Not black or white
November 15, 2015
At the time of writing this piece, the news coming out of Paris is still fragmented and inchoate. All that is known for sure is that the French capital has experienced a terror attack of truly calamitous proportions, with over a hundred people reported dead and hundreds more injured. The identities and motivations of the attackers, who hit multiple sites in the city as part of what appears to have been a coordinated attack, have not yet been revealed although initial suspicions appear to be directed towards Isis and its affiliates around the world.
The attacks in Paris, coming hot on the heels of the crash of Metrojet flight 9268, suspected to have been brought down by a bomb over the Sinai Peninsula, as well as the twin suicide bombings that killed 43 people in Beirut earlier this week, are likely to intensify pressure to resolve the seemingly insoluble crisis in Iraq and Syria that has facilitated the growth of Isis over the last two years. Indeed, talks are currently being held in Vienna in yet another attempt to finally agree upon a settlement in Syria, although the likelihood of a breakthrough remains worryingly low. As such, the status quo is likely to persist, at least in the near future, with stalled negotiations and the fractured military interventions being made by the United States and its allies in Iraq, and Russia in Syria, ultimately doing little to alter the balance of forces on the ground.
The intractability of the Syrian crisis is not difficult to explain, involving as it does the antagonistic and competing interests of global and regional actors striving for outcomes that suit their own broader agendas. This is also why there is a natural and understandable skepticism about the use of military force in the region; Iraq and Afghanistan serve as trenchant reminders of the follies of military intervention, with the chaos and instability in both countries serving to illustrate how violence inevitably begets more violence, and how rebuilding something is much harder than destroying it. Furthermore, as is shown by the very existence of Isis and the circumstances in which it arose, military ‘solutions’ often generate unintended consequences, as is shown by the. Most importantly of all, however, the past two decades have demonstrated how the pursuit of material and strategic gains trumps all other considerations, with talk of ‘liberal’ interventionism, democracy, and human rights doing little more than justifying imperial adventures across the world.
That global politics is characterized by double standards, hypocrisy, and cynicism is self-evident and should not come as a surprise to anyone. After all, it is not necessary to look further than the cosy relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia to see how the solemn intonation of words like ‘freedom’ on the world stage ultimately means nothing. Similarly, the killing fields of Rwanda should be sufficient to disabuse anyone of the notion that humanitarian considerations figure prominently when great powers decide when and where to make their interventions. After centuries of colonial plunder and neo-colonial exploitation, and with a long and consistent record of supporting tyrants and dictators across the globe, it makes sense to take a slightly jaundiced view of the intentions of the West’s champions of liberty.
However, while it is eminently reasonable to question both the actions and motivations of countries like the United States and its allies, there is a brand of opinion that takes the incontrovertible fact of Western misconduct to provide the basis for an analysis of global affairs that sees any and all expression of anti-Western sentiment as being both necessary and welcome. This is a tendency seen on both the Right and the Left, and it usually results in the adoption of stances that celebrate the Taliban as anti-imperialist fighters, view Isis as being a movement challenging Western hegemony, and cast Russia as being a beacon of resistance and hope in a deeply unbalanced, unipolar world. Taken to its logical extreme, this ideological orientation lays the blame for all the world’s misfortunes at the feet of the West, suggesting that shadowy intelligence organizations with nefarious plans are responsible for creating the instability that is wracking the globe.
There is a kernel of truth in all of this, at least as far as it recognizes how the imperial machinations of the West, politically, economically, and militarily, have obviously played a huge role in creating the conditions under which the world now operates. However, to take this further and to suggest that all who oppose the West are worthy of support is deeply problematic. After all, while the Taliban and Isis might fight the United States, their doing so does not mean others who are critical of the latter should wholeheartedly endorse the ideology of the former. Russia’s reassertion of its power in the global arena does not mean that its own conduct at home and abroad should be ignored because it happens to be confounding any plans the West might have.
Similarly, while the United States and its allies do have a lot to answer for and should certainly not be seen as representative of some kind of greater good, suggesting that they bear responsibility for every atrocity that takes place in the world does little more than shift scrutiny away from failings closer to home. For example, there are many within Pakistan who continue to argue that Malala Yousafzai is some kind of Western agent being used to malign Islam and that, ironically enough, she and the Taliban were both created by the West to tarnish Pakistan’s name. While the absurdity of these claims is obvious, what they actually do is absolve Pakistan and its own powers-that-be of any responsibility for fomenting an atmosphere that could give birth to the Taliban. It is the same logic that leads many to conveniently pin the atrocities of groups like Isis on the West, repeating the mantra that since no ‘true’ Muslim could ever commit such acts, the problem must be coming from somewhere else. That there are many states, organizations, and individuals that have actively fanned the flames of sectarian violence and hatred in the Muslim world itself is ignored.
In a world defined by almost unending bloodshed and misery, made worse by the knowledge that much of it could be avoided or stopped given sufficient will and desire, terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ seem utterly irrelevant. In the wake of the attacks on Paris, there are undoubtedly groups across the world that are celebrating the massacre of innocents in the name of fighting the West, just as many on the other side of the equation will cheer as drones and missiles are unleashed on the populations of Iraq and Syria. Given a choice between different strands of imperial intervention and different brands of millenarian zealotry, it is perhaps best to not choose at all.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS