Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh is an historian and commentator on world affairs. His 12 books include The Third Reich: A New History (Samuel Johnson Prize 2001) ; Moral Combat; Small Wars and Faraway Places and The Best of Times, Worst of Times: The World As It Is which appears in November.


With depressing predictability, in the run-up to Saturday’s strikes on Syria, newspapers and TV screens filled with the techno-graphics of bombs and missiles that accompany the tom-tom-beat build-up to war. 

Armchair warriors, from retired generals to pipsqueak soldier-politicians, offered their ‘analysis’ of a terrible civil war in Syria into which major regional proxy conflicts are enfolded. Columnists rehearsed the pros and cons of armed humanitarian intervention, as they have done since the wars in former Yugoslavia. Even as the hour of decision dawned, there was talk of “World War III”, though the reality was merely a double dose of what Trump essayed last April. This is the herd mentality in action.

Events in Syria cannot be detached from the general degeneration not just of the media, but of entire political cultures. In the US a word once used by a cleric 374 years ago during the English Civil War has been revived – by former CIA chief John Brennan – to describe this: ‘kakistocracy’ meaning ‘rule by the worst’.

A ‘wag the dog’ moment refers to the 1997 movie in which a cynical White House spin-doctor and a Hollywood producer fabricate a war, in Albania, to distract from a sex scandal plaguing the US president
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In order to make sense of contemporary events, we often seize upon concepts as well as individual words. Several of the protagonists in this conflict over – rather than about Syria – are having their respective ‘Wag the Dog’ moment, though American pundits only focus on Trump’s one. The conceit refers to the 1997 movie in which a cynical White House spin-doctor and a Hollywood producer fabricate a war, in Albania, to distract from a sex scandal plaguing the US president. Like most wars, even faked ones do not go according to plan.

The film was released shortly before Bill Clinton was embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Some believe he launched missile strikes at an al-Qaeda ‘nerve agent’ plant in Sudan, which turned out to be a harmless pharmaceutical factory, so as to distract from his domestic tribulations. 

Historians call this mechanism ‘social imperialism’, originally meaning not so much wars of distraction, but ones engineered to artificially unite countries otherwise divided by class and confessional conflict. Following Lenin, distinguished leftist historians employed it to describe Imperial Germany’s acquisition of colonies in the 1880s, and go to war in both 1914 and1939. In the last case, exhausted German workers became restive because of the burdens of the arms build-up and Hitler decided to conquer a land empire to reward them with the furniture and fur coats of dead Jews.1

Many Trump supporters are implacably opposed to foreign intervention, so the Saturday night strikes were carefully timed. Credit: Alex Edelman / Consolidated/PA Images

While this approach is an oversimplification, its great merit is to highlight the simultaneity of events, so that domestic factors we are all aware of are connected to events in foreign affairs as they are in real time – for military action, to take an obvious example, allows us to weigh up the characters of our leaders.

Many dogs are wagging at present. Although the decision to punish Bashar al-Assad was collective, it is striking that several of the major protagonists might welcome military action as a distraction from domestic problems.

In Trump’s case, a brief punitive venture distracts from the Mueller investigation which – judging from his furious tweets – is rattling him, along with the raids on the home and offices of his lawyer Michael Cohen. He can slag off the “Animal Assad” rather than the “slimeball” James Comey. If he angers the Russians, then even better, since his campaign team are mired in multiple charges of colluding with them. Moreover, even the Saturday night strikes were carefully calibrated, not just to avoid hitting Russians, but to placate a domestic political base whose tribunes are implacably opposed to intervention in foreign quagmires. Watch Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson for proof of that.

President Macron faces a summer of industrial strife which could spread from the railways to other sectors, and reasserting French global grandeur is very much on his agenda anyway
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Vladimir Putin has also been backed into a corner on multiple fronts, despite winning re-election as president by a huge majority. The international community’s response to the Skripal poisonings, the US Treasury sanctions on his oligarch intimates, and now Trump’s belligerent fulminations against Russia have broken Putin’s run of luck on the world stage. Putin can never seem weak, not with factional rivalries erupting in the ruling circles. Doubly so since his strategic aim is to displace Washington as the ‘go to’ power in the entire Middle East, something he is well on the way to achieving as Trump equivocates between total withdrawal and gestural shows of force.

Closer to home, President Macron faces a summer of industrial strife which could spread from the railways to other sectors, and reasserting French global grandeur is very much on his agenda anyway.  Compared with the nervy British, the French public are remarkably insouciant about military adventurism. This could be at the expense of Theresa May who can handily play the patriotic card just before the May 3 local government elections against a Labour leader whose irenic platitudes make him unfit to be a leader in an age of Darwinian struggle between strongmen.

The ‘preternaturally calm’ Bashar al-Assad is filmed walking into his office the morning after the air strikes on his country. Credit: UPI/PA Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu may also find a war timely, not against Assad or his jihadist opponents, but to deter Iran and its Hezbollah proxies who are playing grandmother’s footsteps near Israel’s borders. Israeli prosecutors are deciding whether to indict “Bibi” in two corruption cases, and the police are actively pursuing two other lines of inquiry.

My Israeli sources say Netanyahu’s claims that these investigations are designed to thwart the electoral ‘will of the people’ may may result in senior prosecutors or police chiefs being assassinated by his rabid supporters. Failing the ultimate aim of embroiling the US in a major war with Iran, a goal shared by his Saudi friends, Netanyahu will settle for hitting the Iranians hard in Syria, as he has been doing with increased frequency.

Another canine metaphor is more appropriate for the preternaturally calm Bashar al-Assad himself, who was seen strolling into work at 8am after the strikes. Not ‘wag the dog’, but ‘the tail wagging the dog’. 

There are reasons why Assad would act so rashly. A chemical strike locks Russia and Iran behind him, whether they like it or not
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Many sceptics have questioned why Assad would episodically use chemical munitions, since apart from on the propaganda front, he is winning the war against the rebels. Thousands of jihadists have evacuated eastern Gouta, as they did Aleppo, to be corralled in Idlib in the north. Even better, as Trump unwinds US support for the Syrian Kurds, they are inclined to cut a deal with Assad (who has left them to their mini war) so as to jointly repulse the Turkish invasion.

For sure, Assad can conserve his army (which is a mechanised one) by using these weapons to clear dense urban battlefields at low cost to himself, discounting retaliatory strikes like the ones on Saturday night.  

But there are also political reasons why Assad would act so rashly.  

At a recent summit in Ankara, Assad’s Iranian, Russian and Turkish patrons made decisions about Syria’s future with no reference to Assad himself. Neither Putin nor Rouhani, let alone Erdogan, are wedded to Assad. Indeed, Putin called for a constitutional convention in Syria, which might alight on a less tainted Alawite – or a Christian or Sunni – as a future president. A chemical strike locks these allies behind Assad, whether they like it or not.

Though Iran has itself been the target of Iraqi chemical weapon strikes in the 1980s, it regards Syria as ‘existential’ if Tehran is ever to retaliate on multiple fronts against an attack which Israel and Saudi Arabia are determined to bring about under the Trump presidency. It forces Putin to double down too, as he undoubtedly will, in real theatres (see my recent UnHerd article) or the cyber one. If I were Boris Johnson or Gavin Williamson, I’d be wary of Kompromat).

Doubtless many righteous people are horrified by use of chemical weapons, and want ‘something to be done’. But let’s not forget there are other ways of looking at all of this, whose main virtue it seems to me, is to treat the world as it is, and where realities are not neatly divisible into home and abroad.

FOOTNOTES
  1.  Social imperialist arguments are most associated with Hans-Ulrich Wehler and Timothy Mason. Fair to say they have been comprehensibly refuted by many other scholars