The 5 familiar justifications for attack on IS in Iraq

Posted by: Dr John Jewell

A few hours before the BBC reported  the first air strikes by RAF jets on Islamic State targets in Iraq, Home Secretary Theresa May was warning the Tory party conference that IS could become the ‘world’s first truly terrorist state‘ capable of bombing UK with nuclear and chemical weapons.  She said, ‘We will see the risk, often prophesied but thank God not yet fulfilled, that with the capability of a state behind them, the terrorists will acquire chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons to attack us.’

It was interesting that May chose to refer to the ‘often prophesied’ capability of western enemies to attack with chemical and nuclear weapons because what we have seen in the past few days since the Parliamentary decision to authorise attacks is the British government use the same techniques and devices of propaganda and persuasion that were used to justify the Iraq war of 2003, the removal of colonel Gaddafi in 2011 and the proposed attacks on President Assad of Syria in 2013. Below is a five point illustration of how intervention in foreign countries is justified and how the language communicating the necessity of conflict in 2014 is fits into a recognisable, inextricably linked, pattern.

  1. Highlight the atrocities committed by the enemy.

If you are to claim the moral high ground and establish the adversary as despotic and deranged, you firstly have to show why this is the case. It has long been the practice of British governments and the media to utilize atrocity propaganda in order to mobilise public support for military action. At the beginning of the Gulf War in 1991, we were told that Iraqi soldiers had emptied new born babies out of incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals and left them to die. More recently in Kosovo in 1999, Tony Blair spoke of hearing ‘first-hand of women raped, of children watching their fathers dragged away to be shot’. In 2003, Blair spoke of Saddam and ‘the thousands of children that die needlessly every year under his rule……..the torture chambers which if he is left in power, will remain in being.’

IS in 214 highlights its own barbarity and the case for action on this count hardly has to be made. It is quite clearly  bloodthirsty and prepared in, May’s words to ‘kill indiscriminately.’ Its propaganda, if it does nothing else, indicates that violent act will follow violent act in the act of territorial expansion.

The key fact to remember here is that propaganda is not necessarily the dissemination of untruths. Nobody can deny the hideousness of IS’ actions. My point here is that these types of stories, collectively and individually, fit into a narrative pattern that we can easily understand. The moral authority of the west is reinforced once again and the righteousness of military intervention a becomes moral necessity. Consider Cameron’s words it is a struggle for decency, tolerance and moderation in our modern world. It is a battle against a poisonous ideology that is condemned by all faiths and by all faith leaders, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim. 

2. Communicate the moral obligation to act.

Having established these terrible circumstances, it is necessary to demonstrate the moral certainty of the mission.  In 2011 Gaddafi, like Saddam before him, was murdering ‘his own people’. The consistent line from the US, UK and France (the major actors in the force against Gaddafi) was humanitarian On March 8th  2011, Cameron stated: ‘we might have to prepare for what we might do if he [Gaddafi] , ‘goes on brutalising his own people….in case he does terrible things to his own people……I don’t think we can stand aside and let that happen’. At a stroke we have the basic elements of war propaganda: that the enemy is evil and to do nothing in the face of such evil would amount to dereliction of moral duty. Cameron and Obama were predictably similar in how they saw that situation.  In a nationally televised address from the National Defense University in Washington, Obama said, ‘to brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are……some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.’ Leaving aside the untruths of this statement, what we can see here is a repetition of themes and ideas which have been the feature of war propaganda for the last hundred years or so: this is the enemy, they do terrible things. We must stop them. If we do not, then we are no better and evil will prosper. Fast forward to 2013 and we have Cameron after the meeting of the National Security Council on 28th August announcing that the world ‘should not stand by’ while Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, saying it was ‘unacceptable’. In August 2014, Cameron said of ISIS True security will only be achieved if we use all our resources – aid, diplomacy, our military prowess – to help bring about a more stable world. Today, when every nation is so immediately interconnected, we cannot turn a blind eye and assume that there will not be a cost for us if we do. 

3. Reduce the argument to good versus evil.

This sits very neatly with moral obligation to act. It is always necessary to communicate the unwavering evil of the foe and the fact that their actions are barbarous and inhuman. Aldous Huxley wrote that, ‘the propagandists purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human’. On September 25th Cameron told the UN General Assembly that the jihadi’s of IS were “psychopathic, murderous, brutal” concluding with, ‘my message today is simple. We are facing an evil against which the whole world must unite. And, as ever in the cause of freedom, democracy and justice, Britain will play its part.”  Here we get the explicit sense of civilization versus the savagery of animal versus human. Good against evil. Simple binary oppositions, again narrative patterns we can all understand. How can we do nothing in the face of such inhumanity?

4. Emphasise that intervention is for the good of the population of the region

On the eve of war in 2003, Tony Blair spoke to the nation outlining the need for action. For the people of Iraq, the removal of Saddam would be ‘a blessing’. He stated, ‘I hope the Iraqi people hear this message, we are with you, our enemy is not you, but your barbarous rulers. ‘

When bombing began in Libya in 2011, it was the liberating nature of the onslaught that was championed. NATO stated that the purpose of Operation Unified Protector was to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack from Gaddafi. There was no military activity in Syria last year but the language was familiar. On the 27th August 2013, the UK government sought backing from the UN Security Council ‘for all necessary measures to protect civilians’. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, stated that the images of human suffering could not be ignored. He said, ‘all peoples, in all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to ensure there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons.’

In Parliament last week Cameron was quite clear that military intervention was for the good of Iraq and at the countries own asking “We are acting [in Iraq] at the request of a sovereign state. If we were to act in Syria that would be the legal base too – collective self defence against Isil that threatens Iraq. I have said this in the house before: it is a legal base if you are averting a humanitarian catastrophe then you can act. Let me be clear. ‘

Sadly, all of the available evidence seems to suggest that recent military intervention only ever leads to further discord. John Holmes, chair of the International Rescue Committee, wrote: ‘The unintended consequences tend to be severe, including further civilian casualties, as we saw all too clearly in Iraq. The impact on humanitarian operations themselves can be very damaging: those attacked all too readily lash out at aid organisations, particularly NGOs seen as western-based. In my time at the UN, relief efforts in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Darfur and Somalia were constantly at severe risk from this kind of backlash from perceptions of direct or indirect western intervention, with poorer outcomes and many deaths of aid workers as a result.’ Richard Norton Taylor writing in the Guardian pointed out the historic failure of bombing campaigns in achieving anything constructive: ‘air power is likely to be even less relevant, less appropriate and less effective in the campaign against Isis as it has been in previous armed conflicts over the past 23 years.’

5. Emphasise the threat to national security

This brings us to May’s comments at the beginning of this piece. If a government can also illustrate that this far-away, evil regime constitutes a threat to national security, the danger becomes localised. This tactic was utilised with various degrees of success in the run up to the Iraq War in 2003. In January of that year, for example, the press carried reports that the police had foiled a terrorist ring’s attempt to launch a chemical attack in Britain using the deadly poison Ricin. Blair stated that the find showed that ‘this danger is present and real and with us now – and its potential is huge’.

In March 2011, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke spoke of the possibility of another Lockerbie with Gaddafi looking for revenge on UK territory: ‘British people have reason to remember the curse of Gaddafi – Gaddafi back in power, the old Gaddafi looking for revenge, we have a real interest in preventing that.’

In 2013, the danger was from rogue states. Former Foreign Secretary William Hague said on the 28thAugust , ‘we cannot permit our own security to be undermined by the creeping normalisation of the use of weapons that the world has spent decades trying to control and eradicate.’

Now, according to Hague, IS has the UK in its sights – he told the Daily Telegraph on the 28th of September that the terrorist movement had already planned to carry out attacks in Britain. Without military action, IS “would come to hit us very quickly –indeed there have already been plots,” he stated.

For Cameron, ISIS constitutes a ‘clear and present danger’ to the UK something which must be defeated promptly because, ‘if we do not act to stem the onslaught of this exceptionally dangerous terrorist movement, it will only grow stronger until it can target us on the streets of Britain.’

The point of this article has not been to understate the threat of ISIS or to diminish the horror of its actions. What I have sought to illustrate is evidence of history repeating itself and to show that there is clear evidence of the fact that however much technology and times may change, the techniques of propaganda and persuasion remain largely the same. We must glorify ourselves and denigrate the enemy. We must reference our compassion and highlight their barbarity. We must demonstrate the absolute necessity of intervention and the terrible consequences of inactivity.

NB Some of the material in this piece appears in an earlier blog here