It is the casualness, the thoughtlessness, with which Western leaders promised to bomb Syria that has been most horrifying.
War, you might think, is a serious endeavour. One that requires thought, discussion, a weighing-up of consequences. There has been none of that in Theresa May’s media-trumpeted promise to avenge the victims of the alleged chemical attack in Douma, or Donald Trump’s Twitter-blasts against ‘the animal Assad’ and his hints that he will punish Russia and Iran for supporting him, or in commentators’ demands that we bomb Syria because it is our ‘moral imperative’. On the contrary, these Twitter bombardiers, these iPad imperialists, openly eschew thought. Thought is for cowards. We must simply act and act now to show that we are good, they cry. They have no idea of the horrors that even their escalation of the tensions over Syria, regardless of whether or not they drop bombs, could unleash.
The behaviour of Western leaders has been alarming. They are like infants, bereft of the capacity for cool analysis, utterly lacking in diplomatic discretion. We mock teenagers and celebrities for Instagramming the minutiae of their lives, but such emotional incontinence pales into insignificance in comparison with the way the leaders of the free world have blurted through their iPhones their intention to punish some of the most powerful nations on Earth.
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First Trump responded to Assad’s alleged chemical assault by tweeting that Assad would pay a ‘big price’, as would Russia. When the Russians said they would shoot down American missiles, Trump tweeted: ‘Get ready Russia, because [missiles] will be coming.’ Then Theresa May’s insiders, clearly with her say-so, told the media she wants ‘military action against Assad’. This is how war is prepared for now: with a leaked comment; with an eye on retweets, rather than on whether Britain threatening to enter into a war that will essentially be with Russia is a good idea.
It is bad enough when domestic politics is reduced to gesture and PR, where spindoctoring and headline-hunting take precedence over really thinking through what needs to be done with the NHS or the economy. But to reduce global politics, such serious life-and-death matters as military intervention and the West’s relationship with Russia, to the stuff of fired-off tweets is positively lethal. That both Trump and May have now backtracked on their infantile war talk – Trump says an attack could take place soon or ‘not so soon at all!’ – is not evidence that they have come to their senses. Rather, it highlights the staggering folly of their initial comments, of their unanchored, undiplomatic threats, of their transformation of war from the pursuit of politics by other means into the pursuit of PR benefits by other means. Their driving force remains, not reason or realpolitik, but the imperative of PR.