By Swapan Dasgupta
Any history of World War I is incomplete without a reference to the mass hysteria that greeted the declaration of war in August 1914. There were undoubtedly a few - like the British foreign secretary, Edward Grey - who recognized that the lights were going out all over Europe and signalling the death of the old Europe. However, for most people in both Great Britain and Germany, the beginning of the war -which most people expected to be over by Christmas - was the occasion for boisterous flag waving and displays of loyalty to the king or his cousin, the Kaiser.
Viewed in hindsight, the mass enthusiasm for war was completely misplaced. Even a hundred years later, the scars of the four year war are still visible, not so much in Germany which was to undergo yet another traumatic experience just two decades later. But in the United Kingdom, monuments of the Great War are all pervasive. There is no small town in either England or Scotland that doesn't have a war memorial commemorating the scores or even hundreds of young men who marched to war so enthusiastically and died horrible deaths in the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele and Gallipoli. The Armistice Day, commemorated each November 11, is inevitably tinged with sadness for a lost generation.
Historians may proffer their own analysis but I cling to the belief that the Great War ended the British enthusiasm for empire and war. Yes, there was the valiant fight back against Hitler just two decades later. But in spite of the Churchillian doughtiness that was so much in evidence amid adversity, the last vestiges of militarism had been squeezed out of Albion by 1918. Neville Chamberlain wasn't a coward. His 'appeasement' of Hitler to prevent war wasn't a simple accommodation of tyranny; it reflected the popular weariness of a war that everyone knew would be long and horrible.
I was reminded of Britain's melancholy past when confronted with the war noises that have emanated all over Europe following the massacre in Paris on the night of November 13. As I write, the BBC has just announced a unanimous cabinet resolution that will be presented to the House of Commons for endorsement. The resolution, if passed with a sufficient majority and cross-party support, will commit the UK to a war with the fledgling but bestial Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in West Asia. France's President François Hollande, stung by the Paris attacks, has declared that his country is at war. France has joined the United States of America and Russia in bombing ISIS bases located in both Iraq and Syria. Now, if the members of parliament resoundingly oblige, the Royal Air Force will join the bombing missions.
The fact that the British prime minister, David Cameron, has to go pleading to Parliament to join the solidarity offensive against ISIS is itself telling. Ever since Tony Blair committed British forces to a war against Saddam Hussein's yet undiscovered 'weapons of mass destruction', the right to wage war does not automatically vest with the executive. Constitutionally, this is a grey area and dependent on circumstances. However, following the non-productive outcome of interventions in both Afghanistan and Iraq, British prime ministers prefer the route of abundant caution. In 2013, Cameron tried to involve the UK in the war on ISIS but was rebuffed by Parliament - including Conservative MPs who were unconvinced of a direct British stake. This time there are indications that MPs will give a thumbs up but the prime minister has had to use every ounce of political persuasion to secure an approval - without which, he felt, Britain could not look France in the eye.
To some extent Cameron is right. The Mumbai-style attacks in Paris may have been masterminded from Belgium and involved young men and women of Algerian and Moroccan origin but it could just as well have happened in London or, for that matter, another European city. The UK, for example, has been absolutely horrified by the number of British Muslims - including women barely out of school - who have been motivated by ISIS evangelists into joining the struggle for a new Caliphate. The same set of people who were earlier inspired by al Qaida into bombing the London Underground and plotting (thwarted) attacks on Heathrow may well be now dreaming of waging the war for Islam and against Western 'sin' inside Europe.
In spite of its record of barbarity, ISIS has successfully linked itself to the wider narrative of Muslim victimhood. There may be some embarrassment over its record of decapitation and destruction of archaeological treasures, but the soft support for an assertion of Islam's power should not be underestimated. Certainly, there appears to be greater passive support for the Caliphate within Europe's Muslims than among Muslims in the areas where ISIS is either present or poses a threat to established regimes. The crowd hostility to a minute's silence in memory of the Paris victims at a football game in Turkey may well be an aberration, but it could also be indicative.
Yet, in a bout of collective heart bleeding, Europe has opened its doors to a human flood that carries both dreams of a better life and unfamiliarity with Europe's common decencies.
The unanswered question is: how will the bombing of ISIS-held Syria alter this mindset? To my mind, more horror stories of civilian casualties will only harden Muslim opinion and even galvanize 'lone wolf' attacks in Europe. ISIS, it is agreed, has to be militarily destroyed. Can that be achieved by bombing from the air? None of the international powers want their soldiers on the ground, fighting on unfamiliar terrain and being exposed to IED bombs and sniper attacks. But destruction of ISIS, without an alternative to replace it, will only pave the way for something even more barbarous.
If there are no credible answers to these questions, it lies in the naïve Western belief that the existing regimes in West Asia are all unworthy and should be uprooted. In private, I have heard Britons suggesting that the real target should be Iran and Saudi Arabia - the different 'roots' of the problem. Included in this chamber of horrors is President Bashar al-Assad, the original target of the West's derision whose destabilization created the ISIS problem.
Assad may well be a nasty piece of work whose track record is dodgy. However, in encouraging a civil war against his regime, the West was guilty of believing that liberal democracy can be exported and replicated the world over, from Burma to Syria. Only Russia has desisted from attacking Assad, seeing him as the only guarantor of stability in Syria. But then, the West doesn't expect any enlightenment from President Vladimir Putin.
At its loftiest, 'Western intervention' is premised on the belief that bad dictators will give way - with some Western help - to good democrats, like the lady in Yangon. In the popular imagery, all the Muslim rulers are suspect even if, like Turkey's Erdogan, they have used democracy to win power. Assad is just doubly bad. Of course, some of the baddies are great for business and for inward investment to Britain but, at the same time, they can't be too explicitly endorsed without alluding to human rights.
This squeamishness didn't exist in the past - neither with Gordon 'Pasha' nor with T.E. Lawrence. That is why they were good imperialists. Today's liberal imperialists are blessed with attitude and political correctness but they don't want to really get their hands grubby. In seeking the best of all worlds, minus any personal discomfiture, Europe is gradually becoming incapable of defining national interest. The muddle over Syria has brought history and hypocrisy together in an awkward coalition.