If the context were not so profoundly tragic, you could easily imagine a novelist writing the following lines for some character. “Ah! I see the United States has launched missile strikes on Syria. This is deeply reassuring. The American President has once again shown the world that America has a moral compass and the spine to stand up for it. It will not collaborate with evil. That fellow Trump is turning out to play from the familiar play book. The world is back to normal.”
It is a sign of the deeply disjointed character of our times that American missile strikes on Syrian airfields are being welcomed, not because they provide any reassurance that Syria is about to emerge from its catastrophic nightmare, but because they restore a sense of psychological normalcy to the American system about the world.
The sense of normalcy that these missile strikes restore is this: American policy in Syria will signal more continuity than change. The contours of that policy have been governed by the impulse to square the following contradictory elements together. The US does not have the political will or wherewithal to engage in full-scale war or induce regime change in Syria, at least not alone. But it cannot be seen not to be doing something. So the default option is a variety of “low cost” options — arming all kinds of groups of dubious provenance, using air power and bombings — whose causal effects on alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people are highly debatable to say the least. If you
announce regime change as an objective, the regime in Syria has no incentive to compromise. If you don’t want regime change, but you still can’t broker a compromise, you also give a regime like Assad’s carte blanche.
It is still a part of bipartisan consensus in the US that America is a power with a moral compass: So it will constantly draw moral red lines. But, in the rest of the world, there is huge scepticism that American intervention is about maintaining its ideological self-image, not about actually solving a major humanitarian crises. Countries scared of refugees are hardly likely to carry authority on humanitarian matters.
The American interventions in Iraq and Libya, and their continued catastrophic consequences, depleted whatever little appetite the world might have had for intervention under the moral cloak of humanitarianism. Despite the fact that the humanitarian disaster in Syria has had profound internal consequences for Europe, and other Nato allies like Turkey, the American public sees no material stakes in West Asia any more. The fear in the rest of the world, after the horrendous experience of Iraq, that regime change might produce consequences for the world even more horrific than Assad (quite a thought, that), has added to the diffidence.
In the meantime, other big powers, Russia in particular, perhaps China to a lesser degree, now have a simple objective function: In every theatre of engagement, send a signal that America cannot write the rules of the international order. Amass as many cards as you can to demonstrate one simple fact: The American writ does not run any more. So the gap between the American self-image that it is a power driven by morals, and its ability to actually engineer humanitarian outcomes has grown. When that self-image is challenged by the news cycle involving a brutal chemical attack, America needs to act. President Obama dropped bombs; Trump launched missile strikes.
But will this action change anything? We don’t know, in part because we don’t know what framework the Trump administration brings to thinking about this issue. Trump may have pivoted back to normalcy, and gained bipartisan applause. But it does seem unlikely that elements of that larger narrative will change. Will this change the attitude of other powers like Russia? Doesn’t seem like it. In fact, for now the whole episode seems to have a standard performative quality to it: Establish very quickly that an unacceptable line (the use of chemical weapons) was crossed. Act on it, so the fact that we might still have a moral compass is preserved. Take a low risk option. Will defending the red line on chemical weapons change the brutality Assad unleashes? Not likely. Other great powers will have their usual reaction but exhibit no fundamental change in behaviour. Obama’s Syria policy was an abject failure. It is not clear that the underlying conditions that made that policy a failure are about to change.
The world is nervous because there are too many flashpoints that seem to be veering off-course, from North Korea to Yemen to Syria. The global order is precarious, because the objective functions, as it were, of all the Great Powers, are not clear. They are engaged in a form of precarious price discovery to see what they can get away with. Smaller powers are using that moment to do their own form of discovery, of what they can get away with. This pantomime of powers seems so surreal in the context of a war that has so deeply carpet-bombed the moral landscape, to use Stuart Hampshire’s phrase. Assad’s objective and modus operandi is total terror. The horror that has unfolded in Syria is so massive that our usual calculations of what will make things worse or better are immobilised.
The oddity of 11 weeks of the Trump presidency is that the promised “America first” and isolationism has also been accompanied by more war talk, and defence expansion. This poses two questions: Is the stance of the Trump presidency likely to get the great powers to cooperate more? It still seems unlikely. But the more disquieting thought is that sites like Syria and North Korea have their uses for great powers, and a host of smaller ones.
They are unwilling to tackle the dangers so posed, because these are sites at which Great Powers make their point; they are not meant to be problems they want to solve. With Trump, the worry was that we did not know what point he might want to make. Which is why the American political system is heaving a huge sigh of relief that the point he made with the missile strikes was so familiar. But familiar American policy in West Asia, as we know, brings little relief to any of the peoples in the region. The missile strikes, whether justified or not, will bring more relief to the American system, than they will, on their own to the Syrian people.