Wednesday, August 28, 2013

U.S. and Britain Should Step Back from the Brink Before Bombing Syria

After nearly a week without picking up a paper, seeing a television, or imbibing any news, I picked up a copy of the Guardian while changing trains at Crewe and was confronted with a determined looking Prime Minister, David Cameron, climbing out of a car beneath a headline indicating that the U.S. and Britain could be just days away from launching an attack on Syria after claiming that that country’s government had used chemical weapons in the protraction of what has become a multiple-year civil war.

When it looked like he could win the vote, Cameron was promising to give the Commons a vote on the bombing campaign, and it was suggested that that (as with Iraq, when the Bush administration rolled its eyes and checked its watch as the Blair government struggled to drum up support for the war) this democratic nicety was the only thing holding back what was billed as a 48-hour bombing campaign.

Eventually, the Labour Party decided against supporting any motion which did not include a UN resolution (and there were enough Tories and LibDems prepared to define the whips to make Cameron’s motion likely to fail), poking a hole in the logic of the U.S. and British governments which, while citing “responsibility to protect” as the rationale for their bombing, failed to do so within the context of UN authority as the relevant treaties demand.

The nature of the campaign being contemplated also makes a mockery of their invocation of “R2P”, as it is called.  To avoid serious entanglement, all that was proposed was a limited bombing campaign aimed at keeping the regime (and the UN has not yet verified that it was the government which used the chemical weapons, though—shades of Iraq—the U.S. is claiming that it doesn’t matter what the UN says) from using further chemical weapons. 

Such action, the Obama and Cameron governments have assured nervous supporters, would not actually be about regime change or an alteration of the political situation on the ground, but only deterring the Syrian government from using one variety of the many types of weapon at its disposal.  The action would not, therefore, really protect civilians, who can be killed as easily by conventional weapons as by chemical ones.  Indeed, the history of warfare for the last century demonstrates that ugly, brutal wars do not need chemical weapons.  So it seems that the bombing being contemplated has nothing to do with protecting Syrians, who will still be subject to atrocities from government and rebel troops alike, but is simply designed to show that the West—or the old and new colonial powers—are doing something.

That “something” will not be enough to materially alter conditions on the ground or draw the U.S. and Britain into a full military quagmire, but by destroying infrastructure and killing people, they will become parties to the conflict and will be held responsible by the Syrian government and public for their actions.  And although this might look like a clean, hands-off, nanosecond kind of war to publics in the U.S. and Britain, the violation of their sovereignty and the attack on their nation will undoubtedly upset many Syrians, perhaps all the more so because such action would be undertaken without anything like an international consensus or international legal authority. 

Getting UN authority or crafting a careful plan of humanitarian intervention which does more than help to insulate President Obama from his bloodthirsty critics on the right—if indeed such intervention is desirable and feasible—would indeed be harder than the rogue bombing campaign which the authors of the Iraq disaster are now prepared to undertake.

But although the UN is often frustratingly Byzantine and slow-moving (though certainly no more so than the U.S. Senate), it is no bad thing that the consensus a resolution there takes hard work, slowing the propensity of the U.S. and its coalition of warmongers to rush to battle.  It is, after all, no small thing to go to war, although the frequency with which the U.S. does so, and the total absence of serious public debate and legislative scrutiny which accompanies such wars certainly makes it look as though our political leadership views war, and the violence and destruction which accompanies it, as a trivial thing. 

Britain has now committed itself to some kind of a UN resolution after the Labour Party found it spine and made it clear that the vote would not be a sure thing for the government.  Perhaps the U.S. can follow this example and step back from what might well be a precipice, below which lie unintended consequences, unforeseen events, and plenty of violence and bloodshed. 

Obama’s proposed bombing campaign lacks clear goals, a moral mandate, a good basis in international law, and any real appreciation for the consequences.  It has secured the backing of the Arab League, but many of these countries are authoritarian regimes themselves, with a history of stifling dissent and killing off protest.  The publics in the Middle East will undoubtedly look askance at yet another U.S. campaign designed to “shock and awe”, and such a careless act of war will put the U.S. and Britain in a dangerous place and contribute exactly nothing to the condition of those suffering under civil war.

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