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.