Yesterday, US and British forces launched a massive series of air strikes targeting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.The list of occasions on which Britain has launched military action without being clear about what it will lead to has become very long in recent times. Again and again, we have put our servicemen and women in harm’s way for what seemed like very good reasons only to discover that we haven’t thought about the consequences with sufficient care.
Intervention and consequence
In Libya it seemed to many to be a noble and fine thing to help the local people to remove a horrible dictator in order to pave the way to a freer life for people who were rebelling against his rule. The result has been decades of misery as armed gangs fight for control of the remains of a broken country.
In Afghanistan, it also looked to many to be the right thing to intervene. After all the Taliban aren’t exactly people who treat women well, allow open-minded discussion of ideas and provide safety and security for those who disagree with their views. Others who had even the most cursory knowledge of the history of the country warned that it was a place where foreign armies had a long history of failing to achieve their objectives at huge cost.
At the height of its empire, Britain failed to control the country successfully and it became the place where we suffered some of our worst military casualties of the 19th century. At a time when the Soviet Union seemed to be a hugely powerful force, it invaded Afghanistan. The losses it suffered turned out to be one of the main reasons why it collapsed. Yet Britain and America marched into the country with little or no understanding of the consequences. A lot of very brave people died and we left the country in an even worse state than we found it and the Taliban in stronger and more complete control of the country.
There is also the example of Iraq. When Tony Blair told us with great sincerity that his position as prime minister had enabled him to see evidence of weapons of mass destruction being built up under the control of a dictator who wouldn’t hesitate to use them against Britain, it sounded very plausible to a lot of people. It turned out that he was very good at faking sincerity and he had seen no such evidence. We went to war on the basis of a lie and the governance that now exists in Iraq is not exactly a beacon of liberal democracy, freedom and economic security.
Houthi rebels: the potential for a drawn-out conflict
It might therefore be wise to take a long hard pause before embarking on a war in the Gulf. Obviously, no one wants to see shipping being attacked by armed forces based in Yemen who have the backing of Iran but can’t even be fully controlled by that unpleasant regime. Diverting shipping around the bottom of Africa really will add to the cost of living in Britain and do immense harm to the world economy.
Unfortunately, it is a lot easier to proclaim that we are going to make it safe for ships to travel up towards the Suez Canal than it is to secure that safety. The Houthi rebels only have to succeed once in damaging or destroying a ship to have a huge impact. The British army and its allies will have to escort ships through a narrow strait, a short distance from the bases of the rebels exposing our forces personnel to significant risk.
No one can tell us when the need for that operation will end. No one can be confident that none of the drones coming out of Iran will hit their target and kill the young people on those escort ships. No one knows how long it will be necessary to continue the military action our country is embarking on. Yemen is a very long way away and our lines of supply are very vulnerable. Saudi Arabia has spent several years trying to destroy the Houthi rebels from bases much closer to Yemen and failed. Why does our government think that Britain is going to be more successful in quietening them down?
The inevitability of British casualties
Sending British military personnel into war in this region provides targets that look very attractive to people who hate our country. The British government hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in its handling of the conflict in Israel. It rightly and properly condemned attacks by Hamas on Israel. Rishi Sunak recklessly flew out to Israel and told Benjamin Netanyahu that our country wanted him to win without exercising appropriate influence over what Netanyahu was about to order his troops to do. It turned out that the action he intended to take would terrorise the entire population of Gaza, destroy homes, kill thousands of innocent children, and have his troops shoot so casually that they killed three Israeli hostages. Even the leader of the British opposition party failed to call clearly and consistently for a cease fire in a campaign of military action which is seen as ethnic cleansing and genocide by many other governments including that of South Africa.
All of that makes British servicemen and women a very juicy target for those who hate Israel. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not one of those. I want the people of Israel to be able to live in peace and freedom secure in their lives and property. I also want exactly the same for the people of Palestine. Which means that I am opposed to both Hamas and the religious extremists in Netanyahu’s government who want to clear Palestinians out of the Gaza strip, move even more settlers onto land owned by Palestinians in the West Bank and have passed laws that deny equal rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Nor am I someone who wants British servicemen and women to be attacked and suffer losses. We should all condemn attacks on ships that are peacefully going about their business and all want our forces personnel to come home safely. Do we help to achieve that by protecting ships that are carrying arms to Israel? Is it wise to continue supplying arms to one side in an ugly conflict in the Gaza strip and then expose British forces to attacks from sophisticated drones produced in Iran? Is it sensible to go into yet another war without a clear understanding about what it will lead to and how it will end?
A bit of caution would be wise right now. We are getting a rush to act that hasn’t been carefully thought through.