An Attack on Parris

I’m a big fan of Matthew Parris, he brings credit to conservatives, to the Conservatives and to writers everywhere. If I ever find myself disagreeing with him it usually amounts to just a sense, a grumbling somewhere within me, because frankly, I’m usually not smart enough to articulate exactly why.

His piece of the 28th November on the Syria vote is well written but is also dead wrong and I think this time I might manage to explain how.

The article is paywalled and so I have added photos of it below. In an attempt to offset the accusation of larceny I will claim its age as mitigation and will further add that if you don’t subscribe to The Times, and happen not to be on the breadline, you most certainly should.

Parris says the ‘yes’ vote is only about us wanting to play a part in an event and he knows this because of various ‘silences’ from the ‘bombs-away brigade’. I heard Cameron’s statement to Parliament before this article and I heard the debates on Wednesday and I concluded that those voting ‘yes’ did so reluctantly and through a genuine belief that expanded military action against Islamic State is an unfortunate necessity. I shall refer to his side as merely the ‘no voters’ as I assume that in the main they are similar people that reached a different conclusion.

Joining the bombing in Syria will do nobody any good. And the funny thing is, I think that in its heart Britain knows that. But it’s one of those things that’s just going to happen anyway. Britain will join the bombing because it’s the kind of thing Britain does. It will make no serious difference to the allied campaign, and the whole thing will end up in a bloody mess.

Nobody? Does he really mean ‘nobody’?
I assume, unlike Corbyn, that Parris approves of the bombing in Iraq. The Islamic State actions in Iraq are supported and controlled by units across the border in Syria. How is he so certain that those people fighting Islamic State in Iraq, which he supports, will not be done ‘any good’ by the campaign? What about those units fighting Islamic State in Syria, in particular the Kurdish units in the north? They have shown in Iraq how useful air power is to them, surely Parris can’t be claiming to know that their desire for support in Syria is misplaced as it will in fact do them ‘no good’. If he is, how is he able to? What is this based upon? Perhaps these are quibbles and he accepts this but is addressing the long-term.

One of the problems with the ‘no’ side of the argument has been the total lack of follow through on the implications of what they argue. Parris’ piece is no different.

Parris is saying either: it is bad and nobody should do it or it is good but we should let other people do it for us. I think he implies the former, that the campaign itself is wrong and will cause a “bloody mess”. As he also believes that our involvement “will make no serious difference”, then he must think that our allies will cause a bloody mess alone.  Therefore, Parris shouldn’t merely be advocating that Britain, alone, stays on one side of an imaginary line but he must also push for us to use our full diplomatic weight to stop France and the United States from doing what they are doing.

If he thinks the campaign is wrong then surely it is a moral imperative for him to use his voice to tell our government the same thing. Nobody on the ‘no’ side has been saying such a thing. If it is wrong we must protest. If it is right then what justification, beyond self-preservation and penny pinching, is there to say that we shouldn’t lend our hand and do what is admitted to be right?

For clarity, these are questions all on the ‘no’ side need to answer:

  1. Are you saying bombing Islamic State should occur but just without us?
  2. If yes, how do you justify us abandoning allies?
  3. If no, what should we be doing to prevent the bombing by our ‘allies’ then?
  4. If no, does this apply to Iraq also, or do you support the campaign up to the border?
  5. If yes, how is bombing the same enemy across a border, which they don’t believe exists, the variable?

If you don’t provide clear answers to these you’re not being serious. I find it concerning that in almost all cases these points are not made expressly clear, and in some cases, such as Corbyn on Wednesday and Abbott on Question Time on Thursday, such questions are actively dodged. Their silence is far more telling than any coming from the ‘yes’ side.

This might well all end in a ‘bloody mess’. I for one am fully aware of that and freely admit it. However, it already is a bloody mess and it will continue to be. The case needs to be made that this will be a worse bloody mess or there is no case being made at all. He doesn’t make that case.

But we shall brush those doubts and presentiments aside, and in a moment I’ll tell you why. First, though, to the doubts themselves. They can be addressed briefly because (as I shall explain) this decision doesn’t turn on the merits. Arguing whether British bombing makes any military and political sense is a sideshow, an epiphenomenon.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to look that word up (I am ashamed). It means a ‘secondary effect or by-product, in particular’. My immediate question of ‘why is it?’ was answered thus:

It was all summed up for me last Sunday in the nanosecond of a ministerial hesitation. I was on a radio programme in which the broadcaster John Pienaar interviewed Matthew Hancock about Syria. There was a case, said the paymaster general, “for making sure there are boots on the ground from . . .” and here there was the slightest of pauses, “. . . somewhere”.

So much for the state of official thinking on stage two. It’s pitiful.

So why do I say there’s no point in persisting with the rational case against Britain joining the airborne queue to bomb Raqqa? For your answer, listen to the silences.

This answer of Parris’ is far from convincing. The pause isn’t enough and I believe the ‘silences’ Parris refers to are either imaginary or are actually well-founded.

The question from this firest silence is, with the number of unknowns is it realistic or possible to lay out a ‘full and comprehensive’ long term plan? Such a plan has very little chance of surviving contact with reality and which will make those advocating it a hostage to fortune for the Corbynites from here on in.

All the ‘official thinking’ in the world doesn’t mean you can know something which is unknowable. If we cannot muster more forces to support in a fight against Islamic State in some areas then we don’t get to support them. That still leaves us requiring permission to assist those that are already fighting them. And some are. It still requires permission to degrade them as best we can, when we can, and we now are doing so.

Parris is suggesting that a lack of detail about something which cannot realistically be detailed is evidence that this is only about something unrelated to the actual results. This does not follow, there are good reasons even without those solid answers.

If you don’t wish to press ahead without the unobtainable detail, you are saying that Islamic State should be left in-situ due to the stability they provide being better than the unknown future. That’s a view, some good old realpolitik, but make the case, put your name to it. Don’t just play Motte and Bailey with it.

Assuming you can’t have that plan then the next question is: Is that sufficient reason to not press ahead?

Rather incredibly, Parris concedes that he thinks we will defeat Islamic State but that he is more worried about what replaces it in the region. Well, I’m not more worried about that. On the balance of all the imperfect solutions and outcomes laid before us, I will take a military defeat of Islamic state with the corresponding uncertainty over any variation of the status quo. I am clear about that and Parris would do well to be just as clear himself. Does he want us all to pack up and leave, stay on the border, what? And why doesn’t he say?

So by now you are perhaps despairing of getting Mr Cameron and his hawkish friends to focus on the lessons from the past. In vain will you ask if for Syria we have the plans we lacked in Iraq and Libya. In vain will you ask if we know this time who we want to install. In vain will you ask most of them to name (let alone spell) two or three of the leaders of the “moderate” Free Syrian Army, or give you a potted history of where these mysterious individuals and their supporters come from, and how their fortunes stand.

Cameron isn’t silent, he is perfectly clear that it is largely unknown and risky. We are accepting that risk not pretending it isn’t there. Parris has no way of mitigating that risk or all the risks that come with not attacking Islamic State either so he instead opts for the unknowns of leaving them in place.

This is a point of honest diagreement. However, he  claims that this lack of knowledge is being hidden whereas he himself makes no attempt to provide the counter factual for his advocated inaction and his own known unknowns. There are far more ‘silences’ from him and the ‘no’ voters than there are from us.

Try asking most people the question which Parris’ analysis allows for but which he doesn’t himself phrase: If we can beat bring a military defeat to Islamic State but are, at the moment, unsure exactly how things will play out after, should we still do it?

I think most will bite your hand off with that offer. This is not Libya, this is certainly not Iraq. If Parris, and everyone else for that matter, wants to ask the same questions about the downfalls of a decapitation strategy in this particular case then go ahead. But we should require to hear the words implied:

“I would rather Gaddaffi had stayed in place than the unknown”.

“I would rather Saddam had stayed in place than the unknown.”

“I would rather Islamic State remains in place than the unknown.”

You may well have had a lot of takers for the first two but how many for the third? Furthermore, I suggest the experience of the first two adds far less light to the question of the third than Parris and the ‘no’ voters would have you believe. If Saddam or Gaddaffi was a stability you could live with, is Islamic State? Are all three unknowns just as bad?

This lack of detail is not a silence indicating that they are actually not interested in the answer, it is in fact a known unknown that is admitted to and factored into the decision we have reluctantly advocated making. A decision made with eyes wide open. Parris is reading in to it something that isn’t there.

Listen to the silence when you point out to the bombs-away brigade that two years ago the debate that the PM failed to carry was about going to war against Bashar al-Assad, whereas now the plan is to join two much bigger players than ourselves, Iran and Russia, who are determined to keep him in place.

Perhaps this silence is due to the disbelief somebody actually said that to them.

If Parris wants something other than silence I’d try this:

I recall no debate about ‘going to war’. Cameron advocated  a “tough response to the use of chemical weapons” in partnership with the United States. Obama is the ‘no troops in the Middle-East’ President. Are we to believe that this wasn’t about limited punishment for crossing ‘red lines’ consisting of a short spell of strikes on facilities but was actually to be the start of a war against Assad? That’s not a small distinction and I cannot imagine Obama signing off on the latter, he barely seemed keen on the former. Unless there is solid reasoning to assume the intention was to extent this ‘tough response’ into such a war, this is a dubious argument and am disappointed to see it made by Parris.

Even so, Cameron has also been clear that this is an ‘Islamic State first’ policy.

Finally, so bloody what? The threat from Islamic State in 2013 was simply not as clear as it is now. The facts have changed. How this apparent silence means that it is all for show is yet to be revealed to me.

Wrong questions, every one. They haven’t the foggiest, but that isn’t the point. Does Britain want to be left out? That’s the question, the only question, that the prime minister’s Commons statement this week was really meant to answer.

The point is to join our allies in a fight. Never mind on which side, so long as we’re all on it together. Our friends are in there, for God’s sake, fists flying. We must be in there too. We have armed forces, we have jets, we have bombs. Use them or lose them. Do we really want to be left out?

This horror of being left out is for psychiatrists not military strategists to ponder.

I do not know why such an important part of his assertion is left merely to ‘psychiatrists’. Parris gives himself free reign to ponder the benefits of military strategy while not being a strategist himself. Why doesn’t he also have a stab at the psychology? Especially as he seems so aware of the psychological imperative we all feel to get involved. This really isn’t good enough as it allows him to discredit it without examination.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it is all merely about getting involved. Parris writes as if we should take for granted that this is inherently wrong.

The problem with his assumption is that the getting involved, the doing our bit, are important in and of themselves. Our activity and our maintenance of alliances is important for the credibility of our future threats of any military activities that will then be pondered by said military strategists. It is important for our credibility and presence in diplomacy and in the maintenance of soft power.

The desire to take part and to stand with our allies is not merely some psychological flaw. Others go further and make it just about the prime minister’s ego. This is not good enough and Parris owes an explanation beyond this. Our role in the world, the credibility of our willingness to take action are important things. To abandon them, and to be seen to do so, has consequences, it ends up having material outcomes. This should not be denied or dismissed as an irrational sense of ‘horror’.

If Parris is unwilling to protest to the French and the United States and he believes we will make no real differences then what difference does it make to vote ‘yes’? This surely means that the solitary reason he claims it is all about should be reason enough to proceed anyway.

However, it isn’t the only reason.

Parris himself thinks we will bring a military defeat to Islamic State and seeing as our declared intention is to degrade them, by what logic can he seriously then suggest we advocate the action for no other reason than taking part? He believes in the outcome everyone apparently says is the very reason they were voting yes. It makes no sense to suggest this is not a reason too.

In the piece he says the unthinkable, he says that Corbyn is right. Perhaps he thinks Corbyn is right merely in the sense that he too wanted a ‘no’ vote. But Corbyn says ‘no’ to any military options involving red, white and blue, and so if he is right for that reason, he is right merely in the same sense as the stopped clock is twice a day. If he is right for anything beyond that than Parris requires a much more cogent explanation as to why than he provides in this article.


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