Time for our leaders to stop talking about 'justice' in Syria if we can't or won't enforce it

Honesty may be the best and only realistic policy

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

‘It’s about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong and the world shouldn’t stand idly by.’
— David Cameron, 27 August

‘The chemical massacre in Damascus cannot and must not go unpunished.’
— François Hollande, 30 August

‘We lead with the belief that right makes might, not the other way around.’

— Barack Obama, 31 August

In their speech, in their manner and in their choice of language, the American President, the French President and the British Prime Minister have been impeccably clear about their motivations for military intervention in Syria. They don’t want to use force for economic gain. They aren’t in this for national interest.

Strictly speaking, they aren’t moved by humanitarian reasons, either. During the two years of fighting in Syria, more than 100,000 people have died, and more than two -million have been displaced. Syria’s neighbours now host one of the largest and potentially most destabilising refugee crises in the world. But that is not why America, Britain and France began their wobbly debate on intervention.

No, Barack Obama, François Hollande and David Cameron have been driven to contemplate intervention in Syria because of their belief in justice — or perhaps, because it’s an abstract ideal, one ought to write Justice. Obama’s tortured statements on Syria usually feature the word ‘accountable’ (as in ‘we can hold the Assad regime accountable’ or ‘all of us should be accountable’) as well as frequent use of the word ‘rights’. British and the French leaders (see above) have spoken of the chemical attack in Damascus as a violation of international law, as a crime that must be punished or as a wrong that must be righted.

One understands why: to speak of justice, of rights and of accountability is to sound statesmanlike and serious. That kind of language contains echoes of the second world war and the Cold War, when the western and particularly the American devotion to justice and human rights helped western democracy triumph over totalitarian regimes. Similar ideas are encoded in international treaties and documents. They have spread to other parts of the world, where they continue to inspire people who are deprived of them.

But the trouble with the fight for justice is that it cannot always remain abstract or rhetorical. Fulfilling the promise of justice sometimes requires not just treaties and declarations but major diplomatic, political and even military commitment. In practice, wars do not always have satisfactory endings. The good guys don’t always win, and the war crimes trials don’t always take place. Sometimes the perpetrators have better weapons. Sometimes unjust rulers have a more professional army. Sometimes an authoritarian regime will fight to the death because its leaders believe they have no future if they fall from power.

All of which leaves us in an awkward but not unfamiliar situation in Syria. Indeed, we’ve been here before: after the first Iraq war, when we encouraged but did not aid a Shi’ite uprising, or during the Bosnian war, when President Clinton always seemed just about to use military force but could never quite bring himself to do it. He dithered for a long time, effectively preventing a peace treaty from taking hold, before finally entering the conflict, awkwardly and late.

Now we are there again. We want to use grandiose language about justice, but we can’t or don’t want to devote the military and political capital to intervention. Obama  — together with his French and British allies  — therefore invented an extremely narrow, highly legalistic halfway solution: a one-time strike intended solely to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons. In Europe over the weekend, John Kerry assured his fellow foreign secretaries that this strike will be so minor ‘you’ll hardly even notice’. Don’t worry, he has declared, whatever we do will be ‘unbelievably small’.

Of course this one-time strike, so tiny we’ll hardly even notice, was, we were told, not designed to end the Syrian conflict or even to help the Syrian rebels much. Thus any justice it delivered could only have been temporary. It wouldn’t prevent Assad using chemical weapons, or ordinary weapons, against his own people in the future. It wouldn’t prevent him from lashing out in revenge, perhaps at the Christians inside his country, perhaps at his Israeli neighbours. It wouldn’t bring peace to Syria, and indeed might have the opposite effect: by encouraging the rebels to keep fighting, it could prolong the war.

At some level, even Obama and Cameron clearly saw the flaws in this narrowly conceived policy. Anxiety about the wisdom of this one-time strike must explain why Cameron abandoned it immediately, after losing in the Commons by a scant 13 votes and with nearly 100 members missing. Similar anxiety must also explain Obama’s unexpected decision to call for a congressional vote which he may well have been subconsciously hoping to lose. The relief with which everyone has now leapt upon the ludicrous idea that the Russians, Assad’s longstanding allies, will faithfully, neutrally and rapidly dismantle his chemical weapons tells you everything you need to know: our leaders will hastily grasp at the most slender excuse to avoid even that ‘unbelievably small’ strike.

How much simpler things would be if they dropped the façade! For there is another way: instead of shedding crocodile tears once again, instead of implying that a muscular intervention is about to arrive any minute now, instead of pretending to care about the fate of Syrian children, the West could drop the pious rhetoric about justice altogether. If we don’t have the motivation or the money to enforce it, we should make it crystal clear to the Syrian rebels that we will not intervene in any significant way at all. Obama could say it in the White House Rose Garden, Cameron could say it in Downing Street, Hollande could declare it from his office at the Élysée: we are not coming to your aid, we will not help you, we will not overthrow Assad.

Instead, we could encourage the remaining secular rebels and the Free Syrian Army to pursue peace instead of justice: after all, if no further assistance is coming, then they aren’t likely to win more territory. Russian and Iranian funding for the regime will continue, of course, as will Gulf state funding of Islamic extremists. But perhaps a broad ‘national unity’ coalition could be negotiated — an entity which would have to contain Assad or his allies and perhaps some representatives of al-Qa’eda. Alternatively Syria could be partitioned, and there would be some logic to our involvement — Britain and France drew the borders in the first place. Some violence would follow, but maybe less than at present.

I do realise that these are unsatisfying, even cynical alternatives, involving the inclusion of Assad and the jihadis on the one hand, or ethnic cleansing on the other. Neither will help our leaders sound statesmanlike, and they won’t make them look good on the international stage. They aren’t ‘just’. They aren’t ‘fair’. Indeed, any American president who condones a deal with Assad will no longer be able to declare that ‘right makes might, not the other way around’, at least not with a straight face.

What such a policy change lacks in morality and humanity, it makes up for in honesty.  At least our friends in Syria — the remaining divisions of the Free Syrian Army, the secular intellectuals, the human rights activists, the cartoonists, writers and bloggers who started what began as a peaceful revolution and now live in exile — will know where they stand. They, and the fate of their country, are not really Obama’s, or Cameron’s, or Hollande’s priority. At least in future Syrians will not be hoodwinked by our leaders’ use of words they don’t really mean, or their praise for old-fashioned concepts they are no longer willing to enforce.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • Keith D

    To get a balanced view on this I tuned into RT yesterday.They were of course in opposition to the pro Islamist BBC on this horrible conflict.Did anyone see Jeremy Bowen yesterday reporting from the retaken Christian town of Maaloula.
    A good number of the Syrian troops were Christians and were engaged in a fierce battle with the jihadists.The comment from one of them should cause Obama and Cameron sleepless nights bathed in the guilt of the betrayer.

    He said (apologies if not 100% accurate but you’ll get the gist),”2000 years ago we sent you St John,and now you send our enemies guns and missiles”.
    Shame on the Islamist president and his poodle.

    • Pootles

      Agree. What I think he said was, ‘2,000 years ago we sent you St. Paul to lead you out of the darkness, and now you send our enemies guns and missiles’. Jeremy Bowen needs a medal. He also noted that all the minorities were backing the regime for fear of what the rebels and foreign jihadis will bring.

      • Bonkim

        Dictatorial regimes always protect minorities so they act as buffer when trouble hits. Regrettably the Christians are pawns in Assad’s hands and they don’t realise they are being used. Same in Iraq. Now they will hated twice – once for their religion, and second because they sided with a murderous tyrant.

        Both sides are getting annihilated in the process and Assad does not care as long as the other option is to be shot by the opposition when his arms run out. Bets if his inner circle removes him and gives a one way ticket to paradise.

        Bringing Christianity and Islam into the discussion is idiotic – both have blood on their hands and most people in the West don’t care about their religious tags.

        • Keith D

          You mean like Saddam protected the Kurds?.Sheeh.

          “Now they will be hated twice-once for their religion”.And then you counter your own argument with “Bringing Christianity and Islam into the discussion is idiotic”.
          So which is it in the context of a Sunni/Shia proxy war?

          • Bonkim

            If you analyse issues, you find it necessary to be impartial. taking sides destroys any analysis. The lot fighting it out take their sectarian divide seriously and the Christians, and other minorities are caught in between, often taking sides and getting the worst from both sides. their cause is best served by staying neutral – Christians are told not to indulge in politics or warfare. Check your Bible.

            Regards the west, religion is low priority – and not many will join in a Crusade – if you feel strongly, may be should join one of the Christian Militias in Lebanon and go help your co-religionists.

            In the context of the Shia/Sunni conflict – let them fight it out, in Syria the Alawites are a minority, Assad is a murderous tyrant and the best solution is to take him out of the equation – the rest – Shia/Sunni and the minorities are quite capable of sorting themselves out – they have lived for centuries together and know how to co-exist and they can also do without interference from outside in the form of evangelical Christians – the greatest scourge to peace in mixed religious communities..

          • Keith D

            Ah,now I get it.Assuming that I’m a Christian is a fair old step from what I said.And like most of your post,just plain wrong.Its also interesting to note that the internecine warfare sponsored by the Saudi’s and Iran is actually an aberration and really,Sunni and Shia are perfectly capable of co-existing as seen all over the region.

            What evangelical Christians have done to you I cant begin to imagine.

            Maybe gangs of them are beheading or raping your neighbours?

            Calling you a kuufr,pig,dog or worse?

            Yes indeed,those proselytizing Christians eh?

            So how do imagine the Sunni AQ brigades are going to sort things out with the minorities?.Christians already got the “convert or die” routine before AQ were kicked out of Maaloula.
            For what its worth I agree with you about Assad,but we’re not offered any better alternatives.

          • Bonkim

            No easy answers – I consider all religions as superstitions and hence cannot take sides – yes mixture of nationalism, and religious bigotry potent and destructive to human societies. If you look back – convert or burn was the option given to millions in the New world, even northern Europe/Scandinavia when Christendom/The Inquisition were the continent’s Al Quaida. Many poor people in Africa and Asia succumbed to the same tyranny of Islam and Christian missionaries. Many North American Indians also faced the same dilemma – convert or perish. Aren’t you glad the west today is largely secular and can take an even handed approach to world conflicts without bringing any religious baggage?

          • Keith D

            Fair enough,as do I.
            Of course I’m glad the west is largely secular although we differ greatly I’d wager on its future.
            What you say in terms of Christianity’s history is true.A huge caveat there though being that Christianity had a reformation and I’m sure you’ll agree,is no longer in the Inquisition business.
            Our politicians are already subject to religious baggage in their decision making.Every western government with a large Islamic votary is influenced by its number and whether dominated by Sunni/Shia.

          • Bonkim

            The Islamic parts of the world are still in a time-warp and reformation as in Europe will incur violence and destruction. We can only attempt to avoid the worst consequences of any flashback on us – but if the West loses the gains from the reformation, and paints crosses on their tanks, and planes in battle we would have lost and Islam would have triumphed.

          • tjamesjones

            “If you analyse issues, you find it necessary to be impartial”. Meow.

        • Pootles

          Yes, there is a lot in what you say, and, of course, European empires (not least, in this case, the French) were good at promoting minority groups. However, I suppose from the Christians’ point of view being used, but not killed, forcibly converted, or ethnically cleansed (and they are, largely, a different ethnicity from Arabs) is preferable to what will happen to them if the rebels win. Also, I don’t think it is ‘idiotic’ to bring Christianity into this, as the cutting edge of the rebel forces, the foreign jihadis (many from Europe) and Saudi support have already brought the Islamic crusade into this – they want to create an Islamic state in Syria, as a step towards extending Islam across Europe. And if we in the West don’t care about religious labels, perhaps we should care about the treatment of people under Sharia, or under Christianity in the Middle East.

          • Bonkim

            Would you let Middle-Eastern countries interfering with the Church-association in many so called Christian countries or anti-Muslim laws – regrettably bigoted religions are intolerant of others – and don’t forget both Christianity and Islam spread through conversions, often under duress, and also as populations saw the benefit of changing their religion with the changing power politics. Much of Europe followed this route too and all Christians were converted, not many reading and understanding the deep theologies in the Bible. Much of norther Europe/Scandinavia was converted only in the past 8/900 years and following much skullduggery.

            Whether you like Sharia or not, the Christians in the mid-East’s predominantly Islamic countries have lived there for centuries and know how to cope with their circumstances, many have emigrated to safer parts of the world – are you proposing that the West joins a crusade to get rid of Islam from the Mid-east? The established Church is fake, true Christians do not engage in politics or warfare as the militia appears to be doing. Check your Christianity and theology before coming back.

            For me the west should take out Assad who appears to have precipitated the present cycle of murder and conflict between the Shias and Sunnis, and of course the extremist factions from outside have joined in. Assad has failed even as a dictator wanting to preserve order in a country he wants to control. He is a failed politician and a failed dictator.

          • Pootles

            I didn’t, in fact, suggest any policy. My feeling is that the UK should not intervene militarily. As far as the political elites of most countries are concerned the current issue appears to centre on the use of chemical weapons – and Putin seems to have come up with something that might work, without bombing and cruise missiles.

            I’m not sure what you are trying to get at with your discourse on the history of religions and regions, but I’m not sure it is very helpful either. As for Christians in the Middle East ‘coping’, well, they are clearly not coping as well as they might, given the drastic decline in their numbers – see Iraq. And as for Jews in Arab countries, well, theirs has been a very sorry story since 1947.

            I don’t like Sharia, do you? What are the anti-Muslims laws in ‘many so-called Christian countries’ ?

          • Bonkim

            Many points I agree Pootles including Sharia – being an atheist I consider all religions superstitions – and Islam or Sharia infecting the Middle-East is a hang-back to the Middle-Ages. that is the world we live in – the issue under discussion is about the west intervening – don’t see that taking place with the Cross in front. Best to let the parties to fight it out although certain key issues such as chemical warfare or brutality and murder of civilians – the west needs to act – Assad is the perpetrator, and I am easy with limited violence against him and his gang. yes there will be collateral damage but often best to lance the boil or the patient dies.

            I agree the bickering between Russia and the US on chemical weapons is not helping and wish Obama had taken an executive decision on Day 1 to target Assad. Now it is to late and the situation is rotting on inaction.

            The biggest danger is that Assad has succeeded not only in murdering tens of thousands of innocent people but has opened up the prospects that others of a similar mindset can and will indulge in murder and mayhem knowing fully well that people and governments in the west have become too complacent to worry about such things – the danger also that this will creep closer home.

            Historically Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted although non-believers had on occasion to pay a special tax. All societies had their racial or sectarian hierarchies – it may be interference from the west and modern day commercial realities that have triggered destructive nationalism, and broken the old-world ethos – in fact both Islam, and Christianity have fundamental rules on hospitality towards other religions, protection of the stranger, etc and non-violence – but man interprets religion to suit immediate objectives.

            I have travelled through Turkey, iran, pakistan – people by and large are very hospitable and kind/helpful – possible they see the occasional stranger as a friend but a large group entrenched with different culture and religion a threat – is it any different from say the way some of the islamic communities in Britain/Europe feel living in their voluntary apartheid? And the mistrust that generates within the indigenous community?

          • Pootles

            Ah, that’s better, Bonkim, a much more reasonable tone. Must say, though, I’m rather allergic to the terrible phrase, ‘collateral damage’.

          • Bonkim

            With growing affluence, we all have grown risk-averse – don’t want to lose what we have but forgotten how we got there – nature is harsh and death and destruction is the natural order. Creation and chaos follow each other.

          • Pootles

            Mmm, don’t like the sound of that – sort of Nietzschean rhubarb. It’s the same sort of stuff that brought us, ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’ – but then we didn’t get any omelettes, just an awful lot of ‘broken eggs’. As for being risk averse, it wouldn’t be us in the UK facing risk if the cruise missiles and bombs were falling in Syria.

          • Bonkim

            Difficult to start worrying about consequences of war in far of lands on people from different cultures given that their social and religious systems are the root causes of their suffering. As said, third parties only interfere in conflicts where there are vested interests or danger of spill over on innocent bystanders. It may be arrogant to think so but people are more concerned with systems they are familiar with and which they consider of greater importance – as such collateral damage far away to people you know little about does not count.

          • Pootles

            OK, if that’s what you think, that’s for you. But, for me, I’m not worried, I just don’t want UK armed forces to start killing people, by accident or design (and a lot would be accident) who are not a threat to the UK.

          • Bonkim

            The world is getting smaller and everything has an impact on everything else. UK may not be affected immediately but will be part of the west in terms of perceptions – whether we get involved actively or not, sooner or later militant Islam will hit us much as the terrorist/anarchical movements of the early twentieth century.. Best way to defend is to go on the offensive and keep the enemy weak. If you played noughts and crosses in school – the one who starts first usually has the advantage. Britain has never lost a war simply because of that principle, and knowing when not to go to war that you will lose or withdraw gracefully. People in Britain are getting slack, most of our institutions are failing or failed and people have lost their competitive edge in all spheres of life. The failure of Parliament to engage in Syria simply confirms that.

          • Pootles

            Not sure if we are getting anywhere with this exchange, but surely the anti-Western jihadis are fighting against the Syrian regime? And, Syria has not threatened the West before (if one puts on one side the place of Israel in everything and the continuing issues focused on the Golan and Lebanon). Also – ‘competitive edge’ in relation to killing?

          • Bonkim

            Do you think Britain made a mistake declaring War on Germany? Hitler didn’t attack us and he would have been happy if we stayed and got on with our Sunday School lessons whilst he enslaved Europe? Is there a lot between Hezbollah and the Al Quaida except their sectarian divide – Is Hezbollah and Iran our friend simply because they are against the Sunni Jihadis and that it is best to ignore the Hezbollah terror gangs killing thousands of Syrian civilians opposed to Assad after his heavy guns have shelled them?

            By inference are you suggesting that Assad is a splendid chap if you overlook his momentary aberration of murdering a few tens of thousands of people and gassing women and children? You are quite right – he has not attacked Britain, he even has a British wife. He is one of us and we must stand-by him against the nasty Jihadis. Best if we join and liberate the rest of the Sunni Empire, we might even control the oil fields – North sea production is running low.

          • Pootles

            Oh, Good Lord, I didn’t say, or infer, any of that. If you care to look just a few paragraphs above, you will see that I said, ‘My feeling is that the UK should not intervene militarily.’

          • Bonkim

            You didn’t Pootles, but Good and capable men sitting idly watching when innocent men , women, and children are being slaughtered by a murderous tyrant using powerful machines of war are as guilty as the perpetrators. Pleading we don’t get involved unless we are attacked is not admissible in the court of humanity either.

        • Mike

          I’d rather be a live pawn under Assad than a dead or tortured Christian under the extremes of Islam as that’s the lessor of the two evils. At least under rulers like Saddam Hussein and Assad if you kept your head down, you were generally safe but under the Muslim Brotherhood you’ll be killed sooner of later unless you convert !

          • Bonkim

            What you are saying is that you are quite happy to see tens of thousands of other Syrians being murdered systematically by an evil tyrant using his powerful military machine, and that you as a Christian feel comfortable keeping your head down to save your own skin.

            Not many outside your rotten community would have sympathy for servile slaves like you – Christian or not. No wonder the opposition hate people like you – and blame your religion for the servile mindset.

            Minorities that side with tyrants do not have any sympathy from either side in times of wars and revolutions, and Assad will more likely use you as human shield when the crunch comes.

    • chan chan

      Two days ago on R4’s ‘Today’, Bowen described the Islamic jihadist psychopaths fighting Assad as “the pro-western armed opposition”.

    • mikewaller

      Pray, on which channel was this Mr Bowen reporting? My view is that he in particular, and the BBC in general have been scrupulous in reporting the horrors perpetrated by both sides as well as repeatedly explaining what a dog’s dinner the whole mess is.

      The problems for the West are grounded in the success with which both Germany and Japan were cleansed of their WW2 leadership and went on to become highly successful democracies. Instead of beating ourselves up over our failures in this regard from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraqi, we should simply be saying, “Sorry to all the nice folk out there who deserve something better , but we have tried intervening and it does not seem to work”. At least then they would not be given false hopes, knowing from there on that, as with the Irish, it would have to be “themselves, alone”.

      However that does not mean that if the “Butcher of Chechnya” (Putin) fails to turn into the Prince of Peace with regard Syria, we should not bomb Assad for using chemical weapons. We are stuck with their conventional and nuclear cousins, but we have largely managed to avoid their chemical and biological relatives being used for nearly 100 years. Let Assad get away with it, and every dictator will see them as the sine qua non for remaining in office. Once that happens, it is a racing certainty that some of them will fall into the hands of al Qaeda and shortly thereafter turn up on the streets of Western cities. Frankly I am hopping mad with the Spectator for not giving this side of things a proper airing. No doubt, as with the crowds who cheered Chamberlain in 1938, our editor is crossing his fingers and hoping for “peace in out time”.

  • Bonkim

    I have to agree – the only way out is to take out the Assad family business and the Baath party. The UN is defunct, and Russia, and the US are engaged in a poker game trying to out-guess each the other. the Syrian people are the ultimate looser. Not sure why the islamic League and those with the resources are not getting in and clobbering Assad.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Have you noticed how the UK MSM is hardly mentioning the 9/11 anniversary? Presumably it would be tactless to call attention to events of 12 years ago, as the similarities between 9/11 and the Syrian false flag are becoming increasingly obvious. Barack is looking seriously rattled while Vladimir is smelling of violets.

  • Augustus

    “Instead, we could encourage the remaining secular rebels and the Free Syrian Army to pursue peace instead of justice.”

    Iran’s rulers are so committed to Assad they send him not just money and weapons, but also commanders and troops from their Revolutionary Guard as well as Hezbollah from Lebanon. And the al-Qaida forces in Syria, particularly al-Nusra and those from Iraq, are also well-funded and well-armed, thanks to rich sheikhs sympathetic to their cause. That leaves only those Syrians who reject jihadism (both the Sunni and Shia varieties) and who would prefer to be allied with America and the West. Unfortunately there were more of those two years ago than there are now. That’s when Obama should have supported the nationalist opposition, but he rejected such advice. As for the current Russian plan for Assad to surrender his chemical weapons under a Security Council resolution, this will, in time, simply be exposed as a sham. Those battling in Syria will continue to commit the most terrible atrocities with impunity and will not be heading towards peace, justice and civilization any time soon.

    • Bonkim

      Yes Augustus – but a little late, the train has left with the loonies on board and heading for the big bust.

  • HarryTheHornyHippo

    I think perhaps the problem is we want to be seen to be doing ‘the right thing’ when doing the right thing may serve only to put the loons from Al-Qaeda into power.

  • tjamesjones

    A great article. I think the key point is that doing something ‘unbelievably small’ serves no purpose other than to slightly encourage the rebels, and doing that will probably extend the conflict and suffering. And note to self, I’ve got to remember not to read comments, which are as is normally the case, off topic debates of pet issues.

  • andrzej jankowski


    The use of chemical weapons in Syria is a crime and perpetrators of this crime must
    punish the Court. This is justice. Punishments with the help of rockets is the application of collective responsibility. Is the punishment of an entire people. Is a denial of Justice.

  • Ehross

    The hypocrisy of the US [West] does not go unnoticed in the Middle East,

    It’s a terrible situation when untolled Syrians are killed but it is fine when an Americam surrogate kills Palestinians at will.
    Oh, and the Americans used chemical weapons on the Vietnamese…

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    From your sister publication, the Daily Telegraph.
    “UN accuses Syrian rebels of chemical weapons use”
    Cat, pigeons. Looks like the cunning plan went tits up. But you know what they say about the best laid plans … Obama`s ass is most decidedly grass.

  • erzengle

    Oh! No! Not chemical weapons! Anything but chemical weapons! Bombard me with depleted uranium shells, ignite my flesh with white phosphorous, bury me under tons of burning rubble, carpet bomb me with time delayed bobby traps to kill children at play. Send me to hell on a hellfire missile, or flatten me and everyone I love with Daisy cutters, bunker busters, Napalm, Agent Orange, TNT and, if you really must, then by all means nuke me. But, whatever you do, do not cross the red line into barbarity!

  • Mike

    If the truth be known, Barack Obama, François Hollande and David Cameron have all been driven
    to contemplate intervention in Syria as a distraction to domestic problems at home.

    Just as General Galteri invaded the Falkland Islands as a distraction to a failed economy in Argentina and the Spanish government is doing some sabre rattling over Gibraltar for the same reasons, likewise all three leaders in the US, UK and France are looking for a distraction from domestic ailments and a political boost/legacy to hang their hats on.