War used to be the pursuit of politics by other means. Today, if the statements made by the Western politicos and observers who want to bomb Syria are anything to go by, it’s the pursuit of therapy by other means. The most startling and unsettling thing about the clamour among some Westerners for a quick, violent punishment of the Assad regime is its nakedly narcissistic nature. Gone is realpolitik and geostrategy, gone is the PC gloss that was smeared over other recent disastrous Western interventions to make them seem substantial, from claims about spreading human rights to declarations about facing down terrorism, and all we’re left with is the essence of modern-day Western interventionism: a desire to offset moral disarray at home by staging a fleeting, bombastic moral showdown with ‘evil’ in a far-off field.
Easily the most notable thing in the debate about bombing Syria in response to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians is the absence of geopolitical considerations, or of any semi-serious thought about what the regional or international consequences of dropping bombs into an already hellish warzone might be. Instead, all the talk is of making a quick moral gesture about ourselves by firing a few missiles at wickedness. In the words of a Democratic member of the US Foreign Affairs Committee, there might be ‘very complex issues’ in Syria, but ‘we, as Americans, have a moral obligation to step in without delay’. Who cares about complexity when there’s an opportunity to show off our own moral decency?
All the discussion so far has focused, not on the potential moral consequences of bombing Syria, but on the moral needs of those who would do the bombing. US secretary of state John Kerry says failing to take action on Syria would call into question the West’s ‘own moral compass’. Others talk about Syria as a ‘test for Europe’, as if this rubble-strewn country is little more than a stage for the working-out of our values. So intense is the narcissism of the bomb-Syria brigade that one of its number describes the slaughter caused by the use of chemical weapons as ‘a question mark painted in blood, aimed at the international community’. They’re so vain, they think someone else’s war is all about them. One pro-bombing commentator says the situation in Syria ‘holds a mirror up to Britain’, asking ‘what sort of country are we?’. Like Narcissus, the beaters of the drum for war on Assad are concerned only with their own image, their own reflection, and the question of whether they’ll be able to look at themselves in the mirror if they fail to Do Something.
Strikingly, not only do bomb-Syria folk fail to think seriously about geopolitical matters – they actively brush aside such pesky complex questions in their pursuit of the instant moral hit that comes from dropping a bomb on evil. One observer says of course military action in Syria is not ‘guaranteed to succeed’, but it nonetheless gives us Brits an opportunity to advertise our moral resolve and principles. Philip Collins, a former speechwriter for Tony Blair, has openly admitted that ‘intervention… will mean chaos’. ‘But there is chaos already’, he says, and at least the chaos we might cause will be giving voice to our ‘revulsion’ at Assad’s crimes, a ‘revulsion too profound to be written off as adolescent or unrealistic’. ‘It is important to add weight to our moral impulse’, Collins wrote.
Think about what is being said here: that it doesn’t matter if our attack on Syria doesn’t succeed (at whatever it is meant to do, which no one has spelled out), or even if it intensifies the bloodshed and chaos in that benighted nation. All that matters is that we in the West add physical weight – in the shape of bombs – to our ‘moral impulse’. Such blasé barbarism was taken to its logical conclusion by Norman Geras, co-author of the pro-war Euston Manifesto, when he wrote: ‘Since it is urgent that we respond somehow, out of solidarity, of our “common human heritage” with the victims, action must be taken even if it means meeting chaos with chaos and (by implication) that the chaos we cause turns out to be worse than the chaos we’re trying to bring to an end.’ (My emphasis.)