The Enduring Vanity of Humanitarian Intervention


“We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two US Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’ And, they are beautiful pictures of fierce armaments making, what is for them, a brief flight over to this airfield. What did they hit?” – Brian Williams, MSNBC

“I salute the professionalism and skill of our Armed Forces who took action today.” – Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer

On April 6th, the United States military launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at Shayrat air base, reportedly destroying several planes and causing other infrastructural damage. The strike, launched in retaliation to Assad’s alleged use of sarin gas in Khan Shaykhun, did not target or destroy a warehouse believed to harbor sarin gas. It did, however, kill nine civilians, including four children.

In the hours since the attack, the all-too-familiar charade of Middle East expertise has been played across the world, with people who only understand Syria in the immediate context of this week’s events or this war attempting to make firm and sweeping declarations about the rightness or wrongness of it all.

In a previous post, I quoted Edward Said’s landmark text, Orientalism. I would like to return to it today:

“From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of [the Western expert’s] work.”

Once again, we have turned to the opinion of the Western Experts for guidance. The Western Expert is sought out to explain what’s been going on in Syria all these years we haven’t been paying attention. The Western Expert is being consulted on whether or not this was the Right Thing to Do. To determine, “what this all means.” To explain the role of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, Israel, and the EU. To remind us of the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. To tell us what an Alawite is. To delineate the Free Syrian Army from Jaysh al-Islam from Ahrar al-Sham from Tahrir al-Sham from ISIL. To order and clarify the incomprehensible and unreliable babble of the Orient with the smooth, reassuring sound of a white man talking.

In the hours following the bombing, US elected officials and allied governments voiced support for the President of the United States’ decision. It was called “the right thing to do,” a “proportional response” that “reassures our allies that America is back, and can play a role.” Marco Rubio asserted that even Kim Jong-un might be “a little more worried than [he was] 24 hours ago.” John McCain philosophized on what a modern America could do in the face of a “thousand year old rivalry between Persians and Arabs.” Hollande and Merkel jointly declared that “President Assad bears the sole responsibility for this development,” while UK UN Ambassador Rycroft declared his country’s support for the attack “because war crimes have consequences.” EU President Donald Tusk lauded the US’ “resolve against barbaric chemical attacks.”

The very need for the Western Expert arises from the assumption of the Orient as illegible—a vast terrain of the bizarre, mystical, and chaotic. The Western Expert interprets the Orient in a demonstration of power. It is only possible to view it as anything else if we reject that knowledge is fundamentally political. There is always a purpose to our knowing things. A tailor doesn’t measure your arm out of curiosity, but so they can make your sleeve. We don’t have inches so we can make poetry about distance; we measure distance so we can build roads, establish property, create borders, and launch missiles. The Western Expert seeks to make sense of a senseless Other, to render it Knowable so that it may be measured, navigated, appraised, manipulated, visited, sanctioned, converted, partitioned, commodified, colonized, plundered, invaded, conquered, and bombed.

So we are presented with a civil war that has been largely hidden from view in news media since its inception, now flippantly reduced to an ethnolinguistic conflict, as if describing two species in competition in an ecosystem. There is no mention of the destruction and destabilization of Iraq after the 2003 invasion, nor its connection to the present situation. Any question of alliances, geopolitics, history, and spheres of influence are cut away, for the Oriental operates in the sensual, not the rational. This is a forever war with no beginning or end, a “thousand year old rivalry” that simply is, an unvariegated geography of chaos that must be ordered by the More Enlightened Culture.

And so, Donald Trump, cheered on by his domestic and international detractors to “send a message” to the “barbaric” regime, seeks to avenge the “beautiful babies” he saw “cruelly murdered” on television. He does this through a show of smoke and fire. Through a barrage of 59 Tomahawk missiles—59,000 pounds of explosive ordnance—that whistle through the sky, broadcast throughout the world like a macabre fireworks show, before touching down on Syrian soil to deliver their payload. Several planes and Syrian Air Force buildings are destroyed, along with nine civilians, four of whom are children. In the name of peace, of human rights, of civilization, of the Syrian children, Donald Trump incinerates four Syrian children along with their family members to piles of bones and ash.

No doubt, as the world reckons with what has happened, the deaths of these four children will be justified. It was necessary, it will be explained, for those children to die in order to prevent so many other children from dying. Now, Assad will think twice before he kills children, since he knows he can just have the United States do it for him with a Tomahawk missile instead.  Furthermore, now the world will know that America is “not to be messed with,” and the children everywhere will be safer. After all, North Korea, Iran, China, and Russia are watching as well, and they too must learn that “war crimes have consequences,” except when they are carried out by the United States.

This is all possible, of course, because none of this is about weapons of mass destruction, or human rights, or Syrian people of any age. This production is the United States, and the West’s, reassurance to itself that it is everything it claims to be—the morally superior arbiter of justice and freedom in the world, the only bastion of true civilization that is or ever was. This is why the United States can even entertain the idea that it is somehow capable of “brokering peace” in Syria or “stopping Assad.” It is a willful delusion that leads us to conclude that the real benefactors of our violence are the Syrian people and not US hegemony. That every mosque, village, and school pulverized with a multimillion dollar bomb brings Syria and its people one step closer to peace and prosperity. As long as the United States and its allies are doing something, this must mean the situation is under control and that in the end, everything will turn out just fine.

It has become commonplace in our time for commentators to bemoan the fate of a tragic Middle East, a land theorized as locked in perpetual violence by the constraints of culture, geography, politics, and religion. Yet this view mischaracterizes the situation at hand. For it is the West that is truly imprisoned by its grandiosity, its sophistry, and its inability to admit to itself or to the world that the wars it fights have everything to do with its geopolitical interests and nothing to do with a liberal construction of human rights or the supposed responsibility to protect. As long as it remains trapped in this funhouse mirror maze of its own contradictions and hypocrisies, the West will continue to make its presence known in the world in blood, bombs, and bullets. And so long as Westerners themselves, particularly those who cannot be racially excluded from its imagined community, persist in the belief that war can ever be humanitarian, there will be little that can be done to alter the way things are.


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