In spite of the timid squeak emitted by the British Parliament last week, it is still quite likely that there will be a military attack on Syria in the near future and that lots of people will die. But the British vote is perhaps one indication (there are others) that the dominant discourse of the last twenty years – humanitarian militarism – may be about to change. Three things seem to be happening, or at least beginning.
First, the influence of the humanitarian militarist lobby itself is declining. From the first interventionist fantasies in Bosnia and Rwanda twenty years ago, their swaggering assurance and their chosen weapon of ruthless moral blackmail (“I suppose you want them to die then?“) has dominated public debate, in spite of the unreality of their ideas and the disastrous results of such interventions as have actually taken place.
Second, and more important, the cynical use of this discourse by western governments to excuse ruthless and often brutal interference abroad, in violation of international law, looks as if it may have actually come to grief, this time. From non-existent mass atrocities (Kosovo) to non-existent weapons of mass destruction (Iraq) to non-existent links with the 2001 air-strikes against the US (Afghanistan), the pattern has been essentially the same. Invade a state or overthrow an uncooperative political leader, using floods of pumped-up humanitarian rhetoric to convince the media and public pinion to support you. There were already signs of public and media scepticism over Libya, and there are promising indications this time that public opinion (and the media which tends to be more credulous) are actually starting to ask some difficult questions at last. It doesn’t help that governments can’t even seem to get their stories straight. This week the Americans are claiming that we have to attack Syria because this is the first time chemical weapons have ever been used in modern times. A decade ago the same government was claiming that we had to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons against “his own people” in the 1980s. And a decade before that from what recently-released documents appear to say, the US was providing assistance to the Iraqis in using Sarin against Iranian troops. Even the media are beginning to smell a rat.
Finally, there are signs that the incipient anarchy in the international system, which has worried lots of people (and not just in small, poor countries) may be coming to an end. The lawlessness and rule by the strongest that has characterised the last 10-15 years seems to be encountering its inherent limits. The Russians are seriously pissed this time, and not because they especially love Assad. And thoughtful people, even in the West, are starting to ask whether an anarchic world system in which any action at all by the strong can be justified on “humanitarian” grounds is necessarily very good for international stability. I see the UK Attorney General popped up last week to claim that an attack on Syria would be justified by the “doctrine of humanitarian intervention”. Someone with his job description should have known that no such doctrine exists. Insofar as it’s an idea at all, it means “stuff that great powers can get away with because nobody can stop us”. There are signs now that even great powers can get away with less than they could, even a few years ago. Thanks be for small mercies.