Intervention - but at what cost?

Foreign Affairs & Security
Monday, October 31, 2016
Nabil Najjar


The price must be right before Britain intervenes abroad, argues Nabil Najjar

The realities of global conflict are shifting – now more so than ever – and the threats we face as a nation have become simultaneously greater in number, yet harder to define. The concept of unilateral warfare between nations has been replaced with an altogether different, unpredictable and ultimately more dangerous paradigm. Factions and organisations operating beyond the framework of national boundaries and outside the rule of law are gaining momentum at an alarming rate, and nowhere is this more noticeable than in the Middle East, an area in which the Anglo-American military machine has long held both direct and indirect military interest.

The region itself is in a state of flux, following the strategic deposition of long-established heads of state, often with the assistance of direct western involvement. The purported external attempt at democracy which started with Iraq in 2003, and came to a head during the Arab Spring of 2010-11, has yet to deliver on its promise. The strong if heavy-handed rule of Saddam Hussain, Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine was swept aside and replaced with the direct support of the Western coalition. Unfortunately, though the seeds of democracy were planted, that which has come to replace the maligned leaders of old is scarcely, if at all, better than its forebear. The disparate forms of governance which have arisen lack genuine public mandates, and subsequently struggle to control the entirety of their states. This has left the door open for dangerous factions to rear their heads, and rapidly expand into dangerous forces – the most notable of which, the Islamic State, now poses significant dangers both within and beyond the borders of the region.

The Islamic State, which has grown to fill the power vacuum in certain areas of the Arab World, poses a very real danger to Britain and its people. It is a well-funded and aggressive organisation, driven forward by ideology and a zeal for expansion – a dangerous combination. It has drawn people into its ranks from across the western world, including from Britain, and its brutality and desire to expand its dominion is cause for great concern. The USA, with support from Arab nations has already begun an air-offensive against the organisation, and the UK looks set to follow, but the reality is that, whilst this presents perhaps the most genuine case for military activity by the UK in recent years, public support for foreign intervention has waned drastically. A YouGov poll in August 2013 placed public support for military involvement in Syria at a meagre 7%, and the figure will likely be little higher in this case. How can this be explained?

Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya – the five most recent major deployments of British military force, the primary purpose of which served not the British people, but those of the ‘target’ nations. The respective outcomes of these operations vary significantly, from much vaunted successes in Eastern Europe to misguided military activity in the Middle East which, in the eyes of many, created greater strife in the region than it resolved. Subsequent expenditure of blood and treasure for causes distant to the everyday lives of the vast majority of Britons causes significant scepticism across the population. When one casts ones gaze at the current situation in Iraq, it is a struggle to justify by any measure the British expenditure of 179 lives and £8.4bn.

The reality is that, given the political, financial and personal costs of staging asymmetric warfare against guerrilla groups, British decision-makers need to start weighing up the benefits of engagement before committing. Humanitarian gains alone can no longer justify continued action in volatile regions.

This does not, however, mean a reversion to an isolationist and laissez-faire military mind-set, but instead a conscious adherence to the terms of the Military Covenant – the government’s pledge to deploy those who volunteer to fight in defence of their nation only in situations where they stand to safeguard, enhance or defend British interests. From now on, we must look at the theatre of war as a mechanism for enhancement of British influence, and ensure that the benefits of intervention justify its costs. It means capitalising on our position of strength to demand more in return for our exertions, whether from the governments we seek to stabilise or the factions we look to support. This can come in a multitude of forms such as trade agreements, strategic military base placement, or a lasting British presence on the ground to ensure that the civil campaigns continue once the military campaign reaches its conclusion.

An example was the British involvement in the Libyan Revolution in 2011, wherein our government spent in excess of £200m, and received little tangible return. The rapid deployment and subsequent withdrawal, all within the space of a few months created the foundations for a burgeoning democratic movement, but failed to see that process through. The promise of democracy swiftly faded and was replaced by factional discord and ultimately another conflict. Any expected benefits for Libya itself, or for those powers which supported the deposition of Gaddafi have subsequently been lost, leaving behind chaos, possible civil war, and a gaping power vacuum rapidly being filled by extremist parties. This repeating trend, as also witnessed in Iraq, should not be the legacy of allied intervention, and lessons must be learned before the inevitable need for intervention arises, wherever that may be.

As we stand on the cusp of another protracted military operation, against a dangerous but disparate opponent, let us ensure that provisions are made to secure British interests both in human and economic terms. The Iraqi central government has come to us for help, and we should answer the call – but at the same time, make sure that our actions yield tangible, long-term stability in the region, and security for Britain.

Nabil Najjar is managing director of Delta Strategies, and the Bow Group’s research fellow for defence and security

This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Conference 2014 on 27/09/2014. Published online 31/10/2016