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Perplexity of war

Published Sep 01, 2013 07:37am


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AMERICA’S track record in starting wars has been, shall we say, a bit unworthy of European Great Power standards. It lingered rather than leapt, even in the three defining world wars of the 20th century. It needed substantial persuasion by Britain, not to mention some serious stupidity by the Germans, to drag America into the first two world wars.

Although America was far more keen on confronting communism in the Cold War, Winston Churchill can take more credit than Harry Truman for planting an iron curtain between Nato and the Soviet Union. Fear of communism took America to Korea, a war which has merely paused, and Vietnam, where war is over but on Vietnamese terms.

There were many reasons for American isolationism, but a very good one was uncertainty. America had legitimate concerns about how to end a war before it began one. Europe’s colonial wars had cold clarity. The objective was to throw out ruling dynasties and replace them with viceroys, or obliging maharajas, nawabs, shahs and emirs.

Wars of charity, or ideology if you prefer, in which your purpose is to change the world into something better than it is, are harder to fathom and fashion, for you are confronted with that eternal question: what precisely is better? And how much does conflict actually postpone the better rather than speed it along?

America became more independently aggressive with the Cold War; after 9/11, understandably, it treats aggression as a moral right whenever it perceives a threat from what might be called, broadly, the Muslim sphere.

Since the assault on the twin towers was launched from the shadows, it pursues the underworld of militancy with a ferocity that has not been seen in any conventional conflict. This leads to overkill, and collateral damage to ideals that constitute the very basis of democratic civilisation, but this is a war in which few prisoners are taken, and those left alive are sent to Guantanamo. Death might just be preferable.

Governments that stand in the way, or confront America’s obsessive search for enemies, do so at their peril. They have to be extremely secure, in their nationalism, in their social cohesion, and in their ability to defend themselves, to fend off American incursion or worse.

America made mistakes, with Iraq at the top, because it could have brought it into line without such huge damage. But George Bush, hardly the brightest bulb in the room, and surrounded by as remarkable a collection of dimwits as you are likely to see in a sophisticated capital, misjudged the Iraqi people even if he was accurate in his assessment about the fragility of Saddam Hussein. Iraq has shifted to nebulous on the geo-strategic world map.

Barack Obama is not Bush, although he will go down in history as a Nobel Peace winner who did more to start wars rather than end them. Obama has the wind of 9/11 behind him, but he knows, surely, that it must remain a wind that is helpful to the sailing ships of a superpower, rather than a typhoon that wrecks the home fleet.

He also knows that once he orders the navy into position, retreat means an irretrievable dent in his credibility. He is also intelligent enough to recognise confusion as a problem, rather than wallow in it as an opportunity, as his predecessor did. Obama knows his aims in Syria, but acknowledges that they cannot be achieved by a limited war, which is as far as public opinion will permit him to go.

Obama wants the Assads out of Damascus, but that would need American boots on the ground; the motley and toxic bands of rebels are beyond anyone’s control, whether that of America or regional powers like Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The next best option is to deplete Syria’s firepower, inflict damage to the morale of its infantry, hit its battle-ready ally Hezbollah, and, last but hardly the least, expose the limitations of both Iran and Russia as military allies. If all Iran and Russia can do is bluster, then America’s message is sent.

The danger is that Iran and Russia could choose their moment to respond, in weeks or months. Russia could use Syrian space for retaliatory action against the Saudis, who are leading the effort against Bashar al-Assad, in their effort to consolidate Sunni space against Iran and its Shia allies.

It is interesting that America remains committed to the Sunni cause despite the fact that 9/11 was a plot by extremist Sunnis. Iran is the paradox encouraging illogical options. What must worry American strategists is Iran’s stability in a region spread across shifting sands. Washington has opted for the familiar against the complex.

In August 2014, we will all be flooded with seminars on the First World War, which changed Syria and the Middle East into the patterns that continue to provoke war today. A missile strike will launch the 100th anniversary of a war that has not ended. So what else is new?

The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (5) Closed

pathanoo Sep 01, 2013 09:11am

Never expected such intellectual and moral dishonesty from M.J. Akbar. Is he tryiing to defend Assad? Is he really?

khanm Sep 01, 2013 11:36am

To brand any terrorist group with religion or sect would be wrong

dr vimal raina Sep 01, 2013 03:40pm

Excellent writing sir!

Dahir Sep 01, 2013 08:03pm

Wars can change rulers or result in the death of the ruler and his kinsmen.agreed.but the Arab Sindh war of 712 resulted in loss of citizenship for king dahir as Md bin Qasim became first Pakistani.which country will now accept dahir as their own .afterall he fought bravely trying to protect his kingdom and his people.

DB Sep 02, 2013 12:55am

I think the bitter irony here is that the US has pledged to fight against AQ, yet at the same time they are supporting the SFA which is comprised of in part, of AQ fighters. So does the US support AQ now? Or no? And as an American I ask "Do we have a dog in this fight?" Yes, Assad has done some very bad things, but very bad things go on in Africa and other countries on a regular basis. The US isn't sailing around in their warships willy-nilly trying to deal with those issues are they? Why Syria? Who has the real dog in this fight? Why, it's our good frenemy the KSA. They are funding the SFA after all, and since when have they had issues with little things like AQ? The KSA went public today supporting a US strike on Syria if "that is what the Syrian people want". I'm not sure whom the KSA defines as "the Syrian people" however. Either way, as a citizen of the USA, I firmly believe we need to just stay out of the fray. If the KSA wants to back an assault against Assad, then let them do it on their own....with their army and their money.