SPEAKING FREELY Traps on the road towards barbarism
By Nicholas A Biniaris
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"Which is the plan, which is the appropriate shoe for the road?" - Aristophanes: The Birds
Yet another military strike is being debated against another country of the much-aggrieved Middle East. There are arguments for and against this new adventure into the unknown. This time, the analysts are reluctant to declare victory as they did in Iraq or to plot a democratic Syria free of President Bashar al-Assad.
This is just one episode in the long and bloody saga of a Muslim world in transformation, and at the same time torn between acceptance and denial of the world. This episode is also another
trap for the West, which is only bound to lose money, influence and its cohesion to the glee of fanatics, Russians, Chinese and assorted satraps all over the world.
This trap opened with the Iranian Revolution and continued with the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. That historical event contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union but created a psychological trap for the West, that of invincibility. That led to the first Gulf War and insidiously and cumulatively developed into a direct threat to the West slowly dragging us into a vortex of barbarity, self-deception and degradation of political life.
Pro-strike arguments range from moral obligation to the loss of credibility of the US and its president. Shocked viewers of horrific images are totally justified to express their indignation. However, indignation, as Spinoza remarked, must turn to understanding, and this I suggest should lead to a rational plan to redress the cause of indignation.
Do governments have such a plan? It may be argued that perhaps President Barack Obama had a plan. His view was correct as long as he stuck with it: stop the fearful satraps from spreading pernicious Salafism; come to terms with Iran; cease to condone Israel's conflictual plans for the area and address only its legitimate security problems; curtail the rampant megalomaniac aspirations of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's neo-Ottomanism and last but not least, recognize that Russia has legitimate interests and influence in the area.
Indeed, these were a tall order to fulfill.
What skeptics and students of history think, is that moral arguments in the midst of a civil war are dubious. In post-modern rich liberal states, politicians actually lead by stealth and leaks through the press. These elected executives try to sell cheap moralism, not morality in any way, while they know that when the going gets tough the state will break every rule and use any means to survive. Terrorism brought about an ad hoc abrogation of our rights to privacy and circumvented legality for the sake of a great good, notional security.
The pro-strike side also argues that the West has a legal right to launch a punitive assault against the perpetrators of the crime. They base this on the Kosovo's intervention in 1999, the case which Diane Johnstone in her book Fools' Crusade debunked as a totally illegal one.
The strike on Syria is illegal even if the US Congress give its approval for the strike. In this case at least Obama tried to conform to the American form of government. He should be commended for this. However, according to international law the right to protect does not offer a legal framework to attack another country without a mandate from the Security Council.
The arguments against the attack range from the hypocrisy of the West to the possible dire consequences of a strike.
The hypocrisy view examines all the previous behavior of the West in similar cases. None complained against Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons against Iran. Israel has developed nuclear weapons and so did Pakistan and North Korea. Egypt most probably has chemical weapons. Another question arises about the providers of these lethal weapons and it seems that Western firms and governments have fulfilled this role.
The dire consequences arguments spin various scenarios about possible failures if the wrong targets are hit, civilians are killed or even if Assad continues to use chemicals since he is punished but still survives. Should the protectors strike again and again?
What if Assad and Hezbollah retaliates against Israel? They have no chance of success but they have the chance to turn the Arab street in their favor. What if Iran gives him a helping hand to attack Western hardware? What if Iran decides that this attack is a preamble against it? In that case it may be more than willing to punish in several ways the protectors.
There are more considerations to be countenanced. Russia may become more committed in an anti-western stand. China may similarly decide to go for a more assertive foreign policy if it observes the West committed to ad hoc policies of use of hard power.
Is seems that the pro arguments have won and as all predict the strike will go on. Is it the morality argument, or the credibility and interest's argument which would sway the leaders for a pro-strike decision? These interests though must be made visible and explicit to the citizens so that at least an act of war can be justified in their eyes. Nothing of this sort has happened up to now.
We know that chemical weapons were used repeatedly but we don't know who gassed whom. However, if Assad reveals tomorrow that he possesses two nuclear bombs and he plans to drop one on Tel Aviv and the other on Ankara, then the West would have to start negotiations as it is with North-Korea.
The gist of this argument is that entertaining moral arguments for war independently of power is irrelevant since war is a function of power and interests. The West is, relatively speaking, all-powerful and hence it tries by subterfuge to present power as moral responsibility to protect. The punitive expedition against Syria is war. War though presupposes rules and conditions about prisoners, non-combatants and most importantly a tenable purpose, and finally a treaty of capitulation which enforces the will of the victor. It seems that even war in our times has lost its character!
The optimistic plan is that after this strike the two warring sides will be forced to find a political solution and stop destroying Syria and its people. This is perhaps what is hidden behind Obama's move to ask Congress to authorize the strike.
Why didn't the "Great Powers" twist the arms of the combatants just after the armed struggle started? What actually happened was that the West, Turkey, Russia, Iran and China were playing criminal games on the back of the Syrian people.
It is more than obvious that neighboring governments didn't care for the thousands killed and tortured, of all creeds, ethnicities and political views as they tried to implement their agendas. Three developments to be noticed: Israel's acceptance of the strike, Egypt's refusal to condone it and Turkey's insistence of toppling Assad.
Israel is ideologically pressed to strike because chemicals awaken a horrible past; Egypt because Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has actually an Assad-type agenda, and Turkey because it wants to shape the area and exclude any Kurdish aspiration for statehood.
The future hides in the past's shadows
Self-deception has ruled the West for over 20 years since the demise of the Soviet Union. That historical change filled the minds and hearts of our leaders and citizens of a fool's euphoria about the West's historical mission for the future of mankind. This triumphalist spirit seemed to realize the march of geist to freedom. Old Hegel was back with a smirk on his face. Freedom is not a given. It is historically reinvented by us with new vocabularies, as the late Richard Rorty would have said.
The Cold War left a host of legacies and traumas: NATO, mutual destruction assurance, a reflexive hostility for Russia which has sidetracked effective and multilateral policies in the Middle East and an epiphany that the atheists and communists were struck down by God's scimitar. This last legacy left also a spirit of triumphalism to the side of the victorious mujahideen.
The old issue of the role of religion in politics came back on the world stage by default. The West may not be atheistic but it is immersed in the meta-modern culture of the individual's self-realization and combined with its dominance in shaping political processes globally symbolized immorality and oppression.
These facts create new causes of conflict for both victors; the fundamentalists of nostalgia and the fundamentalists of the future. The Muslim ideology is under the spell of faith as a tool for reshaping the world; the West under the spell of invincibility and moral superiority and the thrust of globalization.
All the above plus more tangible problems: poverty, inequality, suppression, demographics, democracy as a given, pressed the Muslim world towards a dramatic transformation. At the same time, as the late Marshall McLuhan had observed, restructuring of social groups and processes go on as our science and technology adventure is incessantly producing new extensions of our nervous system and translates the world in different vocabularies.
I would add that these changes are not yet comprehensible to the slow thinkers called politicians or for that matter to interest bound analysts and academics. If McLuhan has touched part of the truth, this historical Gordian Knot becomes even more difficult to untie for both contestants.
A civil war plus a religious sectarian war is the most barbaric of all wars. If external powers take sides because of interests or ideology it is a conflict without resolution in the minds of the warring factions in the spirit of vengeance for the defeated and triumphalism for the victor. No defeated side will acknowledge its defeat since it will ascribe it to the other's Protectors. Immanuel Kant in his book Perpetual Peace argued convincingly that outside powers should never take part in a civil war.
In the midst of a clear political revolution the ugly sectarianism raised its venomous head: Shiites, Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Jihadists, Salafists, Moslem Brothers go hand in hand with different ethnicities: Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Hellenes, Armenians, and more. What do we know about all of these conflicts, historical animosities and political power struggles? Very little and actually they don't seem to be part of any coherent plan of ours.
A possible punitive attack against Syria in the immediate future is just a chapter of the historical transformation of the area, more or less a minor one since the tectonic plates of sectarianism, nationalism, fanaticism emergent new ways of life and energy resources, the blood of the economy are colliding with unpredictable force and cataclysmic repercussions for all of us.
The first is the millions of refugees seeking shelter in a Europe already saturated by refugees of other wars. The opposition in Syria, if it topples Assad and this may be realized sooner than later after the strike, will be less than willing to accommodate western interests lest it is branded as stooges of the West. No entity in the Moslem world is at the present moment friendly to the West.
It is not "politically correct" to be pro-Western in these countries. Even in Turkey, a member of NATO and a "Westernized" country for 70 of so years, America and Israel are considered the most dangerous countries for Turkey. The day after in Syria will be no better than the day after in Iraq. It may even be worse for Christians and Alawites. Look at Egypt; it is the Copts who are suffering the unintended consequence of Sisi's coup.
The 9/11 attacks opened a huge trap for the international security system since we were foolish enough to accept security as a given (Europe is a consumer of security) or as a simple task since we possessed the most advanced weapons ever devised by man. This trap has ensnared us in the most chaotic way with something we believe we can manage as we managed the Cold War.
We cannot. All other important problems of our societies , employment, education, Medicare, loss of competitiveness and problems about the environment, the disarmament from nuclear weapons, the economic cycles of boom or bust are sidelined in the effort to deal with this historical phenomenon which neither our sociologists, or social scientists or historians comprehend in full.
It seems foolish to believe that solely with projection of air-power and action at a distance we can manipulate the social forces of history. Our encounter with such a historical development, actually a hot magma, creates conditions of osmosis with barbarism and contempt for civilized behavior which prompts us also into similar actions and psychology.
We resort to barbarism (drones, production of new lethal weapons, torture, Guantanamo); illegality (the NSA scandal); loss of cohesion (the British vote in the House of Commons, Germany's abstention from hard-power projection, Russia's strong opposite views); stealth undeclared wars and last but not least economic decline and bankruptcy. We are writing history all right, but to our expense.
Nicholas A Biniaris has taught philosophy and political theory at NYC in Athens. His historical novel The Call of the Desert was recently published in Hellas and shall be published in English. He is a columnist and an economic and foreign policy analyst.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.