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It’s not goodies versus baddies – it’s baddies versus baddies.” There’s been so little of value uttered by Tony Abbott, let’s give the guy his due. Of the war in Syria, Australia’s then Opposition Leader said he’d prefer a political solution to a military one; that to offer military support to either “baddy” would be foolish.  

PM Kevin Rudd countered, “the last time I used the term goodies and baddies … I was playing cowboys and Indians in the backyard,” Kevin might have done well not to scold others for childish language, having used the term “rat fuck” in the reportedly recent past.

Kev dismissed Abbott’s analysis as “simplistic” then called him a graduate of, “the John Wayne School of International Relations”. He may have borrowed this gag from the late Philip L. Geyelin, a Pulitzer Prize winner known for his critique of war. A nifty phrase, but wrongly applied to Abbott, that day, a non-interventionist. Rudd was wrong to mock any effort to explain the Syrian war — one by then inscrutable — as difficult to understand.

The thing is difficult to understand. This is not to suggest that Abbott ever understood it, but he did appoint a Foreign Minister who gave understanding a go. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s view has shifted a little in past days. But, as recently as last year, she’d said the “Assad must go” position was “taken by a number of allies of the United States, before a political solution could even be discussed. Australia was not of that view.”

Say what you like about Bishop, but she dared to publicly identify more than just a pair of “baddies”. For her, there may have been a third. Perhaps she’d paid attention to the botched invasion of Libya and knew the true “baddie”: small states made desperate and ungovernable by other, greater powers.

It feels unnatural to compare Bishop to UK Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. But, find the echo of the minister’s aversion for military action in a speech delivered days after the Manchester Arena bombing; days before the UK election.

Corbyn said, “We will also change what we do abroad. Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.”

Press response was vicious. Political response, even that of UK Labour, was incredulous. The response of voters? Polls swung immediately to Corbyn when he named intervention itself the “baddie”. An ailing Labour Party received its second biggest boost in history: a vote share increase bettered only in 1945.

This worked. Conflict, war, or any multipolar muck-up just doesn’t play in the West as it once did. No matter how close its horrific image — and such images do not always faithfully depict Syria — there’s an intolerance emerging for conflicts outside the of the political and media classes. We’ve not become a hemisphere of doves, suddenly sensitive to the suffering of others. We do hear terms like Humanitarian Intervention or Responsibility to Protect as they are, though. Terms used by technocrats to conceal the reality of their terror.

War and warlike acts no longer hold the power to unite the many in Western nations. War is for the powerful. Just 28% of Britons surveyed this week by The Independent supported UK airstrikes in retaliation for the alleged chemical attack in Douma; and 61% of US respondents to a Pew poll did not believe the President had a clear plan for Syria. (But 58% did uphold their nation’s traditional fondness for bombing things.)

War no longer feels like our business in the West. There’s a maligned anti-war minority who make it their business. They’ll mention the timing of Saturday’s airstrike, which occurred hours before the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was due to make its assessment of the alleged weapons facility. But, to decry intervention without evidence — the best available since the attack is based on photographs and video testimony examined by French intelligence services — is to be a “baddie”.

Such people may be able to identify “baddies”. Like Tony Abbott, I can’t. I’m unconvinced that the US, a fading imperial power, is the sole baddie. I’m unpersuaded that Putin is the malevolent cheat from Whacky Races, even if I am suspicious he has infected formerly sober commentators with a neurotoxin that causes them to shout, “RUSSIA”.

Iran? I have no opinion refined enough to share. Saudi Arabia. Clearly, a place run by shits. Ditto, Israel. As for the accidental heir to the Syrian Arab Republic? Seems unpleasant. Then again, I have my doubts about those White Helmets — no group described so uncritically in so many publications as selfless, humble bakers is to be truly trusted as good.

Syria is not merely baddies versus baddies, but a horrifying locus in which even allies clash. Power enacts terror in that nation to reassert power elsewhere. A dozen foreign policies rob a single territory of life. This is not a war. It is the horrific detachment of all leaders from all their people. This is death by and for the powerful. We can have mercy for the many powerful enemies of the Syrian people no more than we might predict the effects of their multiple collisions.


Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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