The terrorist group calling itself Islamic State is far from defeatist – it believes it will win. Given the defeatism displayed by the international community, especially the west, who can blame them? Defeatism leads to inaction. Inaction has consequences, for the countries concerned and ultimately, as the horrific events in Tunisia show, for our citizens. Now that the group’s death and destruction is edging ever closer to our shores, our politicians are going to have to change the narrative and mind-set from defeatism to confidence in our ability to defeat our enemy.
Suppose a prophet of doom, in the months after 9/11, had predicted the following: Al Qaeda would morph into an even more extreme terrorist group which would opportunistically capitalise on instability caused by an ‘Arab Spring’; it would form a base in Syria, out-gun and kill off moderate rebels who the west and the world had abandoned, before overturning international borders and occupying vast tracts of land in Syria and Iraq; it would declare a caliphate armed with masses of very sophisticated, captured American hardware, threaten to invade several Middle Eastern countries, perpetrate genocide against minorities, destroy antiquities and launch terrorist attacks against western targets? Such a prophecy would have been dismissed as outlandish. That it has come to pass is no accident. It has occurred because of many factors, not least of which being the west’s defeatism and the terrorist group’s toxic combination of warped idealism and brutal realism, to which we have, so far, had too few answers.
The self-styled Islamic State must look on with glee as democracies such as ours contort themselves in anguish at the prospect flying our bombers a few tens of miles northwards in order to attack them in Syria, a country whose borders they have already rendered meaningless. This is the latest manifestation of a defeatism that we have shown ever since 2011, when the moderate rebels in Syria, who first rose up peacefully against Bashar al-Assad, began asking for external military intervention. The terrorist group noticed as we made a conscious decision not to intervene to protect civilians from the Assad dictatorship, not to arm the Free Syrian Army, and not to punish Assad for his use of weapons of mass distruction. They noticed when our leaders explicitly ruled out sending ground forces. How else did we expect them to respond to this defeatism other than to exploit the opportunity it presented?
Defeatism has its own internal logic. We all feel compelled to help our fellow humans, but in light of Iraq and Afghanistan, many people have become persuaded into thinking that military action only results in chaos. The narrative develops that “something must be done, but nothing effective can be done”. This simply isn’t true. The 1991 no fly zone over the Kurdistan Region of Iraq prevented Saddam from continuing his genocide against the Kurds, enabling them to forge their beacon of openness and democracy. The Nato action against the Serbs ultimately ended the Bosnian conflict and prevented ethnic cleansing and British intervention in Sierra Leone prevented a catastrophe. Nobody seriously believes that the international community couldn’t have prevented the Rwandan genocide had it chosen to.
Yet since 2011, the West chose to allow the narrative to develop that Syrian air defences were impregnable. Senator John McCain, a man who knows a thing or two about air defences, dismissed this on Radio 4 in March 2012: ‘We spend nearly a trillion dollars a year on defence. If we can’t defeat the air defences of a third rate power then I have a great apology to extend to the taxpayers of my state. We are supposed to have the best capabilities in the world by far.’
Our leaders’ rhetoric simply isn’t being matched by reality. When the west’s hand was finally forced, when Isis occupied Mosul and later were a few miles from Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, president Barack Obama said that US policy was designed to “degrade and ultimately destroy” them. David Cameron said the words “defeat” or ‘defeated’ eight times when he spoke to parliament ahead of air strikes in Iraq last September. Following Tunisia, he now refers to the ‘existential threat’ posed by the terrorist group.
The prime minister and all political leaders must now decide whether they are willing to defeat this existential threat now, using whatever means are necessary, at least including special forces, or wait until the atrocities perpetrated against us are so hideous that they necessitate action. Prior to 9/11, the consensus amongst western intelligence was that Al Qaeda could be contained. This proved to be wrong and hugely costly in human lives. We must choose a judicious mix of military, economic and ideological action, but first we must defeat defeatism.
John Slinger is a strategic communications consultant and writes about foreign policy here