I remember writing some time ago, that if history followed its usual pattern, the Assad regime would have brutally crushed a small rebellion in a matter of months, much in the way medieval kings had done. There would have been much finger wagging but quiet satisfaction, not of course expressed, that stability had been restored. That would have been true in the past at least. Now we live in interesting times when ‘statesmen’ are buffeted by ego, darker agendas, and by others more astute.
Nineteenth century statesmen had learned the lessons arising from Revolutionary France and the Napoleonic wars that followed. European foreign policy thereafter had one primary aim. Order: a dictum that maintained peace for much of the century. Despots were tolerated if the alternative threatened stability.
The tragedy of Syria was that a small rebellion was not allowed to be put down. Syria became a proxy war for Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia and Shiite powers like Iran and Hezbollah. It also became a stamping ground for second rate European politicians. Only Russia seems to be adhering to C19th realpolitik. It made the correct call on Iraq. It made the correct call on Libya. Assad’s regime for all its faults maintained order, was secular, and protected minorities. But our statesmen have made up their minds and have painted themselves into a corner they cannot retreat from without looking stupid. Obama’s red line has been conveniently crossed: the use of poison gas – even though both sides have used it. One can only imagine the manipulated hysteria if Assad’s men had indulged in this – reported – but not trumpeted because it was an atrocity from the side we're supporting.
This makes it sound like I’m against free speech, that Syrians had no right to rebel (though only a relatively small group were initially involved) I’m not against any of these things, but life is not a free lunch. There are consequences to everything – especially in less prosperous parts of the world where freedom is sometimes a necessary trade-off for stability.
I don’t think the more prosperous West now, or in the immediate future, is immune to this equation as elites and interest groups entrench their positions against potential disorder. Prism is accepted by many as a necessary precaution against terrorism. Put simply, we don’t mind an email read if it stops our legs getting blown off. This we may think is a fairly small trade-off. The danger is that trade-offs get bigger as the scale of disorder grows and I don’t think we can escape what is now commonplace in more fractured societies.
If we are fortunate it will amount to a chill more than a freeze, people and media censoring themselves as offence to the febrile becomes the new cardinal sin, and the corrupt benefit from those who confuse cowardice with good manners.
We will come to regard offence and invective as barbaric. Some will regret the loss of free speech. Others will remain comfortably numb. Few turn their back on anaesthetics when confronted with pain.