When the British liberal press supports the UK’s wars, it generally does so from a very different perspective to the tabloid press. Unlike the Sun, say, it doesn’t make little jokes about drones or entertain its readers with bloodthirsty ‘gotcha’ moments. Like the Observer, in its famous editorial in support of the Iraq war, it always comes to war reluctantly, after many sleepless nights.
Because they are liberal, newspapers like the Observer want to do the right thing with war, even if they aren’t always sure what the right thing is or whether war can achieve it. Atlanticist to the core, they believe that American military power is essentially benign, even if it needs a little British imperial wisdom to point in a more multilateral direction.
Coming from nineteenth century British notions of ‘liberal Empire’, the militarism of the liberal press shares the same desire of the British elite to be part of a country that punches above its weight, that fights wars not because it is belligerent or aggressive itself, or because it has any self-interested commercial or geostrategic motivations, but in order to spread some healing balm in our troubled world.
On 29 September therefore, the day before the parliamentary vote on air strikes, the Guardian asked parliament to consider the ‘fundamental question…whether we, Britain, the United States and other western nations, should even be in the Middle East at all?’
After all, as the Guardian rightly noted
‘A series of interconnected crises have roiled the region ever since the modern history of our interference began two centuries ago. We have done much harm, to be set against a very uncertain amount of good. Isn’t it time we were gone? MPs should be very clear that the broad, long-term answer is yes’.
Having established that, the editorial then began to show why the short-term answer is actually no. Because the problem isn’t that western states have any self-interested reasons for wanting to have a military presence in the Middle East, it’s just that the region just won’t let us leave. Even the Arab spring disappointed us, although for a brief period
‘ We saw an emancipation that would make possible an end to our embroilment in, and responsibility for, a troubled and dangerous place. Unhappily, that was a mirage, as the rise of Islamic State (Isis) has demonstrated.’
Faced with that ‘mirage’, we have no choice (sigh) but to go to war again, reluctantly as always, because the bloody natives just can’t short themselves out. But this time we must go preparing to leave, because air strikes must only be used ‘to gain time for the local states to set their own affairs in order. If and when they do, Isis’s time will be over, its military eclipse but a symptom of its social and political defeat.’
If on the other hand that doesn’t happen, and it becomes clear that ‘military action is counter-productive in the sense that it is assisting Isis in the radicalisation of the population under its control, we should reserve the right to stop.’
How likely is it that air strikes might be ‘counter-productive’? The Guardian doesn’t know, because war is unknowable and who can ever really know it? After all
‘Wars are not plays. They are not necessarily all right on the night. If countries only fought wars they were sure they would win, the history of human conflict would be a short one. Critics who demand proof of success in advance ask too much. Yet it is true that the consequences of military action are especially unpredictable this time.’
This isn’t quite as banal as the strategy outlined by Bill Kristol for dealing with Isis back in August, when he asked ‘ What’s the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens?’ but it isn’t far off. In fact it is really quite staggeringly shallow.
Of course no one can guarantee ‘proof of success’ in war, but even supporters of military action might want to see clear strategic goals and some evidence that these goals are militarily and politically viable, wouldn’t they? Not William Kristol, and not the Guardian either, because
‘We cannot prosper while a great civilisation goes down next to us like a sinking ship. If we can help avert that, we should do so, but with the strong reservation that we will stop if we see we are making things worse, and very much in the hope that this will be the last chapter in the vexed history of our interventions in that region.’
Less than a week later, faced with evidence that that ‘vexed history’ is not working out well, and that air strikes are indeed ‘making things worse’, the Guardian discovers to its consternation that ‘ western air power… has made even less difference so far than pessimists had suggested.’
How so? Because
‘Isis has adapted swiftly to the new situation. Vehicles and equipment are scattered, fighters disperse as soon as western jets appear in the sky. These multi-million dollar warplanes have often been reduced, it seems, to blasting single pick-up trucks and the like with ordnance worth 10 or 20 times the value of the targets.’
Well good God. Who, apart from ‘the pessimists’ would have expected ISIS to actually ‘disperse’ when confronted with ‘multi-million dollar warplanes’? Surely it was reasonable to think that all 30,000 of them would just stand out in the open and allow themselves to be blown to bits?
The Guardian apparently thought so, last week at least. But that was then. Because now, a week after encouraging MPs to send the country to war on a wing and prayer, it discovers that ‘the ability of determined forces to stand up to air attack has been well attested over the years’ and that ‘ those under attack… move next to civilian communities, because they know the attackers want to avoid civilian deaths.’
This is exactly what many opponents of the war predicted what would happen, and not because they were ‘pessimists’, or geniuses, but because they had an understanding of the basic tenets of modern warfare. And that’s another problem with the liberal militarists. It isn’t just that their attempts to hitch some kind of humanitarian moral agenda onto elite wars in which morality is absent are shallow and misleading in themselves.
For all the gravitas and seriousness that it seeks to bring to the subject of war, the liberal press has shown itself time and time again to be remarkably naive, clueless, and credulous in its analysis of the wars it supports, and consistently blind to the broader geostrategic intentions behind these endless ‘interventions’.
And that is one more reason why its predictions have so often turned out to be catastrophically wrong, and why it has pinned its liberal dreams to a succession of disasters and failures that a less servile press would have recognized immediately had little chance of achieving even their stated objectives.