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Bugger’s Muddle

The Syria crisis has degenerated into
what my late father would have called a bugger’s muddle.

To recapitulate, Prime Minister David
Cameron, having in righteous anger called on the western powers to launch a joint
missile attack on Bashar el Assad as punishment for (allegedly) using chemical
weapons, failed to carry the British parliament.  President Barack Obama, having with equally
steely resolve signalled an imminent 
attack, with or without Britain, though evidently spurred on by the now
impotent Cameron, postponed it in order to secure the support of Congress, before
realising belatedly – or perhaps calculating cleverly, if you are into
conspiracy theories – that the chances of getting approval from either the
Senate or the House of Representatives lay in that bleak range of prospects demarcated
by slim and none. 

Even then, his Secretary of State
John Kerry continued to fly in and out of European capitals trying to whip up moral
support for a sudden strike – but only, he took pains to point out, a
teeny-weeny strike, from which the civilian death toll would hardly be noticed,
given the greater slaughter in that country.  

Obama’s sudden enthusiasm for
observing parliamentary protocol derived not from some sudden revelation on the
metaphorical road to Damascus,
but from the curious intervention by Vladimir Putin, Assad’s most reliable
supporter, who claimed that he – and he alone in the pantheon of world
statesmen – might be able to persuade his protégé to give up his chemical
weapons.  How long this process would
take, from negotiation through to execution, and what form the implementation
would take, were not matters worth worrying about at this early stage. 

Meanwhile, explaining (stumblingly)
his reversal on network television, Obama quoted from a letter he had received
from a veteran. “This nation is sick and tired of war,” Obama read, as if this
view represented the real Damascene conversion. 
Obviously he had not been paying much attention to the opinion polls
which in the United States,
as in Britain,
had been running unwaveringly and for some time, at more than two-to-one
against military intervention of any kind.

Where this leaves the Syria situation
is far from clear.  The only aspect that
is plain is the irony.  While the vote in
Congress is postponed to give Putin’s initiative – widely pooh-poohed by
Obama’s advisers – a chance to succeed, and the missile strike is placed on the
back-burner, as it were, Putin basks in the glory of offering himself as mankind’s
sole hope in bringing Assad to his senses – at least in the matter of chemical

Obama is now looking like the
kind of lame duck that needs life-support. 
As for Cameron, he will not be listened to in Washington for some time to come – though
that may not be the worst of his challenges with an election looming.

What all this proves yet again is
that, whenever the West is confronted by some new crisis in the Middle East, the only predictable element is that history
will be ignored.  The evidence lies in a
century or more of interventions by colonial powers, for sundry reasons, most
of them self-serving, and in a variety of locations, all of them almost
wilfully misunderstood.  The message from
history, needless to say, is that the region is a vast unforgiving desert of
quicksand that awaits unwary strangers, be they statesmen, diplomats or
military strategists.

Obama and Cameron had the correct
impulses in their outrage over the horrors being perpetrated in Syria,
but the wrong political instincts in their determined haste to vent their disgust
by military means, however limited in scope. That is not the view of bloviating
think-tank prognosticators, or of academic experts, or even of the gathering
masses of retrospective told-you-so merchants. 
It was, from the start, the plainly expressed sentiment of the American
and British people, who remembered the pointless slaughter in Iraq.  The toppling of Saddam, they recalled,
revealed not a scintilla of evidence of Saddam’s supposedly vast stockpile of
weapons of mass destruction, which formed the justification for the toppling,
and evidently has been of no lasting comfort to the citizens of Iraq.

If the despised Putin succeeds in
his mission, as limited as its objectives are, he will be hailed in many
quarters as a statesman of stature, a master of diplomacy, and a cool-headed man
of peace, who acted sensibly and decisively while Obama and Cameron, who could
only think about a violent solution and dithered even over that. 

If Putin should fail … well, this
writer has no more idea what will happen next or indeed what ought to happen
next.  Neither, apparently, do Mr. O and
Mr. C. 

Remember those clever political
cartoons of the nineteenth century, in which the British lion was always having
its tail tweaked by the Russian bear.   We
are back to the good old days, except that now it’s not the lion’s tail but the
American eagle’s feathers that are being pulled.


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