October 28, 2016
For, looking at the hellhole that Syria has become, they find themselves in the “something must be done” frame of mind and yet unable to devise any action that would be both effective and acceptable to the public. So the war continues. Cities, towns, and villages are destroyed from the air. Civilians are killed and millions flee to refugee camps or to Europe or America in the hope of a better or at least safer life. Bombing destroys buildings and kills people, but it doesn”t by itself win wars. From 1943 to 1945, the Allies bombed Germany to smithereens, but the war was won only by defeating the German army in battle and occupying the ground, occupying the land of Germany and administering conquered territory. We can”t”daren”t”even attempt to do this in Syria. In any case the lesson we have drawn from Iraq is that occupation is likely to end in failure.
The Second World War became an existential struggle for almost all the nations caught up in the struggle. The present wars are that for Syrians and Iraqis, but not for us. So we hover on the brink while death rains down from the air and the jihadis of ISIS use civilians as human shields. We are horrified but impotent, and our impotence derives not from our lack of power, but from our inability to employ such power as we unquestionably possess. That inability is moral. The 19th-century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote that “War is nothing but the continuation of politics with the admixture of other means,” but the “other means,” with all that they involve, are now unacceptable to Western democracies. There’s no getting away from that. So we watch the anguish of Syria, and our foreign ministers flit to and fro, trying to broker a peace”in vain.
There are still, as I say, politicians who demand action, even though they must know how short-lived any public support for real war would be. So perhaps the last word might be left to Sir Robert Walpole. When he was eventually forced by opinion in Parliament and the country into a war with Spain in 1739, he said, “They now ring the bells; they will soon be wringing their hands.” This is how it is today.