Thursday, 5 September 2013

Syria – special case or old compulsion?

One of the challenges for the recovering alcoholic, I assume, is to resist the special circumstance, the one-off occasion. It’s my daughter’s wedding, my best friend died, my wife just gave birth. Surely one drink will be okay. I’m entitled to that at least. In fact, it would unconscionable not to toast her future happiness, not to see the old boy off, not to wet the baby’s head. It won’t be like last time, I promise. No more benders. This time I’ll know when to stop.

I think of this whenever I see America gearing up for another war. Just one little drink. One little surgically targeted strike. It won’t be like Iraq – which wasn’t going to be like Vietnam. This time it’s different.

And it is different. For one thing, the internal political scene in America has changed radically since the invasion of Iraq. Then there was Bush and his cabal of hawks, for whom the non-Islamist world was divided into the willing and the weasels. Now there’s Obama with his professorial tendency to mull things over and seek consensus. Bush had the Democrats backed into a corner and, in Blair, had a sidekick with the messianic self-belief and the political authority to drag Britain unwillingly into war. Obama won’t be helped by our own faltering coalition government and faces such visceral opposition from many in the Republican party that their desire to humiliate him might yet trump every other consideration.

And the external prompt is different. Saddam Hussein was a horrible tyrant, but his infamous attack on the Kurds with poison gas was already old news, and one could legitimately ask, why the sudden urgency? Assad’s chemical weapons attack is part of an unfolding humanitarian disaster. Bush’s audacious ambition for Iraq was to overthrow the regime and build a democracy in its place. Obama promises a highly curtailed aerial action – no boots, as they say, on the ground, and no decisive interference in the civil war.

Different and yet strangely the same. First in the tendency for reasons to proliferate: we must punish Assad, we must send a message to Iran, we must prevent chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorists….

Secondly, in the way these multiplying reasons circle round to create a new meta-reason: America can’t be seen to back down. Which is another way of saying that once the President has officially raised the question of whether to attack, the only possible answer is yes. In America they don’t call this saving face – the sort of private concern that afflicts elderly Chinese leaders – but maintaining US credibility, a phrase which elevates pride to a level of strategic importance.

Thirdly, in that very claim of difference: this time it’s special – but isn’t it always? And one effect of that emphasis on the uniqueness of this case is to keep everyone myopically focused, once again, on the ad hoc question – to go in or not to go in – and to distract from any analysis of principles: on what grounds may one country legitimately launch a one-sided attack on another, and is the USA alone entitled to take such unilateral action? And I know it’s a long time ago now but should America have been punished for napalm and agent orange, and in what form, and by whom, and would that have helped?  

And what about approaching the question from the other end? American leaders are concerned about tyranny and human suffering. They have these billions to spend. So how might they spend them most effectively – in offering additional help to refugees, for example, or in boosting global programmes of education and healthcare? Or to a man with a cruise missile must everything look like a target?

What’s happening in Syria is horrific. The handwashing of the isolationist right, in America or Britain, is not attractive. Liberal handwringing isn’t much to look at either. But it isn’t really about how we look or how we feel. It isn’t really about us at all. A century of meddling in the Middle East might encourage us to take the long view and hold back from one more violent intervention. Because a desire to fix something doesn’t equate to a power to fix it.

As the American commentator Chris Hayes has put it, the enthusiasts for war present us with a syllogism: Something must be done. This is something. Therefore this must be done. The logic is not very convincing.  


  1. Nicely done! But perhaps more should be made of Obama's willingness to go to congress. This isn't professorial, it's a deliberate diminution of the imperial presidency whose in habitants have argued for decades their right to bomb without such debate or endorsement. Obama's move was made to the surprise and dismay of his entire security staff apparently.

  2. That's a fascinating point, Dick. As always, you're much better informed about both the factual details and the political ramifications. And of course I'm observing it all at a distance. As for Obama's professorial tendencies, I might have done better than repeat that journalistic trope, though it's a useful shorthand for the contrast between Obama and his predecessor -- and of course I meant it as a compliment.

  3. Brilliant Joe. it may be a long time ago but American's use of chemical weapons in Vietnam is not irrelevant - just conveniently forgotten. I agree entirely with Sarah Palin on this one - that's how far into the madness we've descended!

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  5. I’m glad you approve, Vic. Thanks for reading. I assume you’re referring to Palin's crack: ‘So we're bombing Syria because Syria is bombing Syria? And I'm the idiot?’ To find oneself on the same side as Palin rather than Kerry, who is surely more intelligent and informed and knows about war from bitter personal experience, certainly feels like madness. But when the question is framed to allow only two possible answers – to bomb or not – unlikely alliances are unavoidable.

    On the subject of napalm and agent orange, there's a technical argument that a chemical in the service of an explosive device is different from a chemical released for the sole purpose of killing people or making them sick. It’s on these grounds, I assume, that they can be left out of the discussion.

    The more surprising omissions, I think, are the non-chemical, but nevertheless appalling, atrocities that have gone ‘unpunished’ over the decades. For the past week Kerry has been saying that only three leaders have used chemical weapons since World War One: Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Assad. The implication that America went to war against Germany because Hitler had, like Saddam and Assad, ‘gassed his own people’ is slippery to say the least. And while the statement about these three leaders may be technically true, it’s misleading in suggesting that the later two are, with Hitler, in a special category of wickedness or threat. What about Stalin, one wonders, or Pol Pot, or the ruling dynasty of North Korea?

    But for America’s leaders to discuss why those murderous tyrants were (or are) exempt from punishment, while Assad is not, would be to treat us like grownups.

  6. If you own wife had been gassed in the recent Syrian attack I think you may be whistling a different tune now.