My position on whether we, or anyone else, should intervene in Syria couldn’t be clearer. I absolutely, utterly and definitively don’t know. I like to think I have been consistent in this. I didn’t know what I thought when the Syrian uprising started more than two years ago; didn’t know when the Syrian army stormed the city of Homs; didn’t know after reports of the Houla massacre reached us in May last year; didn’t know when brutal-faced Syrian generals denied all involvement in any massacre; didn’t know when I saw pictures of rebels bearing marked resemblance to clerics we are always trying to deport to Jordan, and don’t know now.
Gas should concentrate the mind – or at least the minds of those on whom it has not been used – should it not? Gas, for God’s sake. Gas, with all its hideous associations for those of us who still remember the 20th century. Isn’t gas the line that can’t be crossed, and once crossed must incur not just our wrath but our strenuous and if necessary armed insistence that it will never be crossed again? Don’t know. Yes but no but.
I am not asking for anyone’s pity, but chief among the pains of writing a newspaper column each week is having to know what you think. No matter that you are more the craven-scrupled Hamlet than the itchy-fingered Fortinbras, a man who can “find quarrel in a straw”, you must lash yourself into opinionated action on the morning that you write, fat the region’s kites with the offal of the villain of the week, understanding that if your thoughts aren’t bloody, they are nothing worth.
Out there at this very moment, in lofts, basements, lean-tos and neglected gardens, a thousand otherwise genial-tempered hacks are rubbing the lamp of intemperate opinion to coax out a view – immoderately enthusiastic or grossly derogatory, it hardly matters which, and the distinction probably won’t be noticed anyway – on celebrity chefs, wayward footballers, twerking pop stars, tattooed nobodies and any one of a thousand comedians whose routine is indistinguishable from the others – a judgement I no sooner make than I withdraw lest you think I have a view on the matter.
But what are such artificially manufactured convictions compared to the certainties the leader of a powerful nation has to delve into himself to find when confronted, not with Jamie Oliver and potato crisps, but Bashar al-Assad and a rocket-load of sarin gas? Who’d be Obama? Damned for every action he takes and damned for every action he doesn’t. It’s hard not to suspect, from the pitch of their voices, that those who rail against our going in today are the very people who railed against our staying out yesterday. Or is it just that dead certainty sounds the same, no matter who you are and what it is you’re being dead certain about?
So what is it we think we know? Or at least – to shrink the field to more manageable proportions of ignorance – what is it we think we know about this region of the world? Let’s start with dictators. We think we are against them. His being a dictator was one reason among many for getting rid of Saddam Hussein. But then we discovered that a dictator sometimes holds together, by virtue of the violence at his disposal, factions that would otherwise do even greater damage to their country than he does. “Iraq was better under Saddam Hussein,” say those who once blamed the West for putting him there in the first place. A dictator, it would appear, like your reflection in a mirror, depends where you’re looking from. And whether Tony Blair is looking over your shoulder.
Some Egyptians, having democratically elected a man who was quick to take on the lineaments of absolutism, now look longingly back to the dictator they already had. Better the despot you know is the thinking of the Russians in relation to Syria. And Russians have some previous when it comes to alternating despots. Maybe we should listen to them from time to time. Since we are all wrong about everything, the more variously wrong voices we attend to the more comprehensively informed about our ignorance we are likely to be.
Having done dictators, let’s deal with democracy. We think we are for it. Let the people choose. That was what Egyptians recently believed. But they forgot that “the people” often choose badly. So when does a free vote that turns out to be a bad vote turn out to be undemocratic? When the side that you are on says it is. Enter the army. We, who know what we think, call any army interference in civil politics “a coup”. Egyptians in favour of “the coup”, and who don’t therefore see it as “a coup”, call it democracy in action.
If I knew what I thought I’d say that was a fair description. Using the army to remove, in the name of democracy, a democratically elected leader who thought he’d been elected to be a dictator, thereby rendering illegal the legality of his election, makes a sort of sense if only in that it makes nonsense of the idea that there can be sense.
What’s happening in Egypt isn’t funny, but no absurdist playwright could have left the language of ideology – the weasel words in which we wrap our beliefs and offer to know what we think – in more disarray.
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away.
But now he’s gone – Mr Certainty, that is – now our Parliament has decided against intervention, I can’t help thinking it’s made the wrong choice. Gas, for God’s sake! No but yes but.