The Cabinet has released the wording of the motion that tomorrow will be debated by the House of Commons. Because of the internal nightmares currently afflicting the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn has decided that he can't whip his MPs to vote against the motion. And so it looks much more likely that the motion will pass. But let's look at this motion, which sets out, in concise form, why this Government wants to take us to war.
Put another way: is this war just?
For a war to be just, the process that leads up to us going to war must be just (there must be jus ad bellum, in the jargon). And jus ad bellum is typically held to have various components.
- authority: we need to be the right people to declare war (I can't personally declare a war on ISIL; not even Chuck Norris can declare war on ISIL)
- just cause: what constitutes a good reason to go to war? most people would say that self-defence against being attacked is a good reason to go to war. What if an attack hasn't happened but is imminent, can we launch a pre-emptive attack? Some say yes, some no. But what about intervening to prevent a group attacking a third party? Can one intervene to prevent human rights violations? These cases are very controversial. While at the other end of things, revenge is generally accepted not to be a just cause and so a war pursued for that reason is illegal.
- right intention: what do you hope to achieve by the war? You can't go to war to 'punish' a rogue state, for instance. You can't go to war for narrowly national-interest reasons; you should want to restore a peace that has been violated, for instance.
- reasonable hope: what follows from that is that you should have a reasonable expectation of success for your aims. So, in fact, even if Andorra had just cause to attack the United States, it could never have a reasonable expectation of defeating it and a war is unlikely ever to be just.
- proportionality: you should prepare to pursue a war in proportion to the threat. We would not be entitled to nuke France for banning imports of our wine, for instance.
- last resort: you should have tried everything else.
How does the motion stand up to these tests? It has fourteen clauses and I'll take them in turn. It begins by proposing 'That this house:
notes that ISIL poses a direct threat to the United Kingdom;
This proposes that our cause for going to war is self-defence. It does seem likely that ISIL members would want to attack us. They attacked British tourists in Tunisia in June (though it's not clear whether British tourists were targeted or just Western tourists). But at least, we might say this is a statement of 'pre-emptive self-defence'. But, of course, this assumes that bombing Syria will genuinely make us safer. Who thinks the Paris attackers or the Tunisia attackers or the Russian plane bombers needed ISIL's base at Raqqa? And if self-defence is the aim, we must reasonably hope we will be less imperilled after the war. But will we be? Or will we be more of a target. A Tory line this week has been that we're under threat anyway and it can't make things work but that argument I would have to charitably describe as 'absolute bullshit'.
welcomes United Nations Security Council Resolution 2249 which determines that ISIL constitutes an ‘unprecedented threat to international peace and security’ and calls on states to take ‘all necessary measures’ to prevent terrorist acts by ISIL and to ‘eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria’;
We need to be very careful about this. It is true that this is what Resolution 2249 does say, but let's also note what it doesn't say. For example, the Resolution pointedly does not invoke Chapter VII of the UN Charter that would specifically permit military action. Taken as a whole, one might well take 'all necessary measures' to mean 'all measures short of military action'. It also reaffirms that Member States 'ensure that any measures taken to combat terrorism comply with all their obligations under international law'.
further notes the clear legal basis to defend the UK and our allies in accordance with the UN Charter;
This is presumably Article 51, which states: 'Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.' Individual self-defence has been set out above. Collective self-defence is a slightly chewier notion. In David Cameron's dossier, setting out the case for war, he invoked the 'collective self-defence of Iraq' which was a principle established when Iraq, in the reconstruction of which we had, of course, been heavily involved, asked our help to defend itself against ISIL. The case in Syria is very different. We're not already involved and we haven't been asked. But clearly the Government has had different legal advice, so it should publish it.
notes that military action against Isil is only one component of a broader strategy to bring peace and stability to Syria; welcomes the renewed impetus behind the Vienna talks on a ceasefire and political settlement;
This is complicated. (a) it's quite right that war should not be the only thing (b) but should war not be the last resort rather than another thing you try alongside everything else? and (c) it subtly changes the statement of cause: now it's not about self-defence but about bringing peace and stability to Syria. So is that our war aim?
welcomes the Government’s continuing commitment to providing humanitarian support to Syrian refugees;
This is just humanitarian window-dressing. The motion is complete without it.
underlines the importance of planning for post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction in Syria;
This is very important. Another principle of jus ad bellum is proper planning so that the aftermath of the war is just. This jus post bellum is a very current issue in military ethics and is what spectacularly didn't happen in Iraq. What should strike anyone as extremely alarming is how entirely content-free this clause is. What planning for post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction in Syria has there been? If, as the media are reporting, we may go to war within days, we have little time. The war will not be just if this planning has not been done.
welcomes the Government’s continued determination to cut ISIL’s sources of finance, fighters and weapons;
Well, yeah. It's another bit of window-dressing. We're already trying to do this. It would be weird to open up their supply lines just as we go to war. It might as well say 'welcomes the Government's decision not to supply ISIL with nuclear weapons'.
notes the requests from France, the US and regional allies for UK military assistance;
Again, can you publish these requests? This could be anything from some US general saying 'jeez, we could could use a couple of your missiles' to a formal state-to-state request for assistance. Particularly worrying is the vagueness of 'regional allies'. Which regional allies? This could not be more important for ensuring that our military action does not make the situation worse right across the Middle East. Precisely who wants us there?
acknowledges the importance of seeking to avoid civilian casualties, using the UK’s particular capabilities;
Warm words only. What will we say when the first civilian casualties are revealed? When the first hospital is hit? The first school? What actually will this clause make happen (apart from give MPs a warm feeling that they are voting for a war that only hurts the bad guys)? There's a risk, very clear in Cameron's dossier last week, of technofetishism - look at our amazing weaponry; it's so gorgeous and surgical - but it relies on good intelligence. What intelligence do we have about the situation on the ground? The existing coalition has already killed dozens (maybe hundreds) of children. Are we bringing intelligence to the conflict that they don't have? Russia's strikes, with which, like it or not, we will be associated, are much cruder and are already killing large numbers of civilians. This is an aspiration we cannot hope to meet.
notes the Government will not deploy UK troops in ground combat operations;
welcomes the Government’s commitment to provide quarterly progress reports to the House;
Yes, how very kind of sir...
and accordingly supports Her Majesty’s Government in taking military action, specifically airstrikes, exclusively against Isil in Syria;
And that's the core of the motion. Forget all the flimflam about supporting refugees and avoiding civilians. Civilians will die. There is no doubt about that.
and offers its wholehearted support to Her Majesty’s Armed Forces
And to Christmas and motherhood.
If the case for war were good, I would expect a much tighter and well-expressed motion. Instead, it's all misdirection and fine words. There are moments of horrible vagueness here. For instance, nowhere does the motion state how we will know when our war aims have been achieved.
This is because our war aims are still unclear. Is it self-defence? Is it defence of the region against ISIL? Is it to resolve the civil war in Syria?
In addition, let's note that nowhere in the motion does it repeat the claim in last week's dossier that the air strikes will liberate 70,000 moderate Syrian militia groups to swoop in and finish ISIL off. It's not there because the claim is already discredited. There's nothing like that number. They're only moderate compared to ISIL. They'll probably be fighting each other. And they're likely to be attacked by Russia. Rightly, they've scrubbed that idea. So what is actually the plan? We bomb a few military posts and then? The motion is silent.
Tony Blair slipped and slithered between war aims when justifying Iraq. When the famous 'dodgy dossier' was produced, it was all about self-defence (he had WMD and could deploy them in 45 minutes). But when the WMD turned out not to exist, Blair insisted it was a humanitarian intervention. And the reason why you can't just juggle loads of different causes for what are that there are completely different questions you ask people based on their different reasons for fighting. If we are invading x country for self-defence, then the choice of x country is unarguable. But if we're bombing x country for humanitarian reasons, why not countries y and z that are also oppressing their people? By 'flipping' your reasons, you evade proper scrutiny.
So it alarms me that even now, even at the eleventh hour, the Government seems unable to tell us why we are going into this war: a war without legal authority, without a clear just cause, with murky intentions, with no clear end or clear outcome, and with no plan for the reconstruction.
We still have time. The vote is not yet won. This motion could fail.
This is an unjust war.