On Thursday, President Donald Trump authorised a military strike on a Syrian government base, with the firing of 59 Tomahawk missiles from US naval boats in the Mediterranean Sea marking the official entry of the United States into yet another quite likely intractable war with a Middle Eastern state.
The response of the American mainstream media has been startling in its uniformity and its obsequiousness. Mirroring the political consensus (just six senators opposed the strikes), every one of the US’s top ten circulating newspapers has come out in favour of Trump’s deadly venture. On television news, this tendency has been arguably even more pronounced. Perhaps the apotheosis of its overwhelmingly gushing coverage came on MSNBC on Thursday night, when anchor Brian Williams appropriated a Leonard Cohen lyric – “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons” – to express his adoration for some “beautiful pictures” taken by US naval vessels of the Syria-bound missiles. Not only was this invocation frankly insulting to the memory of Cohen, the quote was also misused in an absurd and misleading manner – the line in question comes not from some jingoistic anthem, but from Cohen’s self-described “terrorist song” First We Take Manhattan, in which the protagonist and narrator is clearly deranged and set on inflicting immense harm on innocent people. Come to think of it, perhaps the quote isn’t so irrelevant after all.
Nor has the British media been immune to war fever. Indeed, a particularly revealing incident this weekend demonstrated that not only can many British commentators cheerlead for the American military as enthusiastically as anyone, but that they also possess a special talent for besmirching and shaming left-wing opponents of war which may even surpass that of their US counterparts. This weekend, Guardian columnist Owen Jones wrote an excellent, seething piece condemning many liberals’ sudden embrace of Trump-as-war-President. In this specific article, Jones describes his disgust with the crimes, particularly the chemical weapons attacks, of the “blood-soaked tyrant” President Assad, observing nonetheless that regardless of what they say, opponents of Trump’s strike “are portrayed as heartless in the face of the gassing of little children, just as opponents of war in Iraq and Libya were demonised as indifferent to those murdered and tortured and persecuted by Saddam Hussein and Muammar or Gaddafi”. Following this, in a move demonstrative of either a consummate cynicism or of stunningly low levels of reading comprehension, The Independent’s Chief Political Commentator John Rentoul duly described Jones’s piece as “the sight of the so-called left saying, “Chemical weapons? Meh.”” Needless to say, the pro-war stance of Rentoul is far closer to that of most of the British press than is Jones’s.
All of this has come despite the absence of any noticeable upsurge in enthusiasm for war amongst the American and British populations, who, since the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, have been generally averse to military actions. Why, then, is this predilection so particularly pronounced amongst often liberal-minded members of the two countries’ political and media classes?
One suggestion, particularly relevant to the American case, was put forward by co-host Matt Christman on this week’s edition of the brilliant leftist podcast Chapo Trap House. Here, it is the USA’s mere possession of overwhelming military capacity that creates what some see as the moral compulsion for it to ‘do something’ in response to violent situations around the world. Even if we disregard the fact that the American military does an awful lot of things around the world, most of which it would be hard to describe as in any way moral or ‘good’, a fundamental problem remains with such an outlook: that even when military force is employed with mostly positive intentions, this in no way prevents disastrous outcomes. This, of course, has been tragically demonstrated by the horrific unravelling of Libyan society in the years since the 2011 NATO intervention there.
But even more pertinent, I think, is the fact that the job of political commentators is ultimately to obsess over often painstaking intricacies in the nature and exercise of power in our societies. Liberal commentators in particular are likely to be hyper-aware of how difficult progressive change is to achieve within the suffocating constraints of our current political systems, and yet also retain some faith in these very structures (hence their liberalism, and not, say, socialism). For such people, I can see why it would be comforting to believe that, ultimately, the use of massive physical force by well-intentioned leaders can indeed represent action with the potential to ameliorate the suffering of the countless victims of the barbaric Bashar Al-Assads and Saddam Husseins of this world. Perhaps this explains the numerous references this weekend, in the editorial pages of the US’s liberal press, to the idea that the missile strikes “felt good”; that, in the words of the New York Times, they delivered a “sense of emotional satisfaction.” But such catharsis means nothing to the people of Syria.
We are not impotent. There are concrete steps we can take to alleviate the suffering of Syrians, including, for a start, accepting more of the people we claim to be bombing to protect as refugees. Yet it is hard to see how Trump’s airstrikes will help at all in this regard. Far more likely is that we will see a further intensification and prolongation of the war, more refugees, and an worsening of the dangerous present slide towards great power conflict. In this context, commentators in countries like the USA and Britain have a serious duty to do better than simply promoting more violence as if it represents a genuine solution to the world’s most intractable conflicts, regardless of whatever emotional desire it satisfies for them. The hands of many political and media elites in our societies are bloody enough as it is.