Cui bono?

Cicero may have popularised Cassio’s wise words “to whose benefit?“, but in our cynical times we need to refine the question: to whose expectation of benefit?  Indeed, it seems implausible that the subtle distinction should have been lost on the Romans, but I certainly lack the comprehension of their language that would enable me to judge such nuances.

WordPress records show the above as the first words of a draft saved, but not published, on February 26th 2012, following the death in Syria of distinguished journalist Marie Colvin.  Who could expect to benefit from her death?  Or indeed from the escalation of events both before and since: an incursion at the Turkish border, various massacres.  Most recently the use of sarin gas, coming conveniently shortly after Obama had spoken of chemical weapons as a ‘red line’ that would provoke a change of policy.

The answer must surely be, someone looking to provoke Western intervention.  Someone given hope of powerful backing by western rhetoric, and by events in Libya.  They’ve been disappointed for a long time, but now finally it seems Obama will supply them[1] with weapons.  For anyone else to engage in such gratuitously provocative yet militarily futile acts would be extraordinarily perverse.  Above all, for a government with nothing to gain and everything to lose if the West were to get seriously involved (not to mention a ruthless but quietly efficient president without the vain showmanship of Saddam or Gaddafi).

Nor could you rule out someone with an even more sinister Agenda, like the CIA or Al Qaeda, or one-off maverick nutters, with whom neither ‘side’ would wish to be associated.  The latter can be the ones who have the most devastating effects of all, as in the assassins of  Franz Ferdinand or Yitzhak Rabin.

Can this be lost on our politicians and their advisors?  Seems unlikely.  I suspect much of the current rhetoric is driven by a complex case of good-cop-bad-cop desperately hoping to achieve something.  Those Western politicians who really want military intervention do so for external reasons: to topple a regime with a history of the two great regional crimes of being friendly with Iran and hostile to Israel (even if Israel itself would rather have a devil-you-know relationship with a stable neighbour than a civil war)!

Could a new Western-friendly president in Iran change the situation?  It’s an interesting prospect (and will probably spare Iran the kind of disturbance that followed re-election of the ‘wrong’ man last time), but I fear it’s too late to make much difference.  Events in Syria have momentum.  Likewise in the West: if the more gung-ho of American politicians and their backers rebuffed Khatami[2] in more peaceful times, how likely are they to change now, when it would mean some serious backing down?  But at least Rohani’s probable election could serve to strengthen the hands of those favouring peace in the region including, I think, Obama himself.

Where I think the West must really bear guilt is in provoking the war in the first place.  The ambiguous rhetoric and the Libyan example led rebels to suppose they’d get support if things got bad enough, but also westernised media-savvy Syrian emigrants who “spoke for” the country when it was all starting, spinners of propaganda like the “gay girl“, and doubtless others, all contributed.  The contrast must surely be Bahrain, where a similar uprising was suppressed by a government that was historically more repressive than Syria’s.  The obvious difference is that with no agents provocateurs or prospect of international support, Bahraini protestors cut their losses rather than escalate when the government reacted firmly to them.  Bahrain didn’t get Egyptian-style democracy, but neither did it get the horrors of civil war.

[1] Who “they” may be, and whether there is a faction less guilty than the government to whom the West could supply weapons is an altogether different question.  Not one I could speculate on.
[2] The Iranian president from 1997-2005, who made serious efforts to mend fences with the West but was firmly rebuffed by the US, sending a message that the West wasn’t interested and that a Western-friendly leadership was a waste of time.

Posted on June 15, 2013, in politics, war. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Hmmm. This story from Yahoo News looks like one helluva smoking gun!

  2. Yes, but whose hand is it in? Without putting quite unjustifiable degrees of trust in – someone – it’s hard to know what this story is telling us.

    That two officials at a defence contractor should be discussing hypothetical scenarios is no surprise. That some agencies of the US government should also have discussed these scenarios, and that some inkling of that discussion may have percolated out to a private-sector defence contractor also seems – not only likely, but practically inevitable. The only ‘hard news’ value here lies in the word ‘approved’ – which is being reported at fourth-hand, citing corroboration and sources that, I’ll charitably assume, have since disappeared from the internet.

    The Syrian story is surrounded by a web of propaganda and misinformation spun by both sides. What I find most impressive about the whole mess is how successful the Assad regime has been in framing its own case persuasively and deterring western intervention to date. Their news management has certainly shown up the former Libyan, Tunisian and Egyptian tyrants for the rank amateurs they were.

    I’m reminded of an anecdote that I picked up from, of all places, a Batman story. Bear with me, ‘cuz there’s no easy way to shorten this:

    On the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, most Americans were ready to panic. Reports were confused and conflicting, and not one person in a hundred had the faintest idea where Pearl Harbor was – half of them probably thought the Japanese had invaded California. Nobody knew what would happen next.

    Then the familiar, paternal voice of F D Roosevelt came on. It was firm, it was resolved, and it told Americans exactly what they were going to do: they were going to war, and they were going to win. It told them this with such clarity and certainty that, by the very next day, the war machine was gearing up all over the country. And the war was won, in Europe as well as the Pacific.

    Some years later, lots of people – with a fair bit of evidence – started to argue that Roosevelt knew the attack was coming, and deliberately let it fall, because he felt that was exactly the kick the country needed to get it into the Second World War. And hence (the argument, such as it is, goes) the blood of all those servicemen killed at Pearl Harbor was on his hands.

    But – and this is the kicker – even if that’s true, was it justified all the same? Without Pearl Harbor, America might never have entered World War Two; without America, even if Britain could have held out, the rest of Europe would have remained under the Nazis for the foreseeable future. So how can you call Roosevelt to account for sacrificing 2000-something American lives, as the price for saving a much larger part of the world from that? How do you even judge a call like that?

    And the answer, if we’re being honest, is – I don’t think we can judge it. Not you and me, not by the normal standards of morality. It’s too big, it’s incomprehensible to us. Just be thankful that you’ll never have to make a call like that.

    Of course you can call that a moral cop-out. But then, I would say – so is sitting in the comfort of our desk chairs and passing judgment on people who are working in a context that we can’t begin to understand. At some point, we just have to look at our leaders and ask ourselves: “Do we, in our heart of hearts, trust this person to act on our behalf? If not always to do the right thing, then at least to try intelligently to strive towards a situation in which there is a lesser evil?” And if the answer is “no”, we vote against them, and if it’s “yes”, we vote for them – and we let them get on with it.

  3. vet, agreed, it only looks like a smoking gun, and looks can be deceptive. And I only added it in a comment because, purely coincidentally, I saw a link to the story the day after I published this one.

    As for this situation, I think the West is very largely to blame, and the least bad outcome would’ve been the Bahrain one (and bear in mind, on many of the issues the West talks about – like womens rights or religious freedom – Syria was a whole lot more liberal than Bahrain before any of this started).

    From where they are now it’s hard to see any good outcome. Even if the elections scheduled for next year go ahead, how many factions are going to accept a ‘wrong’ outcome? The least bad outcome may actually be the Sri Lanka one.

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