If I had a pound for every time I get told, “something must be done” – about something – I would be a rich man. The trouble is, however, that the phrase only ever gets used when the speaker has not the first idea what might be done, what should be done or what will be done. It is a cry of abdication or helplessness.

It is a cry that has gone up many times in the last couple of weeks. Something must be done about Syria. But, what exactly… and to what end?

  • Something to save the lives of innocent children?
  • Something to save the lives of innocent children from chemical attack?
  • Something to save the lives of innocent children from any form of violent attack?
  • Something to save the lives of innocent children from a future shaped by sectarian hatred, rage and revenge?

Well, I guess we are back to the questions of achievability touched on in my last post on Syria. What seems clear to me is that a justification for military intervention must be rooted in more than a humanitarian sense of emotional helplessness or anger at impotence. It is appalling to watch human suffering on such a scale – and brought to our living rooms on various screens – but it is equally appalling to create further suffering by intervening in a way that salves the conscience of the outside agent whilst simply complicating the contortions within the country itself.

I have to confess both to ignorance of the detail being discussed in Washington and Paris and to the technical capacity of the military to reduce the capability of Assad’s forces to repeat or continue chemical attacks (presumably we are OK with them just doing normal – that is, ‘conventional’ -bombing, shooting, torture and butchery?). However, I cannot yet see how a ‘surgical’ intervention cannot but complicate the civil war being waged inside the country. One of the lessons of Iraq (the circumstances of which I accept are not comparable, but the potential consequences of which might be) is that it is impossible to whack in and whack out, leaving the internal parties then to sort everything out. Intervention is intervention – and the whole nature of the business changes immediately and for ever.

(I realise this is a slightly unfortunate segue, but it is a bit like church congregations not realising that more people joining the church does not make the church ‘the same but bigger’, but, rather, radically changes the church – because rather than ‘they joining us’, ‘we together’ are now a different company and culture. One new person changes the whole.)

Any intervention into Syria – however necessary or justified – will change everything. A single US missile attack will change everything. The US Congress might well decide this is necessary, appropriate and justifiable. They must, however, recognise that a swift ‘hit ’em hard’, ‘mission accomplished’ ‘in and out’ intervention is a fantasy. As Niall Ferguson wrote about the USA (either in Colossus or Empire), if it is an empire, it must behave like an empire. Americans might hate the notion of being imperial, but if that is what they are being (by policing the world in this way), then they must put away simplistic notions of consequence-free ‘surgical strikes’ that bring no further obligations. To do an imperial thing without an imperial mindset or willingness to take on imperial responsibilities is to guarantee long-term and more complicated consequences.

This morning we hear that Damascus and Moscow are laughing down their sleeves at UK and US ‘weakness’. Let them laugh. Morality and justice are not the stuff of the school playground where being called names is the essential spur to retributive action. Better to get it right than to get it quick – or react out of mere pique.

It is all easy to say, sitting here in autumnal England. I don’t feel the flesh of the dead and dying in Syria. But, the suffering will not be ended by western action; and we cannot simply run away from the agony of helplessness that comes from recognising that ‘we’ can’t fix everything or make the pain stop. This civil war will take decades to work through.

The least we can do is apply popular pressure for increased diplomatic engagement. And fund whatever aid we can. And, for those who believe that prayer changes those doing the praying, – committing them to the consequences of their prayers – we must pray. If “something must be done” at all, then let that ‘something’ be right, achievable, moral and effective. There is more at stake here than the international standing of particular countries or the political stature of particular politicians – or is this less about Syrian people and more about international political hubris?

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