The Ghost of Dubya and the Words of Aeschylus

esquiloEven before he shrugged off this mortal coil, George W. Bush’s ghost casts a long shadow.  Where western governments might have once been able to persuade their populations to intervene militarily on foreign soil based on ‘solid intelligence’ and ‘incontrovertible evidence,’ the response is now one of deep suspicion.

Yesterday, both Houses of the British Parliament met David Cameron’s aspirations to support the US in the retributional bombing of Syria for the Assad’s government’s alleged use of chemical weapons with a resounding no. The vote wasn’t on whether Britain should bomb, but only on the legality of their ability  to do so. Both MPs and Lords were simply doing their jobs. They reflected the overwhelming majority of the British population in their lack of hurry to once again act like the world’s policemen. Had the vote actually been on whether or not to bomb Syria, the parliamentary proposal would have failed spectacularly.

George W. Bush and Tony Blair may not have been impeached for their unrepentant manipulation of intelligence that led to a disastrous war in Iraq, but what has resulted instead is a staggering loss of confidence on the part of western populations to believe that the ‘intel’ they’re being presented is not ‘sexed-up’ to serve someone’s agenda.

The reality is that, if the Assad government in Syria did not formally order the use of chemical weapons, it is very probable that lower-level military commanders in that regime did.  However, to completely dismiss the possibility that any of the various rebel factions in that conflict would employ them in an attempt to draw the West in to the conflict would also be foolish.  The UN inspectors sent to Syria will probably not be able to apportion blame in any really convincing manner, and Israeli ‘intercepts’ of signal traffic in the Syrian Army’s command structure cannot be viewed without taking the messenger’s agenda into account.

It was Aeschylus, the Ancient Greek dramatist, who first wrote that, in war, truth is the first casualty.  And yet thousands of years later, humans have not evolved emotionally much. We still want simple, clear answers. We demand that the responsible be held accountable – and when we can’t be sure who is responsible, we have a tendency to want to punish someone, anyone. We still don’t want to cope, intellectually or emotionally, with the reality that there is indeed a fog of war and it obscures the truth. Sometimes for many years; sometimes forever.

What we do know – what everyone knows is that civil wars are incredibly ugly. The assumption that the various factions will restrain themselves in the prospect of managing some sort of peace at a later date has almost invariably been wrong.  In 1937, with the help of the German Luftwaffe, Franco initiated the first intentional aerial bombardment of a civilian population at Guernica. The factions in a civil war believe themselves to be fighting, not just for territory, but for the ‘soul’ of their country. Far from showing restraint, civil wars have historically been the sites of some of the worst atrocities.

I have a number of opinions on intervention in these sorts of situations. You’re probably not going to like them. They’re pretty inhumane.

Civil wars are ultimately the way nations end up defining themselves. And until humanity grows up and stops obsessing with ‘nationhood’ I don’t think this is going to change. Civil wars are both power-driven and ideological. The war in Syria is indeed about Assad’s bid to stay in dictatorial power versus a democratically elected system of governance. But it is also a war pitting different sects of Islam against each other. Finally, it is also about secular vs religiously-led government.  You may hate Assad (I certainly do – I can’t think why he didn’t just organize an election and then take his wealth and retire to the Caribbean) but you won’t like some of his opponents any better.  However, what I do believe is that outside interference in civil wars only makes them bloodier and draws them out longer. The 20th century is replete with examples of external entities sticking their nose into the civil war pot and stirring with it.

There’s little chance that strategic bombing in Syria is going to end that war, or lessen it. As regimes get more desperate, they tend towards greater and greater insanity. What the population of Syria is going through is horrific, but like Egypt… they probably need to go through it. They probably won’t get to a settled place until they do. There is no historical precedent for stepping in from outside, imposing peace, and healing the rifts a civil war causes. Humans, it seems, have a need to play out their animosities until either one side or the other can’t get up the resolve to get out of bed and put their uniform on anymore. Until then, someone’s going to resist coming to the peace talks.

My opinion is that we have no business at all participating militarily in Syria’s civil war. We should, to the best of our abilities, find out who is using the chemical weapons and charge them as war criminals. We should expend a great deal more energy getting both Russia and China to acknowledge that their knee-jerk reaction against UN security council condemnation is not a neutral act. It is only underscoring what a useless and lumbering organization the UN has become and giving countries very credible and supportable excuses to circumvent the venue at a time in our history when we need reason and argumentation and compromise more than ever before.

Regarding Russia: jumping in on the side of the rebels to balance out their support of the Assad regime will simply exacerbate the situation. It makes far more sense to put immense pressure on them to step away and withdraw their fingers from the pot. Shaming them out of their military and moral support is probably doable with a goodly amount of diplomatic effort. Convincing China that it doesn’t have the moral high-ground is going to be a lot harder.

You may protest that all these efforts will be ineffective.  And you may be right. But lobbing missiles at the Syrian army command structure is not going to further ‘humanitarian’ ideals either. And it will raise the flame under an already boiling pot.

If our stated goal is to lessen the humanitarian misery, then let us establish civilian corridors, fund refugee camps, and pressure the hell out of the opposing sides to come to the table.

To give in to the very natural desire to spank the hell out of the perpetrators of crimes against humanity is a laudable desire, but its consequences could very well lead to far more human misery and then, like in Iraq, it is we who will have blood on our hands and we whom the International Courts will have every right to call to account.

I’m left in rather the strange position of being oddly grateful to George W. Bush. It was his eagerness to embrace patently false intelligence, and his administration’s effective manufacture of it, that has made Western democracies so suspicious of the phrase ‘we have incontrovertible evidence that…’

Earlier wars have been started on the basis of false, agenda-driven information, but the egregious use of it as a premise to embark on the second Iraq war has made us much less gullible and more likely to question the agendas of the hawks.

This isn’t a wholly negative state of affairs. Too bad it took us about 2,600 years to take what Aeschylus had to say seriously.