Niall Ferguson has compared the attacks in Paris to the sack of Rome in 410, where 40,000 Goths looted the city and effectively ended the Roman Empire. This analogy just goes to show that even history professors can get a little hysterical, as Mike Duncan argues in response:
"I do not want to minimise the horror of the Paris attack, but what happened there does not equal the sack of Rome. The people of Paris still stand. The Louvre still stands. The shops of the Champs-Élysées did not lose a single piece of inventory. The banks still have all their money... It is one thing to be concerned about Western complacency, but to argue that a small and efficiently crushed attack is just like when Rome fell is dangerous. Raising the stakes to the level of civilisation annihilation invites an irrationally disproportionate response that is all but guaranteed to make the situation worse."
There are plenty historical lessons that could assist us in Syria, but there is one that is missing - an instance where a foreign intervention into an existing civil war actually did something other than prolonging it.
The House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has warned the UK government that action in Syria could actually harm national security. It could radicalise more young people and may make Britain even more of a target than it already is. The same warnings came after the 2003 invasion of Iraq but these went unheeded. The London tube bombings followed soon after. Of course, critics of this point of view will rightly argue that Britain was already a target. My question to them is why, then, make it more of one?
Proponents of military action have styled themselves as pragmatists and the "peace camp" as naive and idealistic, but nothing could be further from the truth. For example, David Cameron's rationale for bombing Syria is that Britain is already hitting ISIS targets in Iraq. This logic is deeply flawed and in no way pragmatic. Why extend a failed policy, especially when fifteen months of sustained bombing by other countries in Syria did not prevent the Paris attacks?
The anti-war grouping in parliament, led by Jeremy Corbyn, has been put on the spot more than those who wish to bomb, and are constantly asked about what should be done instead. Before that question is even attempted, it should be remembered that it is for those wishing to go to war to make a better case, rather than those who wish not to. Yet there are some good suggestions, short of conflict, which need to be tried. Stopping the flow of arms through those despotic counties the West does too much business with, is a good start. Removing all unnecessary sense of grievances - yes Israel you need to tear down that security fence - would go a long way to uniting Muslims and those of other faiths. And we should really concentrate on economic development in those countries that are trying their best to break free from decades of authoritarian rule. Tunisia needs us as much as Syria. A settlement for the wider region is essential for an enduring peace. Who really buys the idea that cutting off the head in Raqqa will stop ISIS affiliate Boko Haram in Nigeria?
None of these solutions work on their own and none are quick fixes, but that's the point. President Carter's support for civil society groups opposing Soviet rule helped prepare counties like Poland to firstly stand up to their oppressors and then secondly to help with the transition to democracy. Yet these measures took time to have an effect, just as tackling corruption in Nigeria, one of the main draws for destitute men and women joining extremist groups, will take real effort and international pressure to bring about.
Of course, some write history a different way and point to those moments when it was important to show muscle. That is a perfectly sensible thing to do, so long as the comparisons are fair and a sense of proportion remains. It is not too late to learn the right lessons of history - the sacking of Rome is not one of them but the failed 2003 invasion of Iraq most certainly is.