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Hugo Rifkind

By all means wring your hands over Syria. Just don’t ask me to trust you

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

They’re getting the rebuttals in early, have you noticed that? You might call them a pre-emptive strikes. Here’s William Hague, speaking to BBC Radio 4 about those chemical attacks in Syria…

‘To believe that anybody else had done it, you would have to believe that the opposition in Syria would use, on a large scale, weapons that we have no evidence that they have, delivered by artillery or air power that they do not possess, killing hundreds of people in areas already under their control.’

Pretty good, that. He must have practised it beforehand. ‘Have’ and ‘possess’ mean the same thing, after all, so you need a bit of preparation there. Better, certainly, than John Kerry, who gave a press conference at the White House and said…

‘Anyone who could claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass.’

…which was a bit disingenuous, because nobody really is suggesting that. Rather, some simply wonder why Bashar al-Assad, who presumably doesn’t want to be bombed by the West, did the one thing that renders him guaranteed, more or less, to be so. Which is not to say — please note, lunatics seeking bedfellows, or hawks seeking somebody to be angry with — that I think he didn’t. Remember, I am a journalist. I don’t think anything. I just want to know why other people, who are presumably better informed, do think things. And it’s annoying, and a bit troubling, when they don’t seem to want to tell me. Here’s Kerry, again…


‘We have additional information about this attack, and that information is being compiled and reviewed together with our partners, and we will provide that information in the days ahead.’

But they haven’t, not yet. And so, for now, I am expected simply to trust Hague, about the evidence he says he doesn’t have, and Kerry, about the evidence he says he does. And I don’t mean to be difficult here, but I’m not sure that’s good enough.

Trust is the big political issue of our day. This is what all of that NSA and GCHQ spying stuff was about, really; the sheer unsatisfactoriness, in the modern age, of a government saying, ‘Hey! Look! It’s all fine! We’ve checked!’ and expecting that to be the end of the argument. In America, curiously, they seem to have a better grasp than us of the extent to which this simply won’t do. If you can bear one more quote, consider Obama on surveillance, saying:

‘It’s not enough for me as President to have confidence in these programs — the American people need to have confidence as well.’

Which is exactly right, raising only the question of whether he actually meant it. This stuff goes to the heart of what our governments are for; whether they answer to us at every turn, or whether we elect them under the understanding that, for the next four or five years, that’s that. And, in our post-deference age, the latter is a tricky sell.

When governments try to do the former, though, they’re lousy at it. They oversell, they bluster, they reach a conclusion behind closed doors and then they seek to justify it, post-hoc. They understand the need for the appearance of candour, so they create a facsimile of it, and then end up believing in that. That was the Iraq debacle all over, and the suspicion and mistrust of now is the result.

Writing in the Times this week, Tony Blair bemoaned western hand-wringing over Syria, and took the complex mire of the Middle East and sought to paint it all in the simple primary colours of right and wrong. But that isn’t the only route to action. Perhaps we don’t know everything, perhaps we aren’t 100 per cent sure of making things better or worse, but perhaps morality compels us to do something nonetheless. Isn’t that how humans work? Exactly what I don’t want from my government, with conflict on the horizon, is a bombastic pose of rock-solid certainty.

If we must go to war, then for God’s sake let us fret and doubt and wring our hands all the way.

Newsroom hypocrisy

Belatedly, I’ve started watching The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s drama about a US cable news show struggling to maintain its integrity amid proprietorial interference and ratings wars. It’s pretty good and, although the moralising often feels a bit forced, it’s fairly inspirational, too.

Although, look. The idea here is that US TV news has been dumbed down and sexed up. That it fans fake controversies in a quest for difference, and sensationalises everything in order to attract viewers. All fair criticism. But to make a drama about this? A drama designed to slam the way that TV news is too much like a drama? Which essentially spends its time ridiculing the media for suggesting that American politics are like The West Wing? Which is written by the writer of The West Wing? The chutzpah and cynicism of it makes the head spin. It’s like having your cake, eating your cake and selling your cake, too.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.


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