Any pundit writing about Iraq these days who is lost for an introductory paragraph, will sooner or later, fall back Marx’s rewriting of Hegel’s famous formula, and remind us that history repeats itself first as tragedy, and then as farce.
There’s some truth in that, at least as applied to the current mess (others would use a stronger word) in Iraq and Syria since the latest round of dropping bombs on people began, a few days ago. But haven’t we gone rather beyond farce now? Haven’t we entered a new stage, where the posturings of western leaders have taken on a grotesque, surreal, hallucinatory quality, utterly independent of any reality? We could, I suppose, follow Ionesco, who described one of his plays as a “tragic farce”; certainly the reality will be tragic enough for those Iraqis and Syrians we blow to pieces, burn to death, and drive from their homes.
But in many ways the literary mode that best suits the current political chaos is that of post-modernism. Politicians no longer take action; they play at taking action. Commentators no longer comment; they ironically reference other writers or past events, themselves sometimes invented. It’s hard to read Mr Cameron’s speeches (at all, but let that pass) without seeing a man who is playing an actor, playing Tony Blair playing Margaret Thatcher playing an actor playing Winston Churchill. Likewise, Barack Obama’s decision to start bombing Iraq again is best understood as an ironic, knowing, commentary on the lethal actions of his predecessors, and perhaps an attempt to top even Bill Clinton’s tortured and incomprehensible rationale for bombing Kosovo in 1999 (that turned out well, didn’t it?)
One reason for this post-modernist approach is that the politicians realise that events are out of any control they once might have had, and that they have stumbled into a mess of their own making, which they do not understand, and from which there is no obvious exit. Thus, Cameron, Obama, Fabius and Co can only mumble incoherently about how because we have been hurting people for a very long time, they might now hurt us back, which means we have to hurt them even more. The political posturing now has now completely parted company with the actual reality on the ground, and become an alternative reality, an intellectual video game in which any number can play. Listening to the solemn debates taking place in Britain, for example, you might think something really large-scale and serious was afoot, instead of the despatch of half a dozen elderly Tornados to drop bombs on the houses of people who are sympathetic to the Islamic State.
But perhaps I’m being too hard on our leaders, who are, after all, trapped in a process which they don’t control and can scarcely influence except for the worse. Deep down, I think most of them understand that their actions, insofar as they have any effect at all, will simply make the coming conflagration in the Middle East even more destructive than it might otherwise have been. They understand that weakening the IS means strengthening the Shia and the Kurds, and that we will have to defend and justify the atrocities sure to be committed by their own militias. They understand that the radical Islamic republicanism of the IS is attractive to people living under corrupt and brutal absolute monarchies. They understand that the West is likely to find itself in an alliance of convenience before long with Iran and Hezbollah. They (rightly) fear that we are on the brink of a political and religious conflict in the region which will resemble the Thirty Years War in Europe.
But the vocabulary and the concepts needed to discuss these issues sensibly don’t exist, or aren’t commonly accepted if they do. So we continue to discuss the new as though it were the old. Once, we could bend reality in the Middle East to our wishes. Now, that may no longer be the case.