2018: Peak Madness?

“Madness” is so much of a routine political insult that these days it means nothing much more than “something I disagree with.”

But I have begun to think over the last few weeks that very large numbers of the political, business, media and pontificating classes of the West have gone, quite literally, mad, or whatever is the current euphemism. That is to say that their behaviour, individually and collectively, shows symptoms which are typically described in studies of abnormal psychology. Put simply, the western ruling class is having a nervous breakdown, and no longer has much of a grip on reality. Ignorance is Strength, War (as of this week) is Peace. No doubt Freedom will soon be Slavery. The difference is that George Orwell saw these slogans as cynical attempts at manipulation by a Party which did not believe its own propaganda . The kind of people who see Russians under the bed or believe that peace in Syria is a bad idea do, in sense, believe what they say.

They believe what they say because they have become unhinged from reality. They live in a world made up of of fantasies and nightmares. They control nuclear weapons, unbelievable amounts of economic power, and the destiny of nations. God help the rest of us.

Merry Christmas.

Syria: Playing fantasy games

What do teenage fans of role-playing adventure games do when they grow up, and become politicians, journalists and media pundits? They create fantasy countries out of real countries, and fantasy wars out of real ones.

It began with Bosnia, perhaps not coincidentally at a time when the first generation brought up on  text-based role-playing games was reaching maturity. Political and media elites managed to create a consensual hallucination in place of the real country, what historians have since called a “Virtual Bosnia,” with none of the messy complexities of the real crisis. Since then, of course, games like Virtual Rwanda, Virtual East Timor, Virtual Kosovo, Virtual Darfur and Virtual Iraq, all produce by Intervention Inc. have been very popular, although the most recent attempted blockbuster, Virtual Libya, has been a relative failure in the market. Indeed, there are signs, according to industry watchers, that these kinds of games are becoming steadily less popular, especially since, as has been the case since 2001, the sprites are starting to shoot back at the gamers.

Which brings us, of course to Syria, or rather, Virtual Syria. François Hollande, who must be devoutly wishing that he had not opened his mouth about military intervention when he did, has recently said that “the representatives of Syria are the democratic opposition, not the radical Islamists. We want to be sure that those who will take charge of the political transition in Syria are democrats”. Well, indeed, that’s what you might want. But as the weekly magazine Marianne noted on Saturday, the famous Free Syrian Army, on which so much faith has been reposed, amounts in practice to a tiny democratic and secular part of the opposition. Governments have “known” this for a long time, but they can’t admit it. Newspapers publish articles noting that it is so, but their comment columns still call for war against Assad. Playing Fantasy Syria remains preferable to seeing the world as it really is.

It’s not just that we are getting the wrong answer, and that many more people will die as a result. It is also that we are, once again, abrogating to ourselves the right to decide who represents a nation and who doesn’t. As always, we look for people like ourselves, and if we can’t find them, we introduce them as characters into the game. So it turns out that the real “representatives ” of Syria are a tiny number of people, who think like us, who were often educated abroad, and who share, we think, our ideas and values. (And stop muttering about what looks like convincing evidence of rampant vote-buying in French local elections, that came out this week).

But what about the rest: the, I don’t know, ninety or ninety-five per cent of Syrians who don’t think like us? The un-people, if you like. Don’t they get a voice in what the new Syria is going to be like? Apparently not. They are what’s called non-playing characters, shoved around by the active players, but not actually able to influence the outcome of the game. And of course there are other players who have hacked their way into the game, although they are not supposed to be there. Unfortunately, there’s little sign that the majority of these groups, Syrian or foreign,  understand that they are characters in one of our virtual worlds. They think they are fighting for the freedom of their country, to defend their community, or in pursuit of their beliefs. And in the end, it’s the real world, not the virtual one, that matters. Virtual Bosnia is no longer available. No-one plays Virtual Darfur any more. But there are still real people in the real countries, struggling with the aftermath of real crises, some of which were caused by our own inability to tell real life from a video game.

Putin: On to Iran?

You may be angry because you think Vladimir Putin has cheated the West of the war it was anticipating with Syria, or on the other hand you may think he has done well to resolve a threatening crisis peacefully, but in any event it’s recognised that he pulled off a skilful diplomatic manoeuvre, and one which may have lessons for the future handling of crises in the region.

For much of the last few months, the West was in Ultimatum Mode: do what we want or there will be consequences, and We will be the ones to judge whether You have done what We want. In a series of crises, like those of Kosovo in 1999, and Iraq in 2003, the West has been able to control the crisis and the surrounding debate in this way, and has successfully used, in effect, its own unwillingness to be persuaded as a justification for war. This time, it has been different, because the Russians have interposed themselves, and, tongue in cheek, have pretended to treat western concerns about chemical weapons as though they were serious, and not a pretext. In turn, it looks as if the West, having got itself into a right old mess, has decided to play along.

So the question obviously arises of whether the same trick could be pulled for Iran. Here the West is in another trap of its own making: full of resentment and anger at the Islamic regime for the last thirty years, it is condemned to keep searching for new reasons to justify its animosity. Like a dog continuing to chew a bone from which the last meat has long disappeared, it can’t stop without looking foolish. Maybe that nice fellow Vladimir could sort this one out as well? Is there something the West could pretend to want, which the Iranians could pretend was serious enough to negotiate about, and the Russians could pretend to guarantee? That might get everyone off the hook.

France: Hollande under water

It’s a truism of politics the political regimes are usually constructed as a reaction against the regimes that preceded them. This is certainly true in France, where the Fifth Republic, with its strong Presidency and relatively weak parliament, was deliberately designed as an antidote to the week and confused Fourth Republic. So every French President usually gets a chance to launch military operations somewhere in the world, on his own initiative.

So here we are in Syria. Or rather, here we are not in Syria. At the beginning it must have seemed very simple. There was going to be an international attack on Syria, against a regime that everyone now dislikes, and in the name of vaguely humanitarian ideals, even if it wasn’t very clear exactly what they were. That being so, there was no way that France could be left out. So, as with Gulf War I in 1991, as with Kosovo in 1999 , there was an international coalition in which France would be involved. The fact that modern Syria is basically a French creation gave this an added political as well as moral dimension.
But then things started to get difficult. The British Parliament demonstrated an independence that it had not shown for centuries. President Obama suddenly appeared to be getting cold feet, seeing his rhetorical threats about crossing red lines actually having to be made good. So François Hollande is in the curious position of moving from being just a supporting actor, to being the only national leader who could, theoretically, launch a missile attack on Syria tomorrow without consulting anyone, or feeling the need to. This is not exactly the position that the French government expected or wanted to be in a month ago. The problem is particularly acute for Hollande because he abandoned his promises to do something about the corruption and mismanagement of the Sarkozy years almost before he was sworn in. Having caved in and adopted neoliberalism as a policy, he now has little to do apart from pursue eye-catching initiatives like homosexual marriage. But that doesn’t really amount to a policy, even if it keeps some of his own party quiet.
All of which means that his handling of the Syria crisis, unusually for a French President, could wind up weakening him rather than strengthening him. An attack by France alone is militarily conceivable, but it’s hard to see what purpose it would serve.  Increasingly, Hollande and Obama resemble a pair of weak individuals desperately looking to prove their virility by attacking someone smaller than they are. Both of them, I suspect, would give a sigh of relief if their respective parliaments failed to support them. But for Hollande, that’s not possible. All he can do is pray for Obama not to back down.

Can I have the car, dad?

One of the most depressing aspects of the vote last week by British parliamentarians against an attack on Syria was the accusation from some quarters that this means that Britain is no longer a Great Power. It’s a strange conception of Great Power status that makes it dependent on blindly following the lead of another country. But then that’s just another bizarre turn in a story which seems to become more surreal by the day.
There was a time when a policy of alliance with United States probably seemed quite sensible for Britain, even if the relationship was never an equal one. In the 1940s and 1950s Britain still had a worldwide empire, a network of military bases all over the world, large armed forces and a substantial national defence science and technology program. All of these are now gone. The benefits that still flow from this relationship, especially in what are rather coyly called  “strategic technologies,” no longer really seen to be advantages,so much as burdens. It is fear of losing access to them that makes Whitehall officials wake up at night sweating. There was a time when Britain might have pursued a more independent path, as France did, but this required a level of investment which the British were never prepared to make. As befits a nation of shopkeepers, they chose the cheapest solution, which almost always involved being fundamentally dependent on the United States. So it’s all very well having your own warhead and guidance systems for nuclear weapons, but you still need somebody else’s missile to get them anywhere. And if the Americans ever decide to stop renting missiles to the British, the latter will really be stuffed, as much politically as militarily.
It’s this fear of strategic vulnerability, and the fact that Britain really has no security policy left now, other than trying to influence the United States, that explains a great deal of the nervousness and even hysteria of the last few days. Suppose the Americans decide to retaliate by cutting off our access to certain technologies? What will we do then?
Ultimately the concept of a Great Power is anachronistic: there are none these days, at least in the traditional sense. But there is respect for nations which can act independently, and the British can no longer do that, because their status in the world is essentially borrowed . They are like a young man who borrows his father’s flashy car to impress his friends, but has to watch his behaviour in case his father ever says No. A genuinely independent British security policy, cooperating with allies intelligently rather than blindly, was possible until about a generation ago, but that time is long gone. Oh well. Can I have the car, dad?

Syria: A step away from anarchy

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.