24 Jun 2014

Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Ukraine: what happens next in a world without framework?

There’s a moment in Casablanca when Bogart describes himself on the day Paris fell to the Nazis: “A guy standing on a station platform with a comical look on his face because his insides have been kicked out.”

Humphrey Bogart And Ingrid Bergman In 'Casablanca'

Like every significant moment in the film it makes the geopolitics of the 1940s collide with the love story. Rick, an anti-fascist, sees the Ville-Lumiere fall without a fight to a bunch of genocidal sadists, just at the moment his lover deserts him without explanation. It’s worth studying that look on Bogart’s face as he boards the train.

He was a fine actor but he would not have had to go far to study such a looks of utter shock, despair and incomprehension. The 1930s had produced them on real faces from Valencia to Warsaw to Prague. The 2010s are producing them again.

Mosul has fallen to jihadi terrorists, a month earlier Homs in Syria fell to President Assad‘s murder squads. Last week 50-plus people were massacred in the Kenyan port of Mpeketoni for the crime of watching the World Cup. Russian troops are, as I write, massed on the non-existent borders of Ukraine.
And that’s only the headline instability.

In Egypt, Alaa Abd El Fattah and 23 other activists from the secular youth movement that brought down Mubarak in 2011 were last week sentenced to 15 years in jail for defying an anti-protest law; three Al Jazeera journalists got seven years on Monday, just for interviewing opponents of the regime. In Turkey a 20-year-old woman, Ayse Deniz Karacagil, is facing 98 years in prison for wearing a red scarf during a peaceful protest.

Read more: Al Jazeera journalists handed seven year jail terms in Egypt

Eleven years after George W Bush raised his “mission accomplished” banner on a US carrier, another US carrier is steaming into the Gulf – only this time it is there to symbolise the utter powerlessness of US policy in the region, and the disaster that has resulted from America’s failed attempt to create what Bush senior called “the new world order”.

In Britain there’s a stilted and predictable debate: did the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 cause this or do we need to put aside memories of 2003 and pile in once again, only this time with boots on the ground of a hangar at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, using only drones and missile strikes?

Meanwhile the majority public opinion in all three western democracies among the permanent members of the security council (P5) are against further military intervention.

But it still leaves a question for everybody haunted by last week’s videos of Iraqi soldiers being executed en masse: what could be done to stop it, prevent it, and create order in the world?

Even if you only want to be strictly parochial, what can be done to prevent the backwash of this new chaos into Britain, in the form of more refugees and terror attacks? What can we do to stop the further brutalisation of a generation for whom genocide and mass executions have become normal nightly news viewing?

Read more: New pictures – ‘normal’ British teen who became Isis jihadi

The look on the faces of the politicians – Obama, Hague, Hollande – says it all: not much. Like Bogart in Casablanca they have the look of people whose world is falling apart. Left, right and centre “events” are suddenly overwhelming the western political elite.

Three separate storylines – mass unrest, a broken economic model and the shift of geopolitical power – have suddenly become mingled. So revolution in Ukraine leads to the annexation of Crimea; revolution in Syria leads to a civil war in which the west refuses to aid the secular and the moderate forces; diplomatic paralysis over Assad’s chemical weapons strike in August 2013 hands moral power to Isis (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant); protest camps by Sunnis in Iraq, against the perceived sectarianism of the Maliki government, is crushed, pushing them into the armed struggle, opening the way for Isis.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, where the Sisi regime is holding 41,000 political prisoners, there is a rush of western support and aid money – fronted yet again by the proponents of the Iraq war, with Tony Blair in pole position.

Surveying this utter debacle for western policy, the root cause is pretty clear: America’s sudden swing from armed intervention in the Middle East to multi-lateralism and disengagement. For some people, merely to point this out is to risk being confused with advocating a return to the Bush-Blair strategy. Let me be clear I am not.

But a world where the democracies on the security council no longer care about upholding international law and human rights, even if only as a fig leaf for their own self-interest, is a very different one to the one we know. It means we have shifted – via Homs, via Gezi Park, via the Maidan in Kiev – into a world without framework.

World without framework

A glance into the back story of Casablanca shows how dangerous a world without framework can be. The economic crisis of the 1930s became a geopolitcal crisis between 1931 and 1933, as states abandoned the gold standard and adopted severe economic protectionism. The two most successful were Germany and Japan, under fascism and military dictatorship.

Then you get the Spanish civil war, where the democracies agree not to intervene, guaranteeing the defeat of the democratic side and mass murder of non-combatants on a scale considered inhuman then, but which Assad has already surpassed.

Then, years of dithering and wavering: by communist Russia, which signs a secret arms deal with Germany; by the right and centre-right politicians of Britain and France, who try to head off war by appeasing Germany.

If Bogart’s character looks like a cynical, defeated lush by 1941, when the film is set, it is because certain things have become pointless. Gun-running to anti-fascist fighters, for example. Rick has done it for the Spanish republicans and the Ethiopian resistance under Haile Selassie: but each time the democratic west has sold them out.

Also journalism. We celebrate, today, the work of George Steer, who went into Guernica in 1937 and picked up fragments of white phosphorous bombs with German trademarks on them. We forget that, right up until the war, rival British newspapers and even MPs were claiming that the Spanish republicans had committed a war crime against themselves, much as was claimed – without corroborating evidence – after Assad gassed rebel-held areas of Damascus last August.

More from Channel 4 News: Syria chemical attack – the video evidence

If democracies are not inclined to do stuff, and populations too weary of violence to care, then being a journalist in a democratic state becomes a question of recording crimes and atrocities for posterity and maybe a future war crimes trial, not to inform a response today.

The same applies to writing a play, a novel or a screenplay. You might do it to draw universal lessons from the pain and suffering, but until there is political agency in the world – that is, until either states or populations are prepared to prevent injustice – don’t kid yourself.

‘The pageant has achieved nothing’

That latest heart-rending theatre-piece about Syria may not achieve more than Ben Hecht and Kurt Weill did with We Will Never Die – a 1943 extravaganza at Madison Square Garden decrying allied inaction over the Holocaust. Afterwards Weill, who was Jewish, wrote bitterly: “The pageant has accomplished nothing. Actually, all we have done is make a lot of Jews cry.”

Today the global situation is all the more dangerous for the fact that the elites of the west have not just become powerless diplomatically, but seen their political legitimacy eroded during the five years of post-Lehman crisis management.

The default mode for policing protest in countries we call democracies has become riot policing. The default verdict for public order offences is guilty. The default response to rebellion via social media is to shut it down: to institute banned phrases, spurious crimes like “insulting” either the state or public decency, as we’ve seen from Turkey to Spain.

Sometime around the mid-to-late 1930s people in the west woke up to the fact that only they, themselves, could stop their own countries being engulfed by fascism, war and genocide. By then the only tools at their disposal were mobilisation, sanctions and war.

Today the threat we face is different: that democracy, international law and human rights are sacrificed to a three-way stand-off between (a) the west, (b) an alliance including Russia, Syria and Iran, and (c) a Sunni Islamist jihad.

And the global “demos” is different too. The 41,000 political prisoners, facing the daily threat of violence and humiliation in Egypt’s jails, are there because if they were not Egypt would be alive with political protest and debate. Ditto the repressed Russian opposition and the secular Turkish youth.

Even in Syria, where the news media regularly speak as if there were only fighters of various factions, there is a strong “civic” opposition to Assad determined to avoid being drawn into sectarianism and pure war, and to rebuild society even as the barrel bombs knock down the physical infrastructure. Read the voices in the newly-published Syria Speaks to get a measure of this.

Read more: What happened in Syria when the world was not watching

The world went to pieces in the 1930s very quickly: ultimately, because states had a monopoly of information and populations were kept ignorant. Today my Twitter feed presents me, more or less every four hours, with a picture of an atrocity by Assad’s army that I am forced to look at. The Egyptian protesters who went on the streets to protest the anti-protest law were able to post, onto my mobile phone in real time, photos of the civilian thugs wielding iron bars who were sent to stop them.

So this time, if it goes down the tubes, you will see it full-colour in real time.

If you wanted to stop the fall of Paris in 1940 you would, ultimately, have needed a time machine to prevent the fall of Weimar Germany. You would have to unwind the austerity policies that pushed millions of people into the hands of the Nazi party. You would have supported Republican Spain against Franco; Ethiopia against Mussolini. You would have pressed for American entry into world war two when it started, not 27 months later.

Simply to do the thought experiment reveals its pointlessness. It is not pointless to debate who was right over the Iraq 2003, just secondary to the questions facing us now.

If states won’t act, because their past actions have removed their own self-confidence and the trust of their populations, then the populations have to act. They have to impose both restraint and responsibility on foreign policy: on states, on NGOs and on the United Nations. We have to empower each other. We have to look at the 50 million refugees in the world and see not a threat to our way of life but human beings in need of help.

A world where ‘everybody in power has failed’?

To live in a world where every component of every item you possess is sourced from a global market, yet profess fatalism about world events, is not sustainable logic for a human being. World events will come to you in any case, as the Cardiff jihadis show.

The danger we face is of an unprecedented breakdown of the global strategic order in which the exit routes from economic crisis are getting mixed up an a new, unstable, diplomatic situation. Yes, it is weird to be writing that amid the joy and drama of the World Cup, and with Andy Murray back in action at Wimbledon, and the latest 20 inane things you didn’t know about getting mega-clicks on Buzzfeed.

The question is no longer what Blair did, or what Obama should do, but what are we all going to do. That, ultimately, is what Casablanca is about: a planet without visas, in which everybody in power has failed, and only the decency of formerly cynical human beings can prevail.

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