Bombing Syria: war as therapy

The narcissism of the bomb-Syria brigade is terrifying.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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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.)

This is extraordinary stuff. It exposes what lies at the heart of modern Western interventionism – a desire to make a massive, fiery display of our own ‘moral impulse’, of the West’s flagging sense of ‘common human heritage’, regardless of the consequences on the ground or around the world. In our era, Western intervention is increasingly demanded and pursued, not as a specific, targeted thing that might change the shape of a conflict or further the geopolitical interests of Western nations, but as a kind of bloody amplifier of the presumed probity of the Western political class. At a time when both politics and morality at home are in a profound state of disarray, when there’s little of substance that can unite Western elites or populations, we’re seeing a desperate turn to foreign fields in search of the sort of black-and-white clarity and sense of mission that eludes our rulers domestically. That’s why John Kerry says opposing wickedness in Syria is a ‘conviction shared even by countries that agree on little else’. Firing some rockets at Syria might just provide a thrilling if fleeting boost to the ‘moral impulses’ of a confused Western elite. And if it ends up making things worse? Doesn’t matter. Tough shit. At least we’ll have given voice to our collective revulsion.

What we have today is a form of purely moralistic warfare, self-consciously detached from anything so tangible as geopolitics, national interests or regional stability. Such showboating interventionism is more lethally unpredictable than anything which existed in earlier imperialistic or colonial eras. At least those old warmongers tended to be guided by clear political or territorial ambitions, meaning their interventions had some logic, and potentially some endpoint. Today, when war is fuelled by narcissism rather than politics, and the aim is emotional fulfilment rather than territorial gain, there are no natural limits or rules to the warmongers’ behaviour.

In a rare moment of self-awareness in the 1990s, the Canadian politician and thinker Michael Ignatieff wondered out loud if his and other Westerners’ demand for the bombing of Bosnian Serbs was ‘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 said. And so it is today, with people clamouring for a Western assault on Syria not to save Syrians, or to end Assad’s regime, but simply to make the West’s self-styled upholders of human decency feel better about themselves when they look in the mirror. In this terrifyingly narcissistic vision of the world, Syria is not a wartorn nation, but simply a stage for Western moralistic preening, and its people are not human beings with political needs and desires, but merely props in a Western liberal pantomime pitting goodies against baddies. When Philip Collins says such Western urges for attacks on evil overseas cannot be ‘written off as adolescent’, he is protesting way too much – it is the height of adolescent stupidity to take action without thinking of the consequences.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

Picture by: ABACA ABACA PRESS/ABACA/Press Association Images

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Topics World


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