Saturday, August 31, 2013

Too much emotion

There are times when emotion is appropriate. I am certain that I shall feel very emotional when I attend Professor Minogue's Memorial Service towards the end of September and so will everybody else there. In fact, I shall fill my bag and pockets with tissues just in case I tear up more than once. But that is what funerals and memorial services are for. Politics, on the other hand, ought to dispense with emotionalism as far as possible. Yet it was clear on Thursday,  in the wake of the Parliamentary debates about possible military intervention in Syria and the close vote [scroll down for Main Question] in the House of Commons against it that there is just too much emotion about the whole subject on both sides and for reasons I cannot quite understand. (Here is the full text of the debate in the House of Commons and here of the one in the House of Lords, where no vote was taken but the sense of the House was very clear.)

Almost immediately after the result was announced one started seeing and hearing weeping and gnashing of teeth among those who thought we should intervene though they were still unable to specify how and for what purpose we should do so and equally insane rejoicing among those who were against it, not to mention those who thought that this would signal the end of Cameron's leadership for reasons I fail to understand. I am, of course, glad that we are not going to be engaged in this open-ended, badly defined, ill-thought out military adventure but I see no particular reason for jumping up and down with joy. (A reminder of what I wrote about it a couple of days ago.)

A couple of days ago Brendan O'Neill put up a piece on Spiked in which he argued that
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.
I could not help agreeing with him and thought of the article again as I waded through the acres of sticky emotionalism last night and today or tried to engage in some rational discussion. The reasons as to why the MPs betrayed us all, betrayed the people of Syria and of every other country you could name and created a world-wide desolation were various but all displayed a "nakedly narcissistic nature". All arguments about the nature of the rebels, the lack of British interest, the lack of clear understanding as to what is going on or what we might achieve were swept aside in a general cry of "Assad is such a terrible man" or, in one case (I kid you not) "MPs can now watch the Syrian children suffer". (I did say rather coolly that if it was about the children we should go in against both sides since there is good evidence of children being maltreated by the rebels. There was no response.)

The whole discussion reminds me of the endless arguments about foreign aid in which all rational objections of any kind are brushed aside with an highly emotional and at the same time self-centred cry of "but we cannot just sit back". It is all about us not about them.

So where are we now? First of all, that vote was not, in my opinion, catastrophic for David Cameron. Intervention in Syria is not core government policy and there is no particular reason why a government should not be defeated from time to time. It used to happen in the past and can happen again. In fact, it has just happened. The defeat was not exactly surprising (and neither were the arguments expressed in the House of Lords). It does not take a great deal of political nous to realize that the proposed military adventure is highly unpopular in the country and the arguments for it have not been presented at all cogently.

Then again, wars are never popular but until recently, declaration of them had not needed parliamentary approval (and Blair had it in full over Iraq) because it is issued, as this article explains, under a Royal Prerogative that is now effectively vested in the government of the day. David Cameron did not have to go to Parliament over the Syrian adventure but he could not really avoid it for political reasons. He can now, with some justification, proclaim himself to be a true parliamentarian who does not act in a high-handed fashion but listens to the people and to Parliament. Indeed, he has already done so and the chances are he will play on it in future.

The Opposition could now call for a vote of no confidence but I doubt if they will as they might win, in which case there will be an election, which they have not a chance of winning at the moment. Actually, the government would win that vote. Governments usually do.

The Lib-Dims came out rather poorly. Having consistently opposed the war in Iraq they (like a number of leftie luvvies in this country and in the US) have suddenly become bellicose and anxious to see a nasty tyrant punished though, presumably, not toppled. Nick Clegg is now of even less importance than he has been until now.

The other losers are UKIP and, for once, it is not their fault. Nigel Farage has made it clear that their policy was strong and absolute opposition to any intervention in Syria. A number of UKIPers then produced the usual statist, socialist mantra about the money spent on any foreign adventure and how it is needed to build more hospitals, schools and so on. Even the Labour Party stopped saying that.

A number of analysts (not all of them UKIP members) said before the debate that if the Commons vote for military action, UKIP's popularity would go up. That would not necessarily be true as the Lib-Dims had not benefited from their opposition to the Iraq war even when that became unpopular. As it happens, the vote went against military intervention and UKIP is once again on the sidelines, calling for a confidence vote, resignations and assuring anyone who will listen that they were the ones who achieved this result.

While Mr Cameron is reported to be contemplating a few enforced resignations in his Cabinet and a general reshuffle, we are getting an emotional chorus of people in and around politics, led by the Lord Ashdown, about Britain's diminished role in the world and the death of the special relationship with the United States. All absolute piffle. If Britain has any sort of a role to play in international politics it is not likely to be enhanced by a Pavlovian need to get embroiled in any war and civil war that happens to have good photographers around.

At the height of Britain's power and influence it managed to keep out of numerous wars and even more civil wars, not considering it necessary to become embroiled unless there was some interest in doing so. The man who is generally thought of being the strongest imperialist among political leaders and one who always had his eye on promoting Britain's role and interests, Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield, can be said to have had his finest hour when he refused to involve the country  in a Balkan war but negotiated a peace to its advantage. When Bismarck was congratulated on achieving agreement after days of difficult negotiations in 1878 in Berlin, he insisted that the achievement was Disraeli's, famously and admiringly saying: "Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann."

In fact, all those rather over-wrought individuals who are comparing Assad with Hitler and saying that we should go to war as we did in 1939 as well as those who displaying fears that this might another 1914, should study the events of 1876 to 1878 when, in the wake of atrocious behaviour by the Turks in response to an uprising in the Balkans Mr Gladstone, the Leader of the Opposition, published his highly influential Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East. Even then there were pictures and reports from some parts of the world and many people became angry.

However, the situation was different. For one thing, those massacred were Christians and Gladstone, himself a devout man, could appeal to feelings of solidarity for co-religionists. If there is any of that around in the discussions about Syria, they cannot be on the side that is calling for the punishment of Assad as it is the far more Islamist rebels who seem to have attacked, murdered and generally abused the Syrian Christians.

Secondly, Gladstone could point to the British government as being partially at fault. Disraeli was determined to retain the alliance with the Ottoman Empire against the Russians and Gladstone, whose campaign was considerably more popular than any calls for intervention in Syria are now, called for a change in policy. He did not call for direct military intervention (which Russia was supplying in any case) but for a change in foreign policy. Even in 1876, at the height of Britain's strength and power, it was not considered to be necessary to become militarily involved in every war going, not even for a good cause. In the end, as we have seen, Disraeli won and the Treaty of Berlin stabilized the region but did not precisely punish any wrongdoers.

In the meantime, President Obama, unlike his much maligned predecessor seems unable to build a coalition of the willing and may decide to go it alone, largely because he, foolishly in most people's opinion, drew those lines in the sand or red lines or whatever lines and can now either bomb Syria with no-one to back him or climb down on his threats. Neither is a good option for him or for the United States.

To be fair, it looks like France is ready to support any action and even become involved in it though not for the purpose of overthrowing Assad, merely to punish him (and to ensure that some Raffaele Rafale planes are bought by somebody in the regions).

Secretary of State John Kerry, who, in the not too distant past voted for the Iraqi war before he voted against it, made a speech in which he called France America's oldest ally, which is technically correct, as France helped the winning side in the War of Independence. Not sure it means anything really as the special relationship whose death is once again proclaimed by all and sundry is a somewhat more complicated affair and exists on many more levels than politicians can grasp. If it survived Harold Wilson's government, it will survive President Obama's posturing.

John Kerry's speech (analyzed here and published in full here) appears to be using language and arguments that are very familiar. I was not the only one who was transported back to 2003 when similar arguments were given by President Bush and Secretary of State Powell for an attack on Iraq (which I still think was the right thing to do but that is for another time) and which was later furiously attacked by Democrats and their left-wing supporters, some of whom are now finding time to attack Parliament for that vote. Well, if you lost Mia Farrow, you have really lost your position in the world. Or so she thinks, I have no doubt.

Could John Kerry suddenly be against the military adventure (it is hard to know what to call it after all the chopping and changing) after he is for it?

Tomorrow will bring new developments, I've no doubt. At least, I hope so as I am due to discuss them on the BBC Russian Service in the afternoon. But as things stand, President Obama has not built his coalition of the willing and has found himself in a pickle as a result of his more than confused policy in the Middle East. Britain is not going to be bombing Syria and that is not a bad thing as open-ended, ill-defined military adventures whose purpose is unclear and which are likely to help someone equally nasty are a bad idea. This does not mean that Britain's position in the world will change or that the special relationship with the US is over. Maybe it will mean that there will be an effort to define what that position might be but I do not have high hopes of that. However, the rather emotional rejoicing about the vote is equally insane. The situation in Syria and the Middle East is not such as to bring joy to anyone. In fact, it has become considerably worse than it was in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected and promised to sort out all the nasty problems that his predecessor had allegedly created. And the moral of that story is that no politician should ever believe the hype produced by the media.


  1. I stand astonished that the US has performed the considerable feat of finding a President who is a contender for an "even worse than W" award.

  2. Oh that's nothing. This one is a contender for the "even worse than Carter" award. Glenn Reynolds has been saying for some time that another Carter presidency is not the worst case scenario.

  3. Excellent analysis as always, but note that the warplanes for which the French are hoping to drum up orders are called "Rafale" (squall).

  4. Woops, sorry. Stealth edit will be done. Thank you. I actually knew this but was careless in the proof-reading.

  5. So what do the Israelis see as their interest here?

    I strongly suspect that they prefer that Obama just butt out. They have reason to trust neither his judgment nor his motivations.

    The most cogent analysis I've heard is that this is a proxy war between the Saudis and the Persians, Sunni vs Shia. Much like the Iraq/Iran war, the only benefit is that both sides are severely weakened from the bloodletting.

    The French interest is, I'll bet, hope that Total gets a piece of the gas field development action.

  6. Whitehall, the posting I have just put up discusses Israeli interest as far as I can make out what they are. I think you may well be right. They do not think Obama is their friend or that he will ever make the right decision. I cannot imagine where they get that idea.