So pronounced is this phenomenon that doctors have dubbed it #thehunteffect.

The idealised form of the government’s argument can be found in this remarkable piece of propaganda in Rupert Murdoch’s Sun Newspaper.


Now, painting the government as reasonable and doctors as unionised fat cats looking to keep their cream is a hard sell so it is worth looking at the Sun article in detail because it brings together all the techniques used by the government’s (publicly funded) spin merchants in one neat package. It is also very likely, based on my experience in the ugly world of spin, that it was directly briefed to the journalist by a Special Advisor in Jeremy Hunt’s Office.

The first technique is decontextualisation: the 11 per cent pay offer the article was referred to was not made at the negotiating table it was made through the media on the day that ballot papers went out from the BMA. As the doctors’ representative Johann Malawana observed, it was “megaphone diplomacy” not intended as an actual offer but designed to undermine the doctors position as a pure public relations exercise. The same goes for the claim that doctors have “shut the door” on negotiations. It is true that they have refused to negotiate given that the government is willing to discuss only one of the 22 points they have issues with, but putting forward an unacceptable offer and demanding that 90 per cent of it is acceded to without question before “negotiations” begin is not negotiation at all it is a cynical manipulation of public perception.

The second technique is the conflation of issues: The claim is made that keeping doctors’ pay at present levels stops the NHS from providing adequate staffing over the weekend. This just isn’t true. It is the case that non-urgent surgeries only take place on weekdays, but emergency care is available 24/7. While this particular article stops just shy of making the claim that there is no 7-day NHS, the claim has been given currency by articles in other newspapers and it taps into that latent understanding.

The third technique is comparing two different things as if they were alike: “Junior Doctors… are well paid compared to other public sector workers.” Yes, they are, compared to cleaners, traffic wardens and even nurses. This is because they are more highly trained and skilled. The idea that someone who is more skilled should be paid more is one that should be relatively easy to fathom.

The fourth is an appeal to prejudice and envy: By accusing the doctors of acting in “typical trade union style” they have been placed in a discourse that harks back to the winter of discontent, rubbish piling up on the streets and general strikes. The bad old days, in other words. The appeal to envy is straightforward enough to dissect – doctors have an overtime gravy train. The typical Sun reader does not. That is unfair and so the gravy train must be taken away.

And the final, most pernicious technique is dereliction of duty: This  is summed up in the last line condemning the BMA because “it puts its members financial interests ahead of the public’s needs.”

It is worth bearing in mind that the row is not about new contracts for people just qualifying as doctors, but existing agreements.  If your boss came to you one day and told you that your contract was being unilaterally altered to make you work longer and less sociable hours for less money, you would feel entitled to withdraw your labour because that was not what you signed up for. If your boss then said “you can’t strike because your skills are too important” you would wonder why they weren’t paying you what those skills are worth in the first place.

What is disgusting about this is that every NHS doctor is already taking a hit because they are working for the NHS at much less than the market rate for their skills, generally because they feel a sense of duty towards their fellow human beings. Hunt appears happy to use doctors’ consciences against them while appearing blissfully unencumbered by the Department for Health’s own duty of care towards its employees, leaving both the government and the Sun in the incongruous position of supporting the anti-capitalist stance of paying people less than the market rate for their wages.

[Addendum: It has been pointed out to me since this article went live that junior doctors can’t choose their overtime as the Sun article asserts so we can add “bare-faced lies” to the techniques listed.]

Politician, Heal Thyself

Ginuwine Remedys for ailments rehumatic, pneumatic and phlegtastic

Ginuwine Remedys for ailments rehumatic, pneumatic and phlegtastic

The interesting thing about the whole row is quite apart from the government’s position being cynical and constantly shifting, it is terrible politics and terrible economics. It also cuts to the heart of wider debates on how our society judges value.

Now it might be the case that doctors are on a publically funded gravy train and are destroying the NHS with their greed (it isn’t) but even if it were, I personally would rather than the person reattaching my arm after it has been severed by falling machinery or saving my child from meningitis wasn’t simultaneously worried about their mortgage or how they will pay for their daughter’s school uniform.

After all, the same government that claims to be on your side against grasping, greedy doctors has cut the 50p tax rate, wants to sell the public stake in RBS at a discount, is giving a free ride to millionaires through changes to inheritance tax and put forward a bill to cut tax credits that was so egregious that even the House of Lords – hardly a bastion of left-wing agitation- could not stomach it.

The people who have benefitted from these policies are sometimes called “wealth creators” in the hope this will distract from the fact that so much of the wealth they create either ends up in their own pockets or in political donations. Doctors, by contrast, do not create wealth, they merely help our workforce to be healthier and happier (not to mention more productive) for longer. A form of value those in power seem unable to process. In fact, for a government that prides itself on being stuffed full of business-minded, results-oriented people the Tory stance also betrays a lack of understanding of the basic rules of labour flow and the relationship between pay and conditions and the retention of skilled workers.

Unlike tube drivers or steel workers, Doctors do not fit easily into the bracket of bolshie militants. Many of them will be Tory voters or the children of Tory voters and all of them are articulate professionals both able to make their case and to access the media to ensure that their arguments are heard by the public. Moreover, most unionised workers have very limited options if things don’t go their way. A London tube driver can’t just up sticks and go to work for the New York Subway, a Redcar steel worker can’t just head off to China if the local works is shut down, but a medical professional with the best training in the world who is already working at 1/3 of the market rate can and will move to other countries if the combination of horrible hours, low pay and unrelenting insults to their value and professionalism continue.

But then, Hunt has already stated that his long term aim  is to privatise the NHS so maybe running it down by making conditions untenable for the junior doctors who are its backbone is exactly what he’s trying to achieve.

Doctors have yet to make the decision on whether they will strike. But their considerations should not include the ridiculous notion that the removal of their labour is unethical because the job they do is so important. If their work is so vital, they should be paid a fair amount for it. Unlike bankers who continue to get bonuses when the institutions they work for are part owned by the public, doctors add value and make daily sacrifices to look after the health of the nation. The government’s attempt to paint them as selfish for doing so is deeply destructive and morally bankrupt.