Wednesday, 2 December 2015

If in doubt, bomb something? Or, What A Difference A Year Makes…

Way back in February 2011, Vogue ran a grovelling interview and photoshoot of Asma Al-Assad entitled A Rose in the Desert, which went out of its way to praise her 'wildly democratic' family and enlightened views (as well as her exquisite taste in designer clothes), pausing only to gently chide her country for not being as secular as Vogue might like (Vogue has a theological position: who knew?) while describing the murderous regime's state as 'the safest in the middle east'.

The first impression of Asma al-Assad is movement—a determined swath cut through space with a flash of red soles. Dark-brown eyes, wavy chin-length brown hair, long neck, an energetic grace. No watch, no jewelry apart from Chanel agates around her neck, not even a wedding ring, but fingernails lacquered a dark blue-green. She’s breezy, conspiratorial, and fun. Her accent is English but not plummy. Despite what must be a killer IQ, she sometimes uses urban shorthand: “I was, like. . . .”

The article has – amazingly – vanished without trace from that magazine's history (insert gag about make-up remover), but you can read a summary here and the whole thing here. Astonishingly, it turns out that a PR agency was paid lots of money to arrange the Vogue article. And there was me thinking that we could at least rely on the fashion press to uphold basic journalistic standards of integrity and incorruptibility…I'm not sure I can take many more of these disappointments.

The 35-year-old first lady’s central mission is to change the mind-set of six million Syrians under eighteen, encourage them to engage in what she calls “active citizenship.” “It’s about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward, about empowerment in a civil society. We all have a stake in this country; it will be what we make it.”

Well, I guess you could say that she achieved her goal: one way or another, millions of young compatriots are very actively engaged, often at the point of a gun. Things didn't work out quite so well for Asma and her husband Bashar. As well as being the other half of a seriously well-dressed woman, he was hereditary President of Syria, and for various complicated reasons connected with trying to look vaguely in favour of the Arab Spring at least when it turned on our enemies, the West decided to support the various rebel groups calling for (it appeared) freedom and democracy. Supporters of the aforesaid fighters for freedom and democracy included utopian, freedom-loving countries such as Saudi Arabia, so there was no doubt at all that this was a principled war of liberation. Anyway, it was about time for another little war in the area. Those countries have had it too easy for too long and besides, the West has spent a lot of money on desert camouflage in recent decades and we need to get full use out of it. Alright, some of those bearded Johnnies in the queue for guns and cash sounded a bit earnest about the old prayers-and-beheadings, but it was nothing that couldn't be sorted out by placating them with planeloads of hard currency and heavy weaponry. And in any case, we'd lined up Turkey and those lovely Kurds to help out. We know they've had their differences now and then but that nice Mr Erdogan could be relied on to do the decent thing in a tight spot, rather than take the chance to fix an election, murder his own Kurds and bomb the blazes out of our Syrian Kurdish pals. Couldn't he?

So there we were in August 2013, all set for another spot of dictator-biffing, having triumphantly brought about a soporific peace from Afghanistan to Iraq, when those damned conchie traitors in the Labour Party and their allies in the Conservatives conspired to vote against the government's plan to bomb Syria. Hard words were bandied around about Mr Miliband. 'Playing politics'. 'Giving succour' to a brutal dictator. Paddy Ashdown said he was 'sad' and 'a little ashamed' by Parliament's decision not to bomb Assad's forces.

And yet today, we have another chance. Parliament is voting today whether or not to bomb Syria. Hard words are once more being applied to the leader of the Labour Party. For opposing the bombing, Mr Cameron described Jeremy Corbyn (and any doubtful Conservatives by implication) as 'terrorist-sympathising'. That's right: bombing Assad's enemies now isn't giving succour to a dictator, while opposing Assad is 'terrorist sympathising'. What a difference a year or two makes…

There's one crucial difference: this time we're going to be bombing the rebels in support of Bashar Al-Assad's regime. That's right, the brutal one that uses chemical weapons, barrel bombs and torture on its freedom-loving people. Mr Cameron and his friends have suddenly discovered – only a few decades late – that not all the enemies of Western-backed dictatorships are members of the WI or the Liberal Democrats. Coming around very late to the policies of vultures like Henry Kissinger and Henry Jackson, he's decided that we're actually in favour of brutally repressive dictatorships because they keep the lid on millenarian fundamentalists who take the weapons we give them and use them on the streets of our capitals.

It's all rather Orwellian. In the space of two years the same Prime Minister has gone from wanting to bomb Assad to support the rebels, to wanting to bomb the rebels in support of Assad. The Russian role has moved from being reckless interventionism to principled foresight, and the Turks' genocidal treatment of the Kurds has quietly been forgotten about (this, at least, is continuity cynicism). In 1984, George Orwell wrote of the condition of unending war conducted between the great power blocs. I don't think he meant it literally, but history has a funny sense of humour and 'we have always been at war with Eastasia' has come true. In the novel, enemies become allies and allies become enemies over the course of Hate Week: the two years its taken to turn Assad from enemy to friend and Isis and co from friend to enemy isn't much less shocking. While we're at it, here's another ironic snipped from 1984 which you may find thought-provoking.
If he were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred, and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate. It is therefore realized on all sides that however ofter Persia, or Egypt, or Java, or Ceylon may change hands, the main frontiers must never be crossed by anything except bombs.
 So here we are. Multiple murders in Belgium, Paris and less recently the UK have contributed to the feeling that we must Do Something. Or as Steve Bell put it:

Obviously I have it easy: I'm not my MP, wondering how to vote this time, nor a minister or security official. It's tempting, surveying recent history, to put my head in my hands and reply to 'what would you do?' with 'I wouldn't start from here'. It's the telescoped nature of this volte-face that really gets to me: two years from 'brutal dictator who must go' to 'essential bulwark against terrorism'. 

However, that's a more philosophical perspective. What about the 'something must be done' argument? Those in favour of bombing say that attacking ISIS isn't like the meaningless 'war on terror' because ISIS is effectively a state: it has territory, supply lines, administrators, an economy and so on.  I don't really buy it. For starters, Afghanistan is a country of sorts, and allied pacification seemed to involve an awful lot of bombing wedding parties, cattle-herders and other 'collateral damage' alongside driving out the Taliban. ISIS territory is packed with captive populations who didn't meet the requirements for genocide (i.e. being in a different ethnic and sectarian category to ISIS) but who aren't supporters. I saw the British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon explaining that British weapons can actually distinguish between terrrorists and innocent people and RAF bombing hasn't killed a single Iraqi civilian over the past years campaign and just wanted to weep at the cynicism fuelling that kind of blatant untruth. Let's not forget that the British police couldn't distinguish from a Brazilian man who was late for work and an Islamic terrorist with a bomb from a couple of yards away, let alone from 35000 feet or 3000 miles away.

I think the argument that bombing ISIS is a good plan fails for the obvious reason demonstrated by Iraq and Afghanistan – that repressing enemies requires long-term occupation alongside nation-building of a kind that we certainly haven't mastered – but also because the Brussels bombings can't be stopped by crushing head office. While ISIS has an administration in Raqqa and no doubt helps operatives commit crimes across the globe, defeating it in Syria/Iraq doesn't defeat the ideas and techniques which lead to bombings on the street. I tend to agree with the argument that ISIS is eagerly awaiting the drones and bombers. It will confirm to its supporters everywhere that they're fighting the war they want to fight: one to the death between its own religious purists and the West/Christians/enemies of its version of Islam. Bombing ISIS will simply encourage more disaffected people in the miserable slums to which they've been confined that an existential and theological confrontation is to be welcomed, and the result will be more, not fewer, atrocities. While not every bomber will be familiar with the very specific doctrines ISIS espouse, they will concur with the argument that the answer applied by the West to every outrage is to bomb brown people. 

I would take a different, perhaps harder tack. I would separate dealing with violence at home from global politics. Rather than bombing Syrians for the crimes of Belgians, French and British people, and tacitly elevating the perpetrators to the status of combatants, I would relentlessly pursue them through the criminal law. Very very sadly (I'm not sure yet) I'd be tempted to do nothing about ISIS where it is. We've tried bombing people into peace, freedom and democracy, and it hasn't worked. We've a long and shameful history of supporting brutal torture states: Israel and Egypt are only the most recent examples of the West deciding that stability is more important than human rights, so perhaps ISIS should be the next beneficiary of this familiar rejection of universal values. The problem here, though, is that al-Sisi wants to be left alone to murder his opponents while Netanyahu will be satisfied with crushing the Palestinians and taking their lands: they have specific, limited aims, whereas ISIS is expansionist, fuelled by the theological drive to impose their version of religion on everyone. Much like capitalism, actually. 

So in the end, I don't have an answer and don't know what to do. But I do know that bombing for the sake of it is no answer either. 

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