Syria, Cameron’s crackup, and the virtual world of humanitarian war

A man carries a wounded child away from an anti-Assad demonstration after regime forces opened fire, Syria, 2011

A man carries a wounded child away from an anti-Assad demonstration after regime forces opened fire, Syria, 2011

The night air is full of hypotheticals these weeks, and reality feels like a far-off country.

David Cameron lost tonight. It was sweat-inducing drama, the kind that makes you focus so closely on the grimaces and rumors that you forget about the war. By 13 votes, his motion to give a loose preliminary OK to Syrian intervention went down. (He’d tried to scale it back as a vague non-binding slightly amnesiac go-ahead to his government, like a Dad saying “Sure, someday” to a preteen daughter who wants to marry Justin Bieber.) Most of the UK papers seem to focus on Cameron’s humiliation, and Labour leader Ed Miliband’s triumph, as though a lot of other people’s lives aren’t at stake in this one way or the other. Everybody agrees there is another, spectral loser: Tony Blair.

All over but the shouting: Cameron in the House of Commons, August 29

All over but the shouting: Cameron in the House of Commons, August 29

Not just Blair’s righteous policy of bringing freedom to the benighted, of shaking the world like a kid’s kaleidoscope and reshuffling the pieces. But Blair himself. Two days ago he stepped directly into the debates, with a piece in the Times that stirred up memories of mendacious arrogance in the worst way.

People wince at the thought of intervention. But contemplate the future consequence of inaction and shudder: Syria mired in carnage between the brutality of Assad and various affiliates of al-Qaeda, a breeding ground of extremism infinitely more dangerous than Afghanistan in the 1990s; Egypt in chaos, with the West, however unfairly, looking as if it is giving succour to those who would turn it into a Sunni version of Iran. Iran still — despite its new president — a theocratic dictatorship, with a nuclear bomb. Our allies dismayed. Our enemies emboldened. Ourselves in confusion. This is a nightmare scenario but it is not far-fetched.

And then he goes maundering about Egypt, seemingly his pet obsession these days, claiming that not bombing Syria would help the Muslim Brotherhood and hurt the military government in Cairo, which is striving to bring stability to the country despite “actions or overreactions” like killing a thousand people in a fit of pique. (Blair, immune to facts as ever, seems unaware that Egypt’s diehard secularists and the junta they helped to power generally look with favor on Assad; the generals overthrew Morsi in part because he opposed the dictator.) But Blair’s intrusion triggered all the wrong recollections in the public. Maybe if he’d shut up, Christian soldiers would be marching off to war.

Here’s a question, though. Why did Blair need to imagine this horrific post-non-intervention future to prop his argument? Isn’t the slaughter that’s already happened enough? More than 100,000 have died in the conflict, according to Syrian activists and the UN. Why can’t Blair rest his case on this vast carnage, instead of dreamy geopolitical speculations and “nightmare scenarios” about how things could get even worse? Isn’t the nightmare now?

Tony Blair as Prime Minister (L) and after (R): Forgive them, Father, for they know not who can replace me

Tony Blair as Prime Minister (L) and after (R): Forgive them, Father, for they know not who can replace me

The reason, I suspect, is that Blair knows, and we know, and he knows that we know, that the “humanitarian” intervention he imagines will not do much to help. The dead are past aiding — even Blair, with his propensity to impersonate Jesus, probably gets that — but what is the chance that the mechanized violence of Western powers can forestall more violence in Syria? Will more killing save more lives — killing in the self-protecting way the West does it? Iraq haunts Blair, haunts every word he says, not as a sin (he’s Godlike enough to absolve himself) but as a miscalculation. Humanitarian intervention there only accelerated murder. Better not to look at the past, and better not to promise the deaths will end. Instead, focus on the infinite horrors you can pack into an imaginary what-if. The hypothetical can always be worse than anything real.

It’s very striking how little the discussion in Britain dealt with what’s actually happening in Syria beyond the chemical attacks. It’s as if the proposed intervention had nothing at all to do with the civil war. “It is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict,” Cameron told Parliament, oddly enough since only one side was slated for bombing.

It is not about regime change or even working more closely with the Opposition. It is about the large-scale use of chemical weapons and our response to a war crime – nothing else.

What an odd war he wanted, one with a motive but not a goalIt’s a bit hard, moreover, to square this with Nick Clegg’s assertion that “The sole aim is the relief of humanitarian suffering.”  (What the hell is “humanitarian suffering”? The adjective seems to have taken refuge with the wrong noun: surely he meant “humanitarian aim” or “humanitarian relief.” But out of such Freudian slips does truth step, naked.) How would Clegg relieve suffering? Would all the suffering stop if the chemical weapons were disabled? No; there have been plenty of other deaths. Something bigger, some kind of “taking sides” or even “regime change” would be required.

In fact, Clegg and Cameron offer the lowest-common-denominator version of “humanitarianism,” in which it means no more than a mix of punishment and personal catharsis. We have to “respond to a war crime.” This won’t stop further war crimes, but we’ll have done our part. It’s barely a step down from that to “We want to bomb something, and Syria is there. In this light, “humanitarian suffering” really does refer, perhaps, to the suffering of the humanitarian himself, who feels impotent and guilty, who wants to do good and can’t imagine how, who has migraines from knowing that none of his actions will accomplish the ends he posits, and who would like a large explosion to relieve him. Bombing Damascus is a bit stronger than Alka-Seltzer, but it’ll do.

Demonstrator's sign outside the Houses of Parliament, August 29: AFP

Demonstrator’s sign outside the Houses of Parliament, August 29: AFP

The argument for humanitarian intervention inhabits a strange half-reality, not quite resembling anything else in the languages of democratic politics. It’s almost never a discussion about “What will happen if we do this?” It’s a fever dream about “What will happen if we don’t?”

Back two years ago when the Libyan bombings were bruited, the editors of n+1 asked: “Has there ever been a truly successful, truly humanitarian humanitarian intervention?”

 Not of the Vietnamese in Cambodia, who deposed the Khmer Rouge for their own reasons (the Khmer kept crossing the border, and also murdered their entire Vietnamese population), and then replaced them with Hun Sen, who has been ruling Cambodia with an iron fist for more than thirty years. Not the Indian intervention in Bangladesh, under whose cover the Indian government arrested all student protesters in India. And not NATO in Kosovo, which, while it stopped Milosevic and ensured the safety of Kosovo, could not make it a viable state … and also led to the ethnic cleansing of the Serb population. Too bad for the Serbs, to be sure; but the creation of a safe space for the expulsion of a civilian population cannot be what anyone had in mind when they launched the planes. That there has never been a successful humanitarian intervention does not mean that there cannot be one in the future. But the evidence is piling up.

All these misfortunes still have ample defenders in retrospect, though, and the justification always takes the same form: What if we hadn’t done it? Things would be worse. It is no coincidence that some of the best-known advocates of humanitarian war, like the power-worshpping Niall Ferguson, are historians fascinated by alternative histories. Ferguson has written whole books that rewrite the past; he defends the what-if approach to understanding because it refutes Marxism and other attempts to trace laws that make history make sense. Life is random. Something completely unpredictable could always happen, or have happened.

What are the implications of chaos for historians? … The counterfactual scenarios [that historians] need to construct are not mere fantasy: they are simulations based on calculations about the relative probability of plausible outcomes in a chaotic world. … Perhaps the best answer to the question, “Why ask counterfactual questions?” is simply: What if we don’t? Virtual history is a necessary antidote to determinism.

Slumming among the angry Arabs, Niall Ferguson rescues a brown person and shares killer-app lessons from the Western worldview

He surely hopes to sound oracular like Lawrence of Arabia, the imperial hero intoning “Nothing is written.” Instead, he ends up a bit like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, rambling on about chaos theory: Fuckups are inevitable, the dinosaurs will always get loose, leave while you’re still alive. His scenarios are more like movie pitches than histories. But the method’s utility in excusing policymakers’ catastrophes (like those of his idol Kissinger) is obvious. Who knows how much worse things would have been, without our fucked-up attempt at fixing them? If the US hadn’t invaded Cambodia and unleashed the Khmer Rouge, something else would have gone wrong. 

Everything settles into indeterminacy this way. There is no proving a hypothetical. You can always invent a rate of forced flight from a Kosovo where the NATO invasion never happened that’s satisfyingly much greater than the one we know. You can always find a way to say that Iraqi mortality for 2003-2013 would have been as great or greater if Saddam had stayed in power — because he would have nuked his own people, or diverted the Euphrates, or weaponized the Middle East Coronavirus. This spares you the unpleasantness of looking at what actually took place, analyzing the melancholy figures, seeing what caused the painfully factual deaths or displacement. So much more agreeable to understand the unreal than reality!

Stuck in a jungle somewhere between lectures, Niall Ferguson (Jeff Goldblum) discusses chaos theory with crusty adventurer Henry Kissinger (Sam Neill) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (the ever-radiant and enlightened Laura Dern)

But an argument that’s merely flimsy when used to analyze history turns deadly when used to decide what to do here and now. The incessant drumbeat of “What will happen if we don’t?” drowns out the two more important questions: “What will happen if we do?” and “What is happening now?” Only the latter, because they deal with facts and with the consequences of a specific course of action, have even the possibility of instructive answers. The advocates of “humanitarian intervention” seem to turn every debate into a panic. It’s not just that the incited desperation overpowers the ability to judge. It’s that moving debate into a never-never land reached by the road-not-taken degrades all political discourse. The dreamwork starts to construct our daytime lives.

I can’t bring myself to stand in blanket opposition to any humanitarian intervention at all, in Syria or elsewhere. What I feel sure of, is that the arguments used to hawk the war in Britain are destructive and dangerous. They swivel our attention away from the reality of death in Damascus and Homs. Instead they insult the dead by imagining “nightmare scenarios,” ones somehow worse (at least for us, if not them) than what is occurring now, ones that suggest the ongoing disaster is not yet disastrous enough for minds acclimated to atrocity. They do this to conceal the poverty of their plan, which isn’t a plan at all and would help almost no one. They convince us that a dystopian future is the only alternative, because they are incompetent or unwilling to do anything about the present.

The Commons was right to vote these proposals and their shabby logic down. I would like to think there is a little interval of time for the rest of us to learn about life and death in Syria, and debate in concrete terms what can be done to support the Revolution. But the US is already heaving itself to action, greaved and ready, for the aimless killing — “nothing else,” “the sole aim” — the UK refused. I don’t need a theory to know chaos when I see it. I don’t need an alternative history to know there have to be alternatives.

Dead bodies, allegedly of rebel fighters, around the town of Qusair after its recapture by regime forces: images from Syrian state TV, June 2013

Dead bodies, allegedly of rebel fighters, around the town of Qusair after its recapture by regime forces: images from Syrian state TV, June 2013

The wild, wild Rest

I love the lesser peoples when they're grateful

Pankaj Mishra takes apart the opportunistic intellectual mercenary Niall Ferguson:

‘Something,’ Nick Carraway says of Tom Buchanan, ‘was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.’ ‘Western hard power,’ Ferguson blurts out in Civilisation, ‘seems to be struggling’; and the book exemplifies a mood, at once swaggering, frustrated, vengeful and despairing, among men of a certain age, class and education on the Upper East Side and the West End. Western Civilisation is unlikely to go out of business any time soon, but the neoimperialist gang might well face redundancy. In that sense, Ferguson’s metamorphoses in the last decade – from cheerleader, successively, of empire, Anglobalisation and Chimerica to exponent of collapse-theory and retailer of emollient tales about the glorious past – have highlighted broad political and cultural shifts more accurately than his writings.