History is already against us, even without Obama, Assad et al

Immediate threats are alarming and there is no comfort from longer perspectives

Share

We are in a mess. Though there have been graver crises, the world has never been more unstable and more dangerous. Diplomatically, militarily and morally, the West is adrift. President Obama is at the core of the short-term dégringolade. Poison gas is not a uniquely horrible weapon. The massacre of the innocents did not start with the recent atrocity, and it is not clear what a retaliatory strike could achieve.

Perhaps it is all Prince George’s fault. The sight of the baby Prince, in his mother’s arms, his sleeping face peeping through the swaddling clothes, was an epiphany: a triumph of hope, renewal and joy. A few weeks later, there was a hideous contrast. We saw the Syrian babies, their faces peeping through their swaddling clothes, in the sleep of death. For hope, renewal and joy, substitute grief, horror and barbarism.

Even so, military action should not depend on emotion and TV footage. It should follow from a President’s rational exercise of his authority. Mr Obama had spoken of red lines. We all thought that we knew what he meant. It turned out that he had no idea what he meant. Even if there is some action, it would be a bit like punishing a dog today for using the carpet as a lavatory a fortnight ago. It would neither cripple Assad, encourage his enemies – nor restore American prestige. That latter cannot happen as long as this fellow is President.

Barack Obama is the creature of a Chicago machine, the political descendants of Al Capone. Ruthless election-winners, they needed a respectable front. Mr Obama was perfect. Although he had never said or done anything to suggest that he was presidential timber, his name and his colour were enough. Such critical faculties as the liberal bien-pensantry possessed were instantly suspended. The Nobel Prize committee members made idiots of themselves. But the height of absurdity was attained with the claim that he was a great orator. In reality, his speeches consist of indifferent rhetoric delivered in a flat voice. George W Bush was a far better speaker.

The Obama people had one triumph. America is a can-do country or it is nothing, so “Yes we can” was the best presidential slogan since “I like Ike”. There is only one problem: can we what? “Yes we can” has turned into “no we haven’t”. Even those of us who never expected much from Mr Obama assumed he might improve in office; he does have a brain. But there were a number of related problems. His political instincts were far to the left of electability, partly because he does not like his country (though he dislikes it less than his wife does). So he never had a moral compass, or a political one, except the aching desire to be re-elected. He was. Since then, the haemorrhage of authority has broken all records, and there are more than three years to go: not a comforting thought. Barack Obama makes Jimmy Carter look like Theodore Roosevelt.

This will please the European lefties who had been ready to worship the new President. Except for Mr Hollande, who would rather sneer at Britain, they have now reverted to sneering at America. This is fatuous. To paraphrase Marx, anti-Americanism is the socialism of fools. An uncertain America is bad enough. An American withdrawal from world events would create a vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum; a Hobbesian state of nature would promptly fill it.

Even pro-Americans must acknowledge that our friends have one chronic weakness: idealism. They decided that all the paths to progress in the Middle East ran through Baghdad: fair enough. But removing Saddam was the easy bit. No thought was given to the hard phase: nation-rebuilding. It was as if the neocons thought that the souks would be full of potential Thomas Jeffersons: that a benign political order would spontaneously emerge. So the structures of the Baathist Sunni state were smashed. The Sunnis lost everything, except their weapons. New orders did emerge, none of them benign.

Some of us who supported the invasion will always believe that the problem was not the war, but the peace. If that had been properly handled, everything could have been different. As it was, the failure of an idealistic venture resulted in a loss of the Anglo-American will to power. This has been compounded by Afghanistan and, in the US, by memories of Vietnam. This would be fine if prides of lions were queuing up to lie down with the lambs. In the world as it is, we need power, to protect the sheepfold. Weak, indecisive hand-wringing shepherds will just embolden the wolves.

The immediate threats are alarming, and there is no comfort to be drawn from longer perspectives. The decline and death of empires is always chaotic; think how long it took Western Europe to regain the stability and the GDP it had enjoyed under the Antonines. We are now enduring the consequences of more recent imperial collapses: Austria-Hungary, the Ottomans and the British. The worst hazards arise from the former British Empire. Remember the fable of the princess and the pea. If the world is destroyed during the next few decades, Palestine and/or Pakistan will probably be responsible: those two Ps that no amount of geopolitical mattresses can suppress.

By making the Second World War inevitable, it may be that the First World War did for mankind. After 1945, enervate Albion could no longer discharge its responsibilities. In one respect, however, imperialist perspectives continued to do harm even as the navies were melting away.

In the post-war years, we failed to think straight about Arab and Iranian nationalism. There was no reason to abandon our ties with the Arab rulers who were our natural allies. But it was a mistake to find ourselves at odds with Nasser; it may also have been an error to overthrow Mossadeq. Who knows: the Pahlavis and Farouk’s descendants might have become constitutional monarchies. Ataturk had been good for Turkey. Nasser might have achieved something similar in Egypt. After all, he hanged Sayyid Qutb, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The alternative to Arab or Iranian nationalism was not subservience. Blocked in one channel, the torrents of national assertion found another outlet: Islamic fundamentalism, far harder to accommodate. The Arab nationalists had rational objectives. It should have been possible to find a modus vivendi. With the fundamentalists, that is much harder.

Apropos of modus vivendi, a police state under a military ruler is not the worst form of government. But there is a problem, as the Cromwellians found after Oliver’s death: the succession. Richard Cromwell would not do: within six months he had been transformed into Tumbledown Dick, and withdrew to the obscurity which suited him. Assad junior has many characteristics in common with Cromwell’s heir. Alas, they do not include a grateful embrace of obscurity. In modern times, only the North Koreans have created a hereditary dictatorship: not a useful precedent.

We denounce Assad for killing civilians. The Egyptian generals: yes, er, well. Let us hope their opponents are more easily cowed than the Syrian rebels; that would save a great deal of embarrassment – and please no slain babies.

We think we are searching for a moral basis for action; much of the rest of the world thinks that we are hypocrites. Putin is enjoying our discomfiture, while our Arab allies are dismayed, and the Israelis see no reason to heed American strictures. It is a terrible mess and there is no obvious way out.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A supporter of the Kurdistan Workers' Association holds a placard during a demonstration against Islamic State (IS) in front The Hague  

Nothing will stop Isis except a Syrian truce

Patrick Cockburn
The victory of the NO campaign was confirmed at 6.08am on Friday morning  

Scottish referendum: Partisan fallout, Gordon Brown's comeback and Elizabeth, the Queen of unity

Jane Merrick
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam