Bomb Syria so that I can sleep at night

The most shocking thing about the intervene-in-Syria lobby is not its historical amnesia over Iraq and Afghanistan, but its naked narcissism.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Failed Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff recently made waves with an op-ed in the Financial Times calling for Western intervention in Syria. Revisiting some of the themes of his 1990s writings (Ignatieff made a living championing ‘humanitarian interventionism’ before he led Canada’s Liberal Party to its worst electoral defeat ever), Igantieff said the West should impose a ‘comprehensive quarantine of Syria’ in order to ‘force [Assad] from power’.

Yet the most startling thing about his piece was not its extreme short-term historical amnesia, its ignorance of the disasters unleashed in Iraq and Afghanistan following Western meddling, but rather its exhibition of self-regard and self-concern, even of that most malignant form of self-love: narcissism. Ignatieff mentioned his own feelings about what is happening in Homs six times and the possible feelings of the people of Homs themselves only three times. His short op-ed mainly focused on the ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ felt by people like Igantieff – that is, Western observers possessed of a good, caring, Sarajevo-informed ‘international conscience’ – while the ‘fear’ and ‘desperation’ of the people of Homs were given far briefer treatment.

This ratio of 2:1 between Ignatieff’s feelings of guilt and Syrians’ feelings of desperation not only suggests that modern Western interventionists are two times more obsessed with themselves than they are with the victims of foreign conflicts they claim to care so much about – it also reveals that what is really motoring the demands for Western intervention in Syria are the emotional needs of Western observers rather than the practical needs of Syrians. This kind of narcissism is now widespread among those who desperately want the ‘international community’ to intervene in Syria. These people are so amazingly vain that they see the bombing of Syria as a kind of balm for their guilt-ridden consciences, a physical act that might help to make their own emotional turmoil that bit more bearable. Their rallying cry should be: ‘Bomb Syria so that I can sleep at night.’

The criticism of the intervene-in-Syria lobby has tended to focus on its inability or unwillingness to think seriously about the potential consequences of having external intervention in an already very messy civil conflict. But more alarming than that is these campaigners’ inability to think about anything but themselves. Indeed, such is the myopic self-regard of modern interventionists that they now freely admit that Western intervention might well make the situation in Syria worse, but it is still worth doing because at least it will make a loud, public display of our ‘common human heritage’.

The narcissism of the interventionists can be glimpsed in their constant referencing of the Bosnian conflict of 20 years ago. Time and again, we’re told that ‘Syria is the new Bosnia’. ‘The bombardment of Homs is eerily similar to what happened in Sarajevo in 1992’, says one commentator. ‘In its random cruelty, the conflict in Syria starts to resemble the war in Bosnia 20 years ago’, says another. ‘Anyone with a political memory is thinking about Sarajevo these days’, says Ignatieff.

To the casual observer, the linking of Syria with Bosnia must seem bizarrely ahistorical. How can an historically specific conflict such as the one that enveloped the Former Yugoslavia in 1992 magically reappear 20 years later, more than a thousand miles away and with different political actors? And don’t all wars contain ‘random cruelty’, and don’t all city sieges bear some resemblance to Sarajevo? Clearly the comparison of Syria with Bosnia is not intended as a literal, sensible one, but rather as a metaphorical, moral one, where the aim is to try to conjure back into existence the emotional thirst for a ‘good intervention’ that united almost the entire Western chattering class during the Bosnian War in the 1990s.

Bosnia is the conflict through which the modern-day interventionist came of age. Sarajevo is the siege which they claim transformed their consciences, turning them from run-of-the-mill political observers into deadly serious moral crusaders on the side of Good (NATO, the UN, the Bosnian Mujahideen) against evil (the Serbs, the Bosnian Serbs, all things Serb). So when these crusaders now use the words ‘Bosnia’ and ‘Sarajevo’, they aren’t talking about the real-world events that occurred in those places 20 years ago, but rather about how those events made them feel. Again, we’re in the realm of personal emotion rather than political thinking. ‘Bosnia’ and ‘Sarajevo’ have been reduced to mere signposts in the life trajectories of the modern interventionist, which means the reason these words are being uttered now in relation to Syria is because these interventionists feel they need to reaffirm, to top up if you like, the ostentatious emotional alarm they feel towards Evil, and God help Syria, they are hoping to do it there.

Indeed, it is striking that, just as was the case with Bosnia, the increasingly complex conflict in Syria is being reduced by interventionists to a simple test of our resolve. This war isn’t about Them, the people of Homs or Damascus. It’s about Us and what one commentator refers to as our moral superiority to ‘fascism’ (that is, Assad’s regime): ‘We’re better than that and in our actions we will show it’, he says. In short, as with the constant call for Western military intervention in Bosnia (which was finally and tragically secured), the aim of the rallying for intervention in Syria is to make a global advert of how much better ‘we’ are than ‘them’. Syria is being turned into a litmus test of the moral resolve of the Bosnia generation. Are their moral values still relevant? Are their consciences still intact? Only their successful procuring of a military assault on Syria will prove that they are.

The extent to which the interventionists have made Syria all about them is clear from their frank – and frankly inhuman – assertion that it doesn’t matter if intervention makes things worse because at least a message about how much we care will have been sent. So Norman Geras, an academic and founder of the left-wing interventionist outfit the Euston Manifesto, writes: ‘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).

Philip Collins, a columnist for The Times (London), casually declares that ‘intervention… will mean chaos. But there is chaos already.’ At least with our chaos, with our intervention, we will be giving voice to our ‘revulsion’ at Assad’s crimes, says Collins, a ‘revulsion too profound to be written off as adolescent or unrealistic’. ‘It is important to add weight to our moral impulse’, he says.

‘Add weight to our moral impulse’ – what an unwittingly brilliant description of the dangerous thinking, or rather feeling, behind so-called humanitarian interventionism. The aim is to make a massive, fiery display of one’s own ‘moral impulse’, to ‘add weight’ to one’s conspicuous and adjective-heavy feelings of outrage and disgust by encouraging NATO or America or someone to drop a few bombs. Here, military intervention is demanded, not as a specific, targeted thing that might change the shape of a conflict, but rather as an amplifier of the probity and decency of Western observers, of the Bosnia generation. This is why the new interventionists don’t give a second thought to the possible consequences of their actions or even freely admit that their demands, if fulfilled, could unleash further chaos – because, unlike the old colonialists or the Cold War warriors of the postwar period, these new interventionists are not driven by a desire to achieve certain political or territorial ends, but rather by an implacably narcissistic urge to make a global performance of their good conscience. And when your guide is narcissism rather than politics, emotional fulfilment rather than political gain, there are no natural limits or rules to your behaviour. Even if your desires for Syria mean that the situation there ‘turns out to be worse’, that is okay, that is good, because at least you will have added weight to your moral impulses.

In an isolated moment of self-awareness in the 1990s, Ignatieff, then a champion of international meddling in foreign wars, wondered out loud if he and others had been ‘driven by narcissism’. ‘We intervened not to save others, but to save ourselves, or rather an image of ourselves as defenders of universal decencies’, he wrote (1). Indeed. And such narcissism continues today, only in an even more debased and reckless form than was the case in the 1990s, where now the new interventionists, increasingly desperate for their moral fix, for a repeat of that old Bosnia Buzz, will openly say that chaos and death are a price worth paying for their achievement of self-satisfaction. It seems that everything – literally everything: stability, life, limb – comes a poor second to meeting the inner needs of Western crusaders in search of a new crusade.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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