Public opinion, like old generals, is always preparing to fight the last war
When it turns its attention to thinking about conflict, politics – and public opinion – is an oddly backwards process. Journalists and other analysts tend to look for guidance on future developments from past events. Egypt is compared to Algeria in the runup to the civil war; Syria to the Balkans.
History and experience act as a filter that can distort as much as elucidate. It is largely forgotten now, overlooked in the one-line description of Tony Blair and George W Bush as the men who lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, but there was a wider context to their conviction. Many spies, politicians and military men believed that the Iraqi dictator held such weapons, because their experience of Saddam’s use of poison gas in Halabja and during the Iran-Iraq war, and his headlong pursuit of weapons of mass destruction technologies, made it inconceivable that he might disarm.
Because they thought that he must be hiding something, there was a built-in confirmation bias to the hunt for what they believed was hidden.
Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have shown how badly military interventions can go wrong. After a decade of pointless, counterproductive wars, the public and politics in the western countries involved are sick of war, dubious of the promises made for humanitarian intervention.
And what we have forgotten is where the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” came from – not from the often shabby little wars of the 2000s but from real humanitarian catastrophes where intervention was late or absent and genocidal acts took place – in Rwanda and in Bosnia.
The Syrian conflict confirms many of our prejudices. For those on the left opposed to intervention, who see any military strike as rash and illegal, it appears to provide the pretext for the latest in a long series of attacks on Muslim and Arab countries, led by an overreaching US, a willfully selective and hypocritical affair.
For those who believe in intervention on humanitarian grounds, the case is made equally strongly. A country disintegrates, 100,000 people die, poison gas appears to have been deployed and the burden of the worst atrocities seems to fall on the country’s dictatorial regime.
If it’s easy for those with set ideological ideas about how the world works to come to their conclusions, Syria is less easy to interpret for those of us who want to try to see it not as a reflection of something else, but for what it is – a horrible conflict that in many ways demands a forceful response, but where any such response is so fraught with risk as to make it difficult to contemplate.
The question then – as put by the always thoughtful veteran journalist Robin Lustig on Friday – is this: “Is doing nothing really an option?” Clearly, it is, but then another question immediately follows: is there any point, any further escalation in horror, at which doing nothing will no longer be an option? What if there’s another chemical weapons attack, in which 5,000 people are killed? 10,000 killed? Is there anywhere you would draw a red line? Might MPs have cause to regret their vote in the weeks and months to come?”
In a way the difficulty is that when we make judgments such as this we cannot separate ourselves from the prevailing mood. For societies, the experience of war alters the assumptions that guide how we consider the risk involved. Like a kind of psychotropic drug, it alters political and cultural perceptions. Looking at Syria we can’t help but see it through the filter of Iraq, through a mood of sharpened scepticism of the media, politics and intelligence agencies.
In some ways it has always been thus. The old military maxim about generals always preparing to fight the last war, has been echoed in the cycles of public opinion in the past century.
The terrible cost of the first world war saw a rise in interest in pacifism, which by the 1930s saw a significant faction in the Labour party around George Lansbury, who opposed rearmament, and who led the party until being replaced by Clement Atlee in 1935. It was a mood music that fed into Neville Chamberlain’s desire for appeasement. To avoid war. To negotiate a settlement.
Britain’s role in the second world war, and the heroic narrative that took shape around that victory, permitted the UK to ignore its declining international role and to behave with the swagger of an imperial power.
If there is a flip side to this kind of imperial hubris, it is over the long shadow cast by conflicts that either are wrong or come at too high a price in the modern era. Events such as Suez, the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the US experience in Vietnam and, later, Somalia, all cast the same long shadow.
To answer Lustig’s question – at which point do we change our minds? – history, that unreliable guide to the future, suggests it is often when we are taken by surprise. US isolationism in the 1930s largely imploded with Pearl Harbour, echoing a similar trend in the UK.
All we can really say today is that the vote in parliament finally internalised all the lessons of Iraq for Britain’s political classes. For Syria, poor bleeding Syria, the past and present are awful. Its future and how the international community might have to respond – despite the acres of predictions in the past few days – remains unwritten.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013