Good morning, Quartz readers!
History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
Hope and history won’t be rhyming this weekend. Many world leaders have prefaced grand deeds with these words from “The Cure of Troy” by Seamus Heaney, the Nobel-winning Irish poet who died this week. But if American missiles fly to Damascus, they will carry no tidal wave of justice.
The attack’s only goal is to deter Bashar al-Assad and other lunatics from using chemical weapons. Barack Obama’s repeated assertions over the past two years that “Assad must go” have stopped. If Assad kills another 100,000 Syrians by conventional methods, so be it; the West will not interfere.
If the attack achieves its aim, that of course will matter. But the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, public cynicism, and recession-strained national budgets have cut the West’s swagger; how ironic that the people most in favor of intervention are now the French. (“Our oldest ally,” said US secretary of state John Kerry, in a mischievous dig at the British parliament’s vote not to join forces with the US.)
Considering the outcome of Iraq, this shift in mood is welcome. A military adventure in Syria would be disastrous, and if there was ever a point when outsiders could have toppled Assad without triggering a vicious civil war (doubtful), it’s long past; the rebellion is now dominated by jihadists. But as much as Obama’s cruise missiles signify a resolve to deter the use of chemical weapons, they also mark a glum acceptance of how little else the West can do. Heaney’s next stanza has never rung so hollow:
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
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