Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Precision-Guided Cynicism

'I'll tell you what,' said the man on the 141, lowering his paper. 'I agree with what that David Cameron's done.'

'What's that?' asked the woman, who was coincidentally also on the 141 but gazing out the window towards Boots.

'He's had them bloody British Isis fighters blown up. Good riddance to 'em!'

'They were going to shoot the Queen,' tutted the woman. 'We can't be having that!'

'Indeed we can't!' I thought to myself from the seat behind.

The man and woman on the 141 were pretty typical of the mood on Britain's buses this Tuesday morning. 'Wham! Bam! ..Thank you Cam' was the exact headline on the day's edition of The Sun. I say 'exact' because I'm less sure about the legitimacy of their punctuation than I am sure about the legitimacy of the drone strikes. If running off to join a theocratic death cult seeking to replace all democracies in the world with a caliphate through forms of barbaric torture, abuse and murder doesn't make you the legitimate target for precision munitions, then I don't know what does. The only mildly questionable part of the action was the targeting of British nationals. Depending on how you spin your logic, this was either an act of national self defence or an example of state sanctioned assassination. A nation meting out justice to its own nationals seems reasonably more acceptable than meting justice out on non-nationals but others might argue the opposite. The difference is a matter for the lawyers to write cheques about. In most people's minds, the Daesh fighters gave the government legitimacy the moment they tried to weaponise their passports.

Yet beyond the general sense of it being a case of 'one of up for the good guys', David Cameron has here set quite the precedent. The UK government now claims the right to kill any person on the planet who threatens our national security. Just so long as they have the approval of a majority of people on the nation's buses, Cameron et al are on firm ground. Indeed, standing at the Despatch Box, Cameron seemed immune to criticism. He repeated a defence that has been used countless times by Prime Ministers before him. 'My first duty as Prime Minister is to keep the British people safe. That is what I'll always do. [...] I'm not prepared to stand here in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on our streets and have to explain to the House why I did not take the chance to prevent it when I could have done'.

Again, there's little to criticise in the specific details. This was a black and white case of the good guys taking out the bad. Yet set this into the broader context and you might begin to feel that the black and whites do occasionally slide into to grey.

What makes me pause to think is the timing of this murky business. These strikes took place on the 21st of August, two weeks before Cameron stood up in the Commons. It felt like such a convenient time to make this announcement. A day before, Cameron had been the subject of widespread condemnation as the British government repeatedly tried to hide behind the curtains as the world looked for somebody to aid the Syrian refugees. A day later, the couple on the 141 bus had forgotten all about the refugees and were full of praise for their Leader. Clever? Convenient? Planned? Is there any coincidence that long-term Cameron friend, Rebekah Brooks, returned to News UK (owners of The Sun) just last week? Is it a case of The Sun what spun it?

Secondly, this announcement comes just days before the Labour leadership election. It's been widely reported that the Conservatives are looking forward to testing the anti-war resolve of Labour's new leader, whichever candidate called Jeremy Corbyn might win. The drone strikes were possibly the first stage in that political war and we can expect to see the distinctions grow finer between waging an air campaign over Syria and fighting a proxy war fought trough drones. Cameron readily talks about 'meticulous planning' and this 'precision airstrike' but, tellingly, he didn't mention 'drone' (the commonplace term) but 'remotely piloted aircraft' which makes it feel so much more conventional. I should also imagine that much of the ordinance dropped from UK aircraft has the word 'precision' stencilled somewhere on their casing. It leaves me to wonder if the remarkable part of this story isn't the precision nature of the weapon but the precision nature of the politics. It wasn't the military operation that was well planned. It was the way the story was deployed at a moment of government crisis. The story left a front page crater a headline wide. The Syrian refugee story never had a chance.


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