Britain’s Decision on Syria

The international community was stunned last Thursday when the British Parliament voted NO on a resolution authorizing British military action in Syria.  For the last 30-40 years whenever the United States has used military force, the United Kingdom was right there with us.  Not this time.  The British, clearly weary of a repeat of history have taken themselves out of the equation.  I wrote my Masters’ thesis on Tony Blair’s fateful decision to support President Bush in Iraq, and another paper on the consequences of that decision for Britain and Europe, so based on my research I’m not surprised.

The decisions we make are just as important as why we make them.  If there’s anything being a history nerd has taught me is that decisions are made sometimes because of a fear of repeating the past, rather than on the repercussions for the future.  But in effort not to repeat the past, our actions can put us in the very situation we sought to avoid and we’re forced to make the very choice we strove not to make.  Britain and France let their fear of second global conflict prevent them from stopping Hitler when they had the chance in the 1930s.  Yet they had no choice when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and faced a Germany that was poised to take over Europe.

I understand why the British parliament decided no to military action but I have two concerns: 1) Syria is not Iraq.  Unlike in 2003, this is not a personal campaign by one or two leaders looking to fulfill a long time dream, international law has been broken.  The most sacred, in fact and the world must act or face severe consequences for international security, whether militarily or otherwise.   2) What will the consequences be for Britain and the ‘special relationship’ between the US-UK?  Will Britain regret this decision later?  If this situation escalates, how long will they stay out of it?

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Obama and Syria

I do not envy the decision President Obama had to make about Syria because I see both sides.  I don’t know what the right answer is, I don’t think anyone does.  I agree with Obama that the implications for the security of the world order as it has existed since 1945 is at stake right now.  Since the Geneva Protocol of 1925 the world has gradually accepted that chemical weapons are not an acceptable form of warfare.  This is an international norm and Assad has broken that. Something must be done–whether militarily, diplomatically, something.  The United Nations Security Council will not act as both Russia and China have veto power and no other international body, except the split NATO has the global reach to send a message to Assad that the world will not stand for his defiance of international law.

I am not a pacifist but I am not a fan of violence, it never solves anything.  History proves that.  But there are times when one’s hand is forced.  Is now one of those times?  If Assad is allowed to engage in chemical warfare against his own people, what precedent does that set?  This is a precarious time for the world order and international security.

My concern with using military action is mainly about the repercussions.  Military action by its nature is never as simple as 1-2-3.  This could easily turn into a world conflict, largely depending on how Assad reacts.  A researcher in London said the situation in the Middle East is suspiciously like Europe pre-1914.  I’m endlessly fascinated by World War I so this intrigued me.  I was skeptical but given all the dynamics in play I agree with him.  If Assad uses more chemical weapons on his citizens that could extend a military campaign, no matter what we say at the outset.  If Syria is provoked and attacks its neighbors, that could bring other Arab states into this or at the least create more instability in an already volatile region.  Syria has hinted it may target Israel in retaliation, which has already said it will defend itself, and this would deepen our involvement by extension.  To make matters worse Russia and China could get involved at any moment, presumably to defend Syria.  Put simply, this could become World War III.

It’s an uneasy decision to use military force without the support of the international community. The United Kingdom has taken itself out of this, despite David Cameron’s best efforts.  European and Arab League states support military action but are not offering support.  Taking unilateral action 10 years after Iraq is not a good look for the United States.  But Syria is not Iraq.  These are two different situations.  While I’m not a fan of military action if it can be avoided, I’m weary of avoiding something out of fear of the past.  Britain and France did that during the rise of Nazi Germany and World War II was allowed to happen.

I agree with Obama’s decision to consult Congress but I think he should consider calling them back now rather than wait until September 9.  He should not have introduced the ‘red line’ because it put Syria in control.  Now that ‘red line’ has been crossed and Obama has to prove he means what he says.  But rather than doing that, he gives it to Congress.  If Obama felt that Congress should play a part in the decision making about Syria he should not have spoken for the nation and put the ‘red line’ out there.

On the other hand this could give Obama some time to make his case to the legislature and the world, as the UN prepares to share its findings.   I am also curious what Obama will do if Congress makes the same decision the British Parliament did, now that he’s pledged military action.

The next few days will be very interesting as this plays out.