What is it about politicians that encourages them to make absurd pitches for power? During the EU Referendum campaign we saw ridiculous promises, based on dodgy assumptions, made with a confidence and certainty that defied reality. In the USA we see it in Donald Trump's campaign slogan: 'Make America great again.'

No definition of 'great'. No real definition of 'America' – by the time you've excluded all the people Donald doesn't like, it isn't clear who is left to enjoy the 'land of the free'.

Anyway, I am only thinking about this because on holiday earlier this month I read five books (including Elvis Costello, Tom Wright and Sam Wells), two of which haunt me: Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar' and Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 'Romulus der Große'. I have already written very briefly about the first (brilliant book), but it is the latter that comes to mind just now in the context of Trump and other matters.

Not many Brits have heard of Dürrenmatt. A Swiss novelist and playwright, he describes 'Romulus der Große' as an “ungeschichtliche historische Komödie” (an unhistorical historic comedy). Written in 1950, it shows the demise of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, with the action taking place during the day of (and the day following) the Ides of March, 476. The Empire is about to collapse under the invasion of the greatly feared Germans and Romulus awaits its – and his – demise calmly. His family, ministers and courtiers try to force him to act decisively against the catastrophic and imminent Germanic invasion, but Romulus prefers to stay at home breeding domesticated chickens and doing nothing in response to the threat.

The ending is surprising and very civilised.

It is very clever, very funny, and needs to be rediscovered nearly seventy years after its initial production. Written in the aftermath of the German catastrophe of the twentieth century, it has much to say to us today in the aftermath of Iraq/Afghanistan, Brexit and America. Here are a few quotes (my translation as I only have the text in German):

Even the worst news sounds quite pleasant when spoken by someone who has rested well, has bathed and shaved, and has had a good meal.

It is not about the content of the language…

ZENO: “Now we must save our culture.” ROMULUS: “In what way is culture something that can be saved?”

Echoing elements of George Orwell's 1984, Romulus and Zeno (Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and escaped from Constantinople) come up with slogans they might use to counter the German invaders:

“For freedom and servitude!” “For slavery and justice!” “For caprice against barbarism!”

Rea, the daughter of Romulus, argues with her father that he must give everything to save the fatherland:

REA: “Our unconditional love for the Fatherland is what made Rome great.” ROMULUS: “But our love did not make Rome good.”

Which is where Trump comes in. Has greatness solely to do with power? Or success? Or self-protection? Where does “making America good” come in? Or the UK, for that matter?

I could quote other bits that resonate still, but that will do for now. Read the play – it isn't long. I have no idea if it is available in English, but the German is powerful even today. Under the humour and the satire there is a powerful punch.

 

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?

Empires come and go. The trouble is, they seem permanent when you are under them.

Most of the Old Testament prophets keep banging on (in the best possible sense, of course) about the need for God’s people to see the world through God’s eyes and not be taken in by the apparent power of the ’empire’. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome, Britain – they all came… and they all went. The thousand year Nazi Reich wasn’t even a toddler when it expired in a blaze of global horror.

And one of the constant themes to have come out of some Christian Churches in Europe in the last few decades has been the warning that the American Empire would also be time-limited… and the theologies that assumed its permanence (because blessed by God) would need some further attention in due course.

Now, in the Middle East, we see regimes tottering in the face of popular resentment and protest. It looks like the powerful dynasties are very worried while Iran looks on with a smile. The western-backed corrupt regimes are losing their grip and the script will have to be re-written in Washington and London. It feels like 1989 (the end of Communism in Europe) all over again, but a bit more worrying. And let’s hope Robert Mugabe is watching his telly and worrying about contagion.

It is easy to identify what we don’t like. It is not hard to complain about the things we don’t like and the injustices or inequities we resent. But, it is a little bit harder to put together something new and better than what has so quickly and easily been destroyed. (It’s like when people come to me with a problem and I ask them what their solution is…) It’s easier to direct blame and criticism than it is to constructively build something in its place.

And that is what will happen in those countries which now face radical change. They will also face radical disappointment – because these things never bring Utopia (or other fantasies).

I think we should always be suspicious of putting our hope in the apparent solidity or permanence of ‘worlds’ that we now know can change in a very short time. The walls fall down and it isn’t always clear what will be put up as an alternative. The empires come and go – we need to keep seeing through them and remembering their transience.

(And I am not convinced that Andy Carroll will replace Fernando Torres at Anfield. Silly money all round.)