Syria: Go On, Surprise Us, Mister President
The ballistic missile nestled in the trees, just off the forest-swathed road. It was about 7-10 metres long, a dull dark green but sleek in week dull morning light. Half-raised on its truck in these hills above Haifa, I wondered whether it was already armed with a nuclear warhead.
This was in the 1990’s, and my Israeli guide, when I told him what I had seen, dismissed it as an illusion. But it wasn’t – I definitely saw it and a year or two later I read in the newspapers that an Israeli intelligence chief had resigned for having raised false fears of an imminent Syrian attack on Israel, for his own, small p, political purposes. The timing of that feared attack coincided exactly with my visit to Israel.
I can only assume that the successor to this missile is at this moment sited off a road somewhere on the hill above Haifa, part of Israel’s preparation for a possible retaliatory attack in the wake of the impending missile strike on Syria by USA, France, and – probably – the UK.
The strange thing about operation to which the USA and France at least, now appear committed, is that it entirely a form of persuasive communication, and not an attempt to achieve defeat of an enemy. On the contrary, the last thing that the USA, at least, appears to wish is that President Assad’s regime should fall. America, wiser after the Iraq adventure, is all too aware of the anarchy and/or unsavoury forces which can emerge when you topple a psychopathic dictator.
The hundred or so missiles which, in the next few days, will very likely explode onto military sites in Syria, are simply a very expensive and very dangerous advertisement. The alternative, and much cheaper, billboard would say something like: “This is what will happen to any other leaders in the world who are thinking of using chemical weapons on inconvenient opponents”.
The use of the language of morality by the US, French and UK governments must be taken with a very large pinch of salt. Iraq won its gruesome 1980-1988 war against Iran thanks in no small measure to the use of chemical weapons against the vast waves of Iranian infantry. USA gave Iraq strategic support in this war, and knew that its ally was using chemical weapons. The language of morality here is simply a slogan on Syrian billboard. It’s aim is to dampen down the attraction for chemical weapons which many psychopathic world leaders will be warming to after watching the torment of the sarin-poisoned citizens of Damascus on cable TV.
The problem with force and its talking missiles is that it has its own compelling internal logic. ‘They only understand force” is a commonly heard, but probably accurate assessment of the psychological status of one’s opponents in a situation of war. This is why Iran wants the nuclear bomb, and why Israel, UK, France, USA, Russia, China and others have it already. People listen when you have the nuclear bomb – because it’s all about a very strange, and very warped kind of communication, just like the 100 cruise and tomahawk missiles which will likely soon be plunging into Syria.
There is no ultimate victory in any of this. Why? – Here are two out of many reasons: First, because the effects of punishment on other peoples’ behaviour are unpredictable in comparison to the effects of reward. This is why smacking kids is much less effective at shaping their behaviour than rewarding them.
A second reason is because the emotion of revenge is utterly insatiable. Research shows that people anticipating carrying out revenge believe that they will feel great after taking it. In fact, they feel lousy: revenge is a charlatan and a deceiver. And for this reason, it is never satisfied, never complete and always provides the basis for a new atrocity.
Of course, there is only one potential solution, one which has brought century long conflicts to an end in Europe, Ireland and South Africa: negotiation, co-operation and, just maybe, forgiveness. There is simply no other solution to conflict like we see in Syria today.
Here is an interesting fresh start which President Obama could surprise us with tomorrow: our news media have all been told to prepare us for “war” – to the extent that we know its strategic objectives (don’t bring down the Assad regime but discourage others from using chemical weapons) and its level of force (roughly 100 missiles launched from a nice safe distance from Syria).
President Obama, why not surprise us? Why not, in the wake of Marin Luther King’s famous speech, say something like: “100 missiles is an expensive sentence. Here is my alternative sentence: you have one last chance to save the million Syrian children who are now scattered, homeless and orphaned across the Middle East. Let us breath life into the UN peace talks. Let me put it to my Russian and Chinese counterparts that we cannot let this chance go by. Let me start by offering a refugee fund of the several hundred million dollars which will otherwise be spent on these missiles. “
But he wont. Our tame cable channels have told us that the USA’s international reputation is at stake: if it doesn’t take action, it will be taken as a sign of national weakness and lack of resolve.
But let’s face it, the USA is weak – completely helpless, in fact – when it comes to controlling what’s happening in Syria. What a disorienting surprise for the world if President Obama were to say tomorrow morning ‘The USA is weak. We don’t have a clue what to do to stop this carnage. We need your help. Please, let the whole world put its shoulders behind a Syria peace conference”.
Now, that would be a headline.
In the mean time, that dull green missile probably sits on that Israeli hillside, a very precise piece of language hoping it does not have to communicate.