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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10 reader comments

  1. Alan says:

    Whose Global Strategic Order do you refer to? The fomented horrors we see appear to have been very successful for certain administrations and their financiers. Irrespective, the opinions provided in the article lack context and seem to infer more than they say. Suggest readers refer to more knowledgeable commentators.

  2. joan curtis says:

    How about if the world united in action against the illegal activities of the Israeli State and the pre 67 boundaries were reinstated and the Palestinians given the right to their own land free of occupation/apartheid forces. Without the glaring injustice of Palestinian subjection and occupation the world could begin the small steps to being a safer place.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Worryingly would note the UN appears to be going the same way that the League of Nations did; certainly judging from representations in our media its authority has been undermined multiple times in recent years.

    For example: Iraq war breached the UN charter, in Libya NATO went beyond the UN mandate, Syria’s war rages on, the current peacekeeping mission in CAR is not being particularly supported, and in Ukraine have been limited to condemnations.

    Would go on but far too tired (so sorry if at all incoherent in parts) … Any others share this view / concern?

  4. nick j says:

    most of these problems caused by the west drawing I Ines on maps. drawing more lines won’t help. nor will promoting local strong men a la Saddam and sisi. let’s not forget the Egyptian regime has Blair’s explicit backing.

    bottom line, if you want freedom in your country, you have to fight for it. very often you are fighting your government…

  5. Wills says:

    The thing is, this is not about tackling a nation or even an ideology but the extreme interpretation of an ideology – which is being hugely funded by our necessary ally in Saudi Arabia. It is as if a war had broken out between Hitler, Mussolini and we were dithering between which side to support – while still wanting to protect those fascists who were actually nice guys who wouldn’t hurt a fly. (That’s not equating Muslims with fascists by the way.) The chance of intervening in such a war without totally alienating peaceable Muslims is virtually nil. (Which is why the Iraq War was so catastrophic.) Picking your way through the confusion to do real good now – a little bombing here, a few sanctions there – is impossible. We helped make the mess; we will surely suffer some of its consequences.

  6. Philip says:

    Let’s just avoid the traps set us by al Qaida & other Islamic militant groups. The whole point of things like 9/11 was to get the USA & UK to retaliate. Given that our retaliation was inevitably stupid & poorly targeted, it gave Muslim fundamentalists all the ammunition they needed to radicalise young Muslims all over the world, not least in the UK. Given that a strategy of this sort has been widely used – at least ever since the original “assassins” – it shows how ignorant and dim-witted our political class is, not to have spotted it for what it was.
    Instead, why don’t we let other countries sort out their own problems & concentrate on sorting out our own. One reason why radical Muslim fundamentalists attract jihadis in the UK is because of the nature of our economic and social system and the utter lack of any sort of moral basis for our society or politics. We worship money, celebrity &, in the case of the political class, power. Look at virtually any newspaper and most media schedules. Ours is a tawdry, short-termist, greedy, envy-driven, xenophobic & drunken society – against which virtually any fundamentalist religion seems to have considerable nobility. Clearly we can’t go back to a “Christian” era, but we can do our bit to make our country more decent & less self-centred. If the catholic church can elect a Pope like the new one, can’t we try to follow suit?

  7. Luca says:

    I agree with you that today many of us have the capacity to inform ourselves, but only some of us have the time to do so.

    You could argue that many, if not most, are forced to have faith in a central narrative that strains every day a little more against the logic of unfolding events. So much so it takes the might of the BBC to remind the many every 15 minutes just what the salient points of that narrative are.

    Daily we reboot and trust in the new stream of “objective facts” … until a new firmware upgrade arrives: the latest, for example, recast Tehran as a potential ally and must have scrambled a good number of souls, to be sure.

    You suggest our leaders’ faces betray their impotence yet every day they appear to commit all their will to persuade us that is not true.

    So it is not finally all that satisfactory that you simply remind us of how much we supposedly already know. Rather, as the curators of our multiverse that you are — even more critically than in he 1930s — it behooves you and your colleagues in professional media to recommit to telling it all and telling it straight.

    What do I mean? Well, an example might be the unfolding nightmare of Syria, where your channel never tired of describing the human suffering but not once did it stop to examine the flow of funds and armaments that kept the blaze of war alight. Some of us looked for scraps from Messers Cockburn and Hersh, but nothing came from C4 to even begin to explain what was behind the conflagration … and then … “poof” … “Isis”, as if out of a cloud … Yes, you had run random pieces about Britain’s jihad tourists but never have dots been left unjoined with such determination as through your coverage of the many Middle Eastern crises.

    Yes, let the decency of human beings prevail. But never forget that we will need Channel 4 to help us along.

  8. Ewan Maclean says:

    Whenever we fail to take an opportunity to bomb Muslims, that stalwart of irrationality, Melanie Phillips invariably cries “Appeasement!” and draws various inaccurate parallels with the 1930s. I’m surprised to find you in her company. I suspect your qualifications as an historian are comparable.

    The “framework” you talk about, I take to be that created by the US since World War One to ensure its corporations free access to resources and free markets for their goods and services. Since World War Two, the framework has been enforced by US world hegemony, overwhelming military power, and the ability to subvert or destroy any country that resists. Since the 1980s, the framework has morphed into the defence of a form of neo-liberal free market economics that has no rigorous foundation in economic theory or empirical evidence, that appears to be used by the “1%” to justify their depredations which now risk catastrophic climate change.

    To defend this framework, do you truly believe that it was justified to kill the cumulative millions who died in Vietnam, Indonesia, Latin America, Iraq, Africa….? Do you truly believe that the chaos and blowback has not been caused by the defence of the framework against the resistance of those who do not benefit from it? Do you truly believe that further bombing will somehow stop further chaos and blowback?

    Do you truly believe this is the best humankind can achieve?

  9. Ewan Maclean says:

    Liberal interventionists believe that they are the vanguard of civilisation and courageous upholders of moral values, and believe that this gives them a right, or imposes on them a duty, to bomb anyone who resists them or who fails to meet their standard for how other people should behave (when not acting on behalf of the liberal interventionists). This would lead to cognitive dissonance were it not for their astonishing ability to believe whatever suits.

    “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.”

    Translation: all the chaos, not just in the Middle East but elsewhere in the world, is caused by America’s failure to bomb. On multi-lateralism and disengagement, we may be able to judge if they have any part to play in creating chaos if America ever adopts them. The notion that it has done so is risible.

    “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.” Nope. It’s precisely the same world. The democracies never did care, when their interests were at stake. This is where some knowledge of history would help. It has always been necessary to discipline the recalcitrant. And the democracies have always used international law and human rights as a fig-leaf, and still do, with stark barefaced hypocrisy.

    These examples of your ability to believe falsehoods or nonsense are the crux of your article. Of course, this format allows you to write such stuff while avoiding any requirement to explain yourself. Baldwin would be proud to have his maxim so nicely illustrated.

  10. Peter says:

    There are losers in every country, arm them!

Comments are closed.